DPS board poised to reject DSST Noel High School

In yet another move away from school choice for families, the Denver Public Schools board signaled Monday that it is likely to reject the opening next year of a previously approved DSST charter high school.

Although DSST Middle School at Noel Campus in Far Northeast Denver ranked in 2019 as the top school among 205 DPS-run and charter schools in the city under the DPS rating system, the board appears poised to use the struggles of a middle school at another DSST campus as a pretext for turning down the application for a Noel high school.

This would leave about 500 DSST Noel Campus middle school students without the high school they have been promised by the charter network, and would force them to seek other alternatives in the Far Northeast, where strong high schools are few and far between.

The board could vote on the Noel high school contract proposal at its meeting on Sept. 24.

A board rejection of the high school would fly in the face of a DPS staff recommendation to approve it. “DSST runs some of the most successful high schools in the city and the state,” said Jennifer Holladay, who runs the district’s portfolio management office, during a board work session Monday. “Our recommendation is that the board consider approving a resolution” to execute a contact for the new high school.

DSST formally applied in the spring to open a Noel high school in 2021, as one of eight new DSST schools approved by the school board in 2015. To gain approval for the expansion, board policy requires all DSST high schools to be performing in the district’s top two rating categories.

The charter network’s Cole high school in northeast Denver slipped in 2019 to the third level out of five in DPS’ School Performance Framework. Because of COVID-19, however, the state cancelled the standardized 2020 tests upon which the ratings are primarily based. That means the Cole high school, like all other Denver schools, received no 2020 rating.

But a detailed assessment recently completed by the DPS portfolio office found that Cole DSST High School had improved enough to merit approval of the Noel high school.

Although a policy passed by a previous board mandates that only a charter network’s high schools be evaluated as part of approving a new high school, board members Monday disregarded that policy and focused attention on DSST Cole’s middle school, which has struggled even more than the high school in recent years.

Because of the middle school’s low performance, some board members said, approving a new DSST high school would be a mistake.

“There are only eight middle schools in Denver that have a lower score than DSST Cole,” board member Tay Anderson said. “I want to figure out from DSST what is the plan to do better?”

Bill Kurtz, DSST’s chief executive officer, acknowledged that Cole’s middle school has faced challenges. But recent data shows dramatic improvement, he said. “The middle school is seeing progress in all areas. We believe Cole Middle School is on a very good trajectory.”

Another complicating factor is that the high school, if approved, would have to find a building out of which to operate. Also, the board faces pressure from the community to open a comprehensive high school in the area, which has been without one since Montbello High School was closed in 2011 after decades of struggling with student performance.

Two Noel middle school parents pleaded with board members to approve the high school. “We are demanding that you open our high school and continue to build on the success of DSST at Noel,” said Danielle Rash-Walker, mother of a DSST Noel eighth-grader. “If you want to tell me that my children for some reason do not deserve to attend the number one school in the city…then we need to have a different conversation.”

Noel Principal Brandi Chin challenged the board not to succumb to political pressure to reject the high school.

“I recognize the competing interests that you face and even the trouble that doing what is right and just may cause,” Chin said. “ But it is good trouble. It is the good trouble that will ensure that 480 Black and brown students in far northeast Denver will have access to the high quality high school education that was promised to them….and that they have been historically denied.”

But comments from board members seemed to suggest that a majority of the seven-member body was likely to vote down a contract for the high school. Three board members elected last November ran on platforms, endorsed by teachers unions, skeptical at best of charter and innovation schools. 

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.