Northfield High School parents, students sound off against sharing campus with charter school

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night. Dec. 5, 2016. (Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat)
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night. Dec. 5, 2016. (Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat)
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night. Dec. 5, 2016. (Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Parents interrupted the superintendent to accuse Denver Public Schools of breaking its promises to Northfield High, the city’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Students made impassioned pleas against a plan to co-locate a high-performing charter school there. And a mother of two middle schoolers at that charter school, DSST: Conservatory Green, choked up.

“Where would you put our children?” Lechelle Schilz asked. “I hear a lot of hatred.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg tried to assuage their fears, diffuse the tension and debunk the perception that the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver was ever meant to belong solely to Northfield High. It was always intended to house multiple schools sharing athletic fields and common areas, a strategy the district uses all over the city to keep costs low, he said.

“Can we have a successful, comprehensive Northfield High School with a top-flight (International Baccalaureate) program and can we have a successful Conservatory Green High School sharing the same campus? I believe the answer is absolutely,” he said at the three-hour meeting. “We can do both. And one does not take away from the other.”

But many parents and students left the meeting unconvinced.

“I feel betrayed,” said Northfield High sophomore Devante Tanguy.

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 15 on a plan that calls for using funds from the $572 million bond issue approved by voters last month to build a new, 500-seat high school building on the campus. It would be occupied by DSST: Conservatory Green High School, another link in the district’s biggest charter chain and a continuation of the nearby DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School. That building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018.

The plan also includes:

— Temporarily placing a new elementary school, Inspire Elementary, at the Paul Sandoval Campus for the 2017-18 school year until construction is complete on a new building in the booming Stapleton neighborhood. Inspire would initially serve kindergarten through 2nd grade.

— Temporarily placing DSST: Conservatory Green High School at the nearby Samsonite Campus for 2017-18 until the new building is ready on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

— Monitoring enrollment at Northfield High, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders with plans to add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. If additional capacity is needed for the fall of 2019 or 2020, the district would borrow money to add more seats.

— Begin planning to fully build out Northfield High with funds raised through a bond issue anticipated to go before voters in 2020. The district is planning to add 1,000 additional seats to the Paul Sandoval Campus with 2020 bond money, 500 of which would be for Northfield High. The other 500 seats would be for a new, yet-to-be-determined middle school.

Boasberg reiterated the district remains committed to Northfield High’s vision of comprehensive high school serving a diverse population that offers all kids the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Last year, the student body was split evenly between white students, black students and Latino students. Half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The district predicts that Northfield High will eventually serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students, putting its enrollment on par with comprehensive Denver high schools such as George Washington and South but remaining smaller than 2,500-student East High.

This year, Northfield has 415 students in grades nine and 10. Seventy percent of students who live within the high school’s boundary — and are thus guaranteed a seat — choose to go elsewhere, which is on the high end for the district’s comprehensive high schools. Sixty-two percent of Northfield students are from outside the boundary.

Parents credit Northfield’s relatively low enrollment to the school’s tumultuous start. Its first principal resigned rather than be fired in October 2015, two months after the school opened, following an investigation into inappropriate responses involving student discipline.

The school had an interim principal last year. Amy Bringedahl, a longtime educator who served as principal of a DPS middle school last year, was chosen to helm Northfield this year.

Parents and students Monday night said they felt repeatedly hoodwinked by the district, which they complained wasn’t investing in Northfield High like it should.

“We wanted a comprehensive high school, a school that had a wide range of options,” said a Northfield High sophomore who took a turn at the microphone. “We were promised additional buildings so we could grow our school into the best school.

“Before you open up something new, why don’t you build what you already started?” he continued. “I question DPS’s commitment to our school. I pose it as an open question to DPS tonight: Do you support our school? Because you’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.”

Boasberg insisted the district does. But he said it doesn’t make sense to build out the school to 1,500 seats now if it won’t need that many for several more years. When parents pushed back, saying they were under the impression the 2016 bond would pay to complete Northfield High, Boasberg said they were mistaken.

The bond proposal stated the money would pay for 500 additional seats on the Paul Sandoval Campus, he said: “It doesn’t say ‘Northfield High School.’ It never said ‘Northfield High School.’”

One woman in the audience shouted back.

“I didn’t vote for the bond because I knew you were going to do this,” she said angrily.

Many DSST parents and staff members attended the meeting, as well. They expressed dismay at the attitude of the Northfield High supporters and said sharing a campus, which DSST does at several of its locations, is a great way to teach children the value of cooperation.

“I think there is a way to have a vital Northfield High School and a way to have a vital and exciting DSST: Conservatory Green High School,” said a father of two DSST middle school students. “Is it perfect? No. My dream would be that they’d each have their own campus. But there’s something innovative and exciting to me and we are in support.”

At the end of the meeting, some Northfield parents said the proposal felt like “a done deal.”

“I think our community is being held hostage by DPS until the 2020 bond,” said Amy Passas, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Even though she lives close to Northfield and is considering sending her 8th grader there next year, she said she’s also considering East High.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.