DPS’ West High next up for makeover

A proposal to convert Denver’s venerable West High School into two schools run with the help of outside management organizations is one key item on a long list of school transformation and innovation proposals facing the Denver school board Thursday.

Denver West High School
Denver West High School

Under the West plan, which originated with a community advisory group that later worked with DPS administrators, two grade 6-12 district-run “academies” would be phased in over four years starting in the fall of 2012.

The two academies would be operated in partnership with Generation Schools and College Board Schools, both New York-based non-profit educational management organizations. Neither has operated a school outside New York to date, but both have shown some success in graduating students in urban environments.

The proposed West conversion comes on the heels of a controversial transformation plan for Montbello High School and its feeder schools in Far Northeast Denver. West would be the latest in a string of reconfigurations of Denver’s lowest-performing high schools, also including Manual and North.

Some observers note that the track record of district-run high school reforms is distinctly mixed and that challenges and questions surround the West proposal.

Plan born out of fears about West’s future

West, which opened at West 9th Avenue and Elati Street in 1926, has plenty of history.

Learn more 

Susana Cordova, a former West English teacher who is now DPS’ chief academic officer, recalls the time one of her students noticed some scratchings on the school’s brick wall. What caught her student’s eye was the barely legible name “Mike Smith” from the class of 1934.

What concerns West supporters is the school’s recent history.

The college remediation rate of West graduates in 2009-10 was 91 percent, the highest for any Colorado high school. For the same year, 27 percent of its ninth-graders scored proficient or above on state reading tests. A mere 5 percent of ninth-graders were proficient in math.

On the DPS School Performance Framework scorecard for 2010, West’s rating of 35 percent puts it on priority watch status, just two points above probationary status. And West’s enrollment for the just-concluded school year was down to an anemic 726. As recently as 2005-06, enrollment was 1,378.

“There were rumors we were hearing that they were going to close West High School,” said Veronica Barela.

Barela, West class of 1963, is co-chair of a grassroots group that formed early in 2010 as the Friends of West High School. It subsequently renamed itself, after expanding to include a broader cross-section of the community and several DPS staffers, as the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative or WDEEC.

The collaborative and the district ultimately came up with the two-schools proposal.

The plan calls for West Generation and College Board schools to open in August 2012 with sixth, eighth and ninth grades, growing by two grades each year to full capacity in August 2015. At completion of the phase-in, West’s projected enrollment would be 1,700.

Two firms new to Colorado

West High will represent the first venture for both management organizations outside of New York state. Generation Schools is launching an affiliate relationship this fall with Lafayette’s Sanchez Elementary, which is part of the Boulder Valley Schools.

Members of group that developed new West H.S. plan
Members of the group who developed the new West plan outside the school. From left: Pat Ornelas, Arturo Jimenez, Veronica Barela, Lee Becker, Helen Garcia and Antonio Esquibel.

The school to be called West Generation plans to submit a memorandum of understanding to DPS delineating its proposed working relationship with the district in August or September, according to Wendy Piersee, the organization’s managing director in the Rocky Mountain region. West College Board will submit its full plan to the board by Oct. 1.

“If the board approves the resolutions for West on Thursday, we are confident that there will be an agreement with College Board completed this fall,” said district spokesman Mike Vaughn.

While many details remain to be finalized, both Generation Schools and College Board would have limited personnel on the West High campus, working in coordination with the DPS-hired staffs of both schools.

Both will be classified as “performance” schools in the district’s terminology, meaning, “new Denver Public Schools designed from the ground up by educators, parents and community stakeholders,” with new staffs, students and academic programs.

Performance schools, of which DPS already has four, do not have waivers from district and state requirements or union contract provisions, unless they choose to seek innovation status later. The performance schools already operating in DPS are the Math and Science Leadership Academy and the Denver Green School while two more performance schools – Denver Center for International Studies at Ford and Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello – will open in August.

Academies’ leadership already in place

Principals have been hired for each of the West schools. They are Bob Villarreal at West Generation and Teresa Klava at West College Board. Villarreal has spent the past two years as principal at Garden Place Elementary in North Denver, while Klava has been principal at Valverde Elementary in West Denver since July 2009.

West High at a glance 
  • Founded 1893, current building opened in 1926

Student demographics

  • Hispanic – 86%
  • White – 6%
  • African-American – 5%
  • Poverty rate – 92%

Academic achievement

  • 9th grade reading – 27% proficient or advanced
  • 9th grade math – 5% proficient or advanced
  • Dropout rate – 8%
  • Graduation rate – 48%

“I’m very optimistic about the reform at West, and this builds upon our proven success models at Bruce Randolph and Martin Luther King and at Manual, and the very, very encouraging progress so far at Montbello,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Villarreal and Klava’s most recent schools show differing levels of academic performance. Garden Place has seen dramatic improvement in growth levels in math, reading and writing over the past three years. But at Valverde, growth in each of those three subjects dropped by at least 10 points in the same time period.

Santiago Grado has been named principal for the traditional West as it is phased out. Grado is currently the principal of Northridge High School in Greeley, with prior experience as an administrator at CEC Middle College of Denver.

Boasberg said Villarreal and Klava have substantial prior track records beyond Garden Place and Valverde elementaries – Villarreal in Cherry Creek and Klava at schools such as Denver’s Kepner Middle School.

“I think that both of them have extensive secondary experience, and both are exceptionally strong leaders with very deep roots in the community,” he said.

Tracking the transition will be Antonio Esquibel, the new DPS executive director of West Denver Schools. Esquibel was most recently principal at Abraham Lincoln High School in Southwest Denver and served on the WDEEC committee with Barela and Cordova. His office will be at West.

“One of my main functions will be to ensure everybody gets along and make sure they feel a part of West High,” Esquibel said. “They’ll be sharing facilities and kids will have an opportunity to explore each other’s programs.”

Programs take different approaches

The emphasis of the two programs will differ. Generation’s educational trademark is its longer school year – teachers work the same number of days but stagger their vacations. College Board’s focus is on its Advanced Placement program.

Generation Schools opened its first pilot school in Brooklyn in September 2007. Its presentation to the DPS board showed 75 percent of the Brooklyn Generation School students on track for on-time graduation. And, although only 20 percent of its students entered high school performing at grade level, more than 60 percent of its students in the class of 2011 and 2012 are at grade level in every core subject.

Piersee said Generation has one managed school in New York and has three more affiliate relationships with New York Schools. It has expansive plans for Colorado.

“Within five years in Colorado, we will have four to five managed schools similar to the West scenario, and we will have somewhere around 25 affiliate schools – schools that want to adopt a portion of the Generation model – staggered vacations, 20 days of professional development (for teachers), more instructional time or another one of the elements that we feel is critical,” she said.

College Board, with a focus on helping to prepare students from urban environments for success in college, has 17 schools in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester and Yonkers.

Of 11 College Board schools included in a New York State graduation rates study for the class of 2010, none has a four-year graduation rate lower than 62 percent, only two were lower than 74 percent, and one was at 90 percent. The state average is 76 percent, and eight of 11 College Board schools were above that mark in 2010.

What are the chances for success?

While it will take several years to know whether the West succeeds, those who helped develop the proposal are nearly unanimous in praising the process that led to it.

Denver West High SchoolBill de la Cruz, a community engagement consultant to the Colorado Department of Education, served as facilitator for the group, which included West alumni, parents, teachers, community activists, DPS board members and employees.

“There wasn’t anything that people couldn’t talk through and work through, with the right environment,” he said. “It went about as smooth as it could go, in terms of community process.”

Several DPS board members joined the effort, led by Arturo Jimenez, who represents Northwest Denver, including West High.

“I think all the board members really had a lot of hope and gave a lot of support to the community effort,” Jimenez said. “There were a lot of folks who all had different ideas but everyone came to the table and understood that we had to compromise, to figure out what would work.”

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Colorado in Denver, said there is skepticism in the educational community about the success of district-sponsored turnarounds such as that contemplated at West.

“Around the country, there are very few examples of a turnaround that is less than shutting it down and essentially starting a new school that has been shown to work,” he said.

He’s backed up by a 2008 Center on Education Policy study that investigated school restructurings in five states and found that only 19 percent of the schools made adequate yearly progress based on 2006-07 tests.

“Even if you have innovation status, which a lot of them have, there’s skepticism about district-run turnarounds,” Teske said, “because at the end of the day they still report to the district in a more traditional way, and the district can change its mind about some things.”

With 13 DPS schools now approved for innovation status and another six on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting, Boasberg would not rule out that West Generation or West College Board might eventually go that same route.

Villarreal, tapped as the West Generation principal, spoke to the DPS board about the West High reboot at a public comment session Monday night.

He acknowledged the considerable challenge at West but said, “History may never give us another chance to do it right.”

On the board’s agenda

The Denver school board is considering these proposals at its Thursday meeting:

Performance and new schools

  • West Generation School, West College Board – Two 6-12 academies to be co-located at West High School, opening 2012-13.
  • Creativity Challenge Community – A 1-5 elementary co-located at Merrill Middle School; one kindergarten class located at Center for Early Education.
  • Stapleton Middle School – Grades 6-8 to be co-located and opened August 2012 at same campus as Swigert-McAuliffe International School; name to be selected this fall.

Charter schools

  • Elements Academy – K-5 school proposed for Far Northeast Denver. DPS staff has recommended denial.
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary – K-4 school to be located in Southwest Denver, opening 2012-13.
  • Miller-McCoy Academy – An all-boys 6-12 school in Far Northeast, scheduled to open 2013-14.
  • West Denver Prep – Two middle schools in Far Northeast, both opening 2012-13.
  • West Denver Prep SMART High School – The first high school for this organization, opening 2012-13 on the old Lutheran High School campus along with WDP-Harvey Park Middle School.
  • Rocky Mountain Prep – An ECE-8 school to be located in Southwest or Southeast Denver, opening 2012-13.

Innovation schools

  • Green Valley Ranch and McGlone elementary schools in Far Northeast.
  • Vista Academy, a new 6-12 multiple pathways center, opening Aug. 18 on the Evie Dennis campus in Far Northeast.
  • Godsman Elementary, an existing school in Southwest Denver.
  • Summit Academy, an existing multiple pathways center in Southwest Denver.
  • Swigert-McAuliffe International School, an existing ECE-5 school scheduled to move to a new Stapleton campus, where a middle school will be added in August 2012.

**See this DPS information sheet for definitions of the various types of schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”