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Highline Academy expansion reenvisions how schools serve students, families

Editor’s note: This article was written by Chris Ferris, Executive Director, and Brittany Joyce, Director of Strategy and Communications at Highline Academy Charter Schools.

In response to consistent, high demand for our middle school, award-winning Highline Academy is constructing a new addition for its Southeast campus.

It all started 20 years ago with a vision from a group of parents and community members who saw the need for an intentional focus on three core areas in a child’s education: academics, civic responsibility, and personal growth.

One of our founders, Jennifer Douglas, explained it best, saying “We all felt there was an opportunity in Denver to have a school that wholeheartedly embraced, embodied and executed these core values. With the unwavering belief that all children have potential and can achieve with individualized support and development, Highline Academy Charter Schools was born.”

Chris Ferris

This vision has resulted in two decades of closing achievement gaps and increased growth performance for low-income and underrepresented students in Southeast Denver. As a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School, 2019 Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award winner, and U.S. News Best Elementary and Middle School, Highline Academy is continuing to improve outcomes for students from all backgrounds.

The school opened its doors in 2004 to its first class of kindergartners in a warehouse. Former office partitions became classroom dividers and teachers could observe one another throughout the day, as classroom dividers were not full length. One classroom even had a loading dock at the back of the class!

As more grade levels were added each year, the school continued to grow and demand increased for more seats, prompting the need to operate out of a new location starting in 2011.

That was 12 years ago. Walking the halls of the current facility, one would never guess that this campus was once used to train auto mechanics. Student handprints in bright colors of red, blue and yellow line the walls as a tribute to academic, civic and personal accomplishments.

At the heart of our school is the library, welcoming students within steps of entering the building with a reminder to REACH In (personal), Out (civic) and Up (academic) for excellence.

As Highline’s reputation as a high-quality school grew in the community, it also became a top choice for families, and we exceeded our capacity in the current facility. Teachers were sharing classrooms and prepping and planning in their cars. Students were using hallways or outdoor space for breakouts. It was clear, again, that the school would need more space.

Brittany Joyce

Work began on a new strategic plan in 2019 and we turned our focus toward becoming an ethical and sustainable organization, and expanding our current facility became an objective of this goal. After adopting the strategic plan in 2021, the real work began to make the expansion project a reality.

Highline embarked on a master plan for the new addition space in the summer of 2021, completed a feasibility study in the fall of 2021, finalized the design in the summer of 2022, and sold bonds to help finance the project in November 2022.

We sought a unique approach with this project to create an optimal, innovative learning environment, and Ratio architects understood our needs. It’s important to us to pursue a design that would be most conducive to student learning with as much natural light as possible.

We want to give the space a more ‘post-secondary’ feel as students prepare to enter high school. The look and function of this space truly is the future, and is what we can expect to see more in schools going forward.

In the project design, light floods in from all directions through large windows and ceiling skylights. A glass garage door occupies the entire east wall, ushering in more light and opens to an outdoor courtyard that will serve as another learning and gathering area. An open, flexible learning space in the center connects five classrooms, five office spaces, and gender-neutral bathrooms.

True to Highline’s values, the new expansion fosters individualized learning with several options for independent, small, and large group breakouts. We are excited to create new ways to bring in and engage with our community thanks to the diversity that this space offers.

We plan to host grade level REACH assemblies, performances, guest speakers, and other special events in this space, which currently can only be facilitated in the dual gym and cafeteria, or in classrooms. We will be able to do more on our campus and not be limited by the lack of room.

As Highline seeks additional funding to furnish and equip the new expansion, we do so recognizing that charters are held to a higher standard of accountability and financial transparency. Our years of sound fiscal oversight have paid off after receiving a AAA credit rating from the state, which allowed us to sell bonds to raise $7.2 million for the project.

This would not have been possible if not for our commitment to maintaining solid financials and making responsible, prudent choices since our founding.

Groundbreaking is slated for the Spring of 2023, and we are planning to host a community event to commemorate this momentous occasion. For more information and progress on our expansion project, follow along on our website.

About Highline Academy Charter Schools

Highline Academy Charter Schools has two campuses serving over 1,000 students from ECE to 8th grade. It is home to a diverse population of students from all across the Denver-metro area, with 26 different languages spoken in the home and representing 50 countries from all over the world. Highline provides Spanish instruction starting in Kindergarten and develops the whole child with music, art, PE, STEM, character development and social emotional curriculum. Students are challenged with rigorous academics at all levels of ability and are inspired to REACH new heights in and outside of the classroom. The campus was founded on and is anchored in its REACH values: Responsibility, Empowerment, Aspiration, Citizenship, and Honesty. These values are the core of its program in helping students from all backgrounds achieve academic, civic, and personal excellence.