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RAAD’s vision for arts-based learning needed in Denver’s Far Northeast

Editor’s note: This article was written by Kelly Okoye, Yuzo Nieto, Alejandro Fuentes and Pam Virden, the executive leadership team for the Radical Arts Academy of Denver. 

We have a radical vision for Denver’s Far Northeast neighborhoods.

The Radical Arts Academy of Denver (RAAD) charter school plans to create a robust, transformative arts-based learning environment for student “artivists” in the Far Northeast, where, historically, there has been an unmet need for arts education, particularly for Black and Indigenous students and students of color.

As educators and as providers of independent arts-based programs throughout Denver Public Schools, our team has a lengthy track record of developing and delivering top-quality arts-based programs for Denver youth. We have an unfailing passion for the arts, and we want to share that with Denver students—particularly students of color in the Far Northeast.

Kelly Okoye – Chief of Learning

On June 9, the DPS Board of Education will vote on RAAD’s application for our new charter school. We hope the board recognizes the tremendous value and importance of our school model, which is heavily informed and guided by our experience with arts-based learning in Denver for more than four years.

We have worked tirelessly to develop a community-responsive and culturally responsive school model. Over the years, we’ve provided arts-based programming across the district.

For example, in 2018-19, we offered a collaborative songwriting program, a math-and-scalar-operations-based graffiti workshop, and world history and Africana studies lessons through traditional Guinea-style drum and dance to students at North High School.

In 2020, we partnered with Metropolitan State University’s visual art education program to offer hybrid virtual and in-person classes at KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, which culminated in a mural that was 100% created by students.

That year, we also offered interest-based visual art classes at Willow Elementary and Compass Academy, so our classes could suit the needs and goals of students in each program.

And, in 2021, we held our first arts-based learning camp at Highline Academy, where we approached math and literacy through projects in music and visual art, all to help students combat learning losses and learning disruptions that were caused by the pandemic.

Alejandro Fuentes – Director of Programs

As some schools make the difficult decisions to eliminate arts programming, we have offered to supplement their programs. This is rooted in our belief that every young ‘artivist’—particularly our Black and Indigenous students and students of color—deserves access to transformative education through arts-based learning.

And, there is an urgent need for RAAD, specifically in the Far Northeast.

According to the district’s own enrollment forecast included in the 2021 Spring Strategic Regional Analysis for the Far Northeast, the highest level of growth across Denver Public Schools is expected and will be concentrated in the Gateway and DIA neighborhoods, which is where RAAD has strategically planned to locate.

This is the most viable neighborhood for a new school in Denver. Coupled with our unique arts-based learning model, we are confident RAAD meets the demands for education from the Far Northeast communities. This is key to our mission: to serve students who have an immense wealth of talent and who have been historically excluded from truly transformative educational practices, particularly in the arts.

Pam Virden – Director of Operations

The other arts-based learning option in the Far Northeast, Noel Community Arts School, will merge with Collegiate Preparatory Academy and DCIS-Montbello to create a new Montbello Middle School and Montbello High School—which leaves only Denver School of the Arts (DSA) as a nearby provider for arts-based learning.

And, due to capacity restraints, DSA is only able to accept 1 of every 6 students who apply, with just 4% of their students coming from the Far Northeast.

Although DSA’s recently expanded campus will undoubtedly increase these numbers, there is only so much DSA can do to meet the high demand for legitimate public options for arts education across the greater Denver-metro area—which is where RAAD’s arts-based learning model with social justice at its core offers something completely unique to the district.

It is evident there is a gap in arts-based learning models in the Far Northeast, and our no-audition, public charter school model will provide every student with an opportunity to explore and develop their talents, in an area where there’s an urgent need for arts-based learning.

And not only do the Arts support engagement and social-emotional learning, but they inhere deeper learning through application and synthesis of content, which generates high academic outcomes in “common core” subjects like literacy, math and science—all through the lens of the arts.

We are proud to note that the District Accountability Committee and the Denver Public Schools Student Board of Education—both important collective voices in the district’s family, student, and community engagement efforts—have recommended the district approve our application.

Yuzo Nieto – Executive Artistic Director

We are humbled and grateful for their support, which we believe is in part a testament to the community voice of DPS advocating for the importance of our unique school model, the deep need for quality arts-based programming in the Far Northeast, and to our commitment to serving Denver youth.

Unfortunately, the superintendent has recommended our application be denied. The application process for new schools is rigorous, and there’s little opportunity for applicants to re-engage with the district when there are questions about an application or requests for additional information.

We are looking forward to Thursday’s meeting with the Board of Education to use the limited public comment time we have to clarify questions about our enrollment projections and our budget. We’re eager to and confident we can adequately address those areas.

Moreover, we are excited for the opportunity to articulate to the board—and to families and students in Denver—what makes RAAD a special and needed school option in Denver.
We often summarize our guiding principles by sharing a Pablo Picasso quote: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

At RAAD, our hope is to develop communities of creative critical thinkers, future innovators, and game-changers that our world needs. In that pursuit, RAAD is a place to get your soul filled; a place we wish we had as students, where identities and passions are the guide.

We are passionate about developing students into lifelong artists, learners and activists — if you agree, help us let the the Denver Public Schools Board of Education know your thoughts by signing up today to speak on our behalf at the meeting on Thursday, June 9.