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DPS board approves 2021 opening for DSST Noel high school

The Denver school board approved a resolution Thursday evening allowing DSST’s Noel High School to open next summer, a move forced on the reluctant body last month by the State Board of Education.

The board passed the resolution on a 7-0 vote. But board members Jennifer Bacon and Scott Baldermann made it clear that their affirmative votes were cast with extreme reluctance.

Bacon said DSST’s Cole Middle School is foundering, and that allowing a new network school to open under those circumstances is a mistake even though DSST’s Noel Middle School is a high-performer. “I know this network can do better by Cole, as evidenced by Noel,” Bacon said. “I don’t understand why the performance is so different, so we have to throw the book at you to get you to focus.”

Baldermann said he was only voting yes because the state board would overrule a no vote. He said state statute is deeply flawed because it forbids a district to consider local enrollment issues when considering the merits of a charter school application.

“While these state statutes might be deemed good for business competition, and the goals of education reform, they have not proven to be good for kids,” Baldermann said.

DSST has secured a building for the school in the Montbello neighborhood of Far Northeast Denver, and will have enough of the facility ready to host 159 ninth-graders for the start of the 2021-22 school year next August. Further renovations to the warehouse building will be completed before the school expands to 10th grade the following year.

“We are very grateful for all the students and families who advocated for a DSST High School option for our Noel students,” said Bill Kurtz, CEO of the charter school network after Thursday’s vote. “We are excited to get to work and welcome our students to ninth grade this summer and offer them a world class education in the years to come as a part of the Far Northeast Denver community.”

Thursday’s vote apparently brings an end to a contentious process that unspooled over several months earlier this year. Under the resolution, to open, the new high school must serve an enrollment area mutually agreed upon with the district; must have evidence of a ‘financially viable’ location for the school; have a school leader in place eight months before opening day, and provide evidence that the school has staff trained to serve students who are still learning English.

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.

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.

But the school board decided to disregard the staff recommendation and impose new conditions on the charter network that, if met, would allow the school to open in 2022. That, however, would have left 159 Noel Middle School eighth-graders to find other schools for their freshman year of high school.

The board’s original decision to delay the opening of the high school was puzzling, because its feeder, Noel Middle School, is the highest performing middle school in Denver Public Schools, based on standardized test scores. It serves a high-poverty population, and more than 90 percent of its students come from Black or Hispanic families.

DSST Noel is known for paying close individual attention to its students, through small advisory groups that meet daily. School culture and educator coaching and feedback also help account for the school’s success, as do a wide range of extra-curricular clubs and activities.

But board members said the subpar performance of two DSST middle schools prompted them to hit pause on the new high school. This went against the board’s own policy for determining how charter networks should be allowed to expand.

DSST appealed the delay to the State Board of Education in November, and the board emphatically ordered DPS to reconsider its decision. This left the district with no viable option other than to approve the school.

The DSST Noel High School will be located at 10825 E. 47th Avenue in Montbello, five miles west of the middle school.

Also Thursday, the board approved a resolution that will consolidate two DSST middle schools, Henry and College View, at the College View campus in southwest Denver. Henry suffered from low enrollment and projections show a continued shortage of students there because the southwest quadrant of the city is projected to be hit hardest with enrollment declines in the coming years.