If DPS board rejects DSST high school, it’s pure adult politics

CORRECTION: This post has been revised to correct an error. Noel Middle School is the top-rated middle school in Denver, not Colorado as originally stated. We regret the error.

Another Denver school board work session came and went Thursday night with the fate of 160 DSST Noel Middle School eighth-graders — the vast majority of them low-income kids of color — still hanging in the balance.

If, as appears likely, the board won’t allow those students’ charter high school to open next fall, why prolong the agony? Deliver the bad news now and give families a chance to find another option, as much of a downgrade as that option is certain to be.

DSST Noel is the top public middle school in Denver. Killing or delaying a high school for its inaugural class of graduating eight-graders amounts to educational malpractice.

Whatever the board decides — and it’s not looking good — families will have to wait at least another 10 days to learn their fate. A vote on the issue is tentatively planned for Oct. 12. The delay might be driven by the board’s need to get legal advice about its current position. The State Board of Education would hear an appeal if DSST were to officially dispute a rejection of Noel high school by the Denver board.

I wrote last week about how the pending decision to deny DSST’s application to open a feeder high school for its Far Northeast Denver Noel Middle School is being done in a virtually data-free environment. Some board members are contorting themselves to justify barring the best middle school in the state — that bears repeating — from expanding.

An effort at compromise crafted by Superintendent Susana Cordova and a couple of board members seems unlikely to bear fruit because it still throws those 160 families under the bus by delaying the school’s opening until 2022, as well as imposing additional performance conditions on DSST.

I reached out to board Vice President Jennifer Bacon with several questions about the current status of negotiations, but she did not respond.

DSST should not accept this compromise. To do so would, theoretically at least, be in the organization’s self-interest, in that it would keep its ambitious expansion plans on track (eight new DSST schools were approved by the school board in 2015). But it would come at the expense of those eight-graders, who have been with the school since it opened three years ago. They’ve been academic stars, and this is the thanks they get from the elected school board?

It’s hard to imagine DSST telling those loyal families “Sorry to do this, but the only way we can get this school opened in the future is to screw you royally by waiting a year.”

Reportedly, part of the compromise deal would allow DSST to lift its enrollment caps at its other high schools to accommodate the 160 Noel students. But that plan contains at least three fatal flaws. 

First, those other campuses are virtually full. The network might be able to shoehorn in a few Noel students, but nowhere near 160. Second, is Denver Public Schools going to offer free bus transportation to those families? That seems highly unlikely, given current budgetary realities. How, then, are those kids supposed to get to school?

Finally, how is it in any way in the best interests of 14-and 15-year-olds to spend their freshman year at one school, and then transfer back to the new Noel high school, just because the board has decided to send a message to the charter network by delaying  — at best — the opening of Noel? 

Then, or course, there’s the issue of trust. Why should DSST believe for a minute that this board would allow the school to open in 2022, despite what members might say now? Several board members have already expressed hostility to the idea of further charter school growth in Denver, and four seats are up in next fall’s board election. That would create an easy pretext for reversing any pledge about 2022 made now.

The school board might be Lucy holding the football, but presumably DSST is no Charlie Brown chump.

Let’s call this what it is: pure politics. It’s also clear evidence that at least some members of this board prioritize adult agendas above the best interests of kids. Remember this looming decision the next time one of those board members utters the tired old canard “it’s all about the kids.”

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.