Redesigned Denver School Gets Rocky Start
After a tough first year, Denver's Northfield High School adjusts its vision.
As the end of middle school approached, Ahjahnte "Tae" Birch was thinking about the future.
The Denver student's sister had gone to East High School, one of the city's largest and oldest; he was considering South High School, another decades-old high school. Denver's school choice system meant that he could evaluate his options for high school.
His family ultimately landed on Northfield High, a brand new school that advertised itself as offering rigorous International Baccalaureate classes for all students and focused pathways that allowed students to study subjects they were interested in—in Tae's case, business.
"I've always been an entrepreneur," he said.
And so, on Aug. 10 of last year, Tae joined the first class of students to attend Northfield High, the Mile High City's first new comprehensive high school in 35 years.
While many urban public school systems are shrinking, Denver's has been steadily adding students for most of the past decade: Enrollment rose from just over 70,000 students in 2000 to more than 90,000 in 2015-16. The school system is currently running more than 50 high school programs—some charter, some alternative, and some that fit the more traditional model of a large high school that draws mainly from its surrounding area.
Northfield was intended to be a mix of old and new: a large, comprehensive high school in fast-growing Stapleton, one of the more affluent parts of the city, with a design that was anything but traditional.
Northfield was an innovation school, granted autonomy from some district policies and contract provisions by state law. (The school was among several affected by a judge's ruling that the district had run afoul of state law by creating innovation schools from scratch instead of allowing school staff members to vote on whether to become one. Teachers voted to OK Northfield's plan last August.)
And the school was intended to explicitly serve a diverse student body, engineered through the district's school choice process and intentionally drawn boundary lines, and to offer all its students equal access to rigorous academics.
It was a fresh start and a demonstration of the district's commitment to equity in a city where, 20 years after the end of court-ordered desegregation, the achievement gap between affluent and poorer students is among the biggest in the country, according to some recent reports.
Among the components of the plan, the school would have:
- Detracked classes, which means that students would be in multilevel courses instead of being grouped by ability level. It would offer rigorous International Baccalaureate classes to all students and pathways in subjects like arts, business, and biomedical sciences.
- Competency-based grading: Students' grades would be based on demonstrated knowledge, not on things like homework completion or class participation.
- Other structural components, like a longer school day and school year, physical education every day, and a late start time (8:45 a.m.), aimed at improving students' academic performance.
- A distributed-leadership model for staff, in which peers would evaluate each other and teachers would help run the school. There would be no assistant principal, secretary or guidance counselors; their duties would be shared among staff members.
- Teachers who "loop"—or stay with the same students—all four years, and an adviser to teach a writing course and attend to students' social and emotional needs.
Detracking a Priority
The district hired Avi Tropper, a former New York City teacher and assistant principal, to help develop and implement the plan as the school's first principal.
For Tropper, the heart of the plan was detracking—ambitious in a high school drawing from more than 40 middle schools, where some students were prepared for geometry while others scored at an elementary school math level.
But he was also passionate about the other pieces of the plan, which he said were critical to supporting equity and detracking: "We're innovative in many ways, and out of the box in rethinking what school looks like," Tropper said in an interview last fall. "But nothing is pie in the sky or coming out of nowhere. It's research-based."
Months into the school year, however, Tropper resigned from his position after a discipline incident led to a district investigation. He was replaced by an interim principal with a very different vision for the school. Then, a local middle school principal was named to lead the school.
By the spring of this school year, things at the model school looked very different:
- The late start time and long school days were modified.
- The school gave up some of its more unusual structural elements: It will have an assistant principal, a secretary, and guidance counselors instead of advisory leaders. Freshmen will not have to select a pathway.
- Fewer white students are slated to attend the school for its second year—which some fear could lead to a "tipping point" effect, at which fewer white families select the school.
- More than half the teachers who started the school year here are likely to be gone by the next school year—some "nonrenewed" by the district, others of their own accord, staff members said.
- The advisory program has been mostly cut; already, one of the three advisers is serving as an IB coordinator, another as a counselor.
- Teachers will not loop with students.
How did Denver's new flagship program veer so far from its plan so quickly?
Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the director of the National Education Policy Center who has studied equity-focused school reform, said studies show that such schools face "a constant pressure to evolve toward the thing that existed before."
In this case, politics and interpersonal dynamics also seem relevant. Tropper ran into issues with district policies—the school's course offerings, for instance, didn't initially mesh with the district's course-coding system and the district initially did not plan for busing despite the fact that the school was in an area not well-served by public transportation. Tropper prided himself on standing up to more-affluent parents concerned that their children wouldn't be served by a detracked model, earning him the respect of community members who supported that vision. But he also tangled with some parents on other issues like discipline and dress code violations.
August 2015 Northfield High School opens in a brand-new facility in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood. At an opening event, founding Principal Avi Tropper, below, welcomes more than 200 new students. The founding class takes an overnight field trip in the Rocky Mountains.
September 2015 Instruction gets underway. In their mixed-ability classes, students can earn honors credit by opting into more or more-challenging work. Teachers are still figuring out the logistics of things like competency-based grading, how to provide discipline and emotional support to students, and managing a longer school day.
October 2015 Tropper resigns after a district investigation into a disciplinary incident yields a critical report on the state of the school. Tropper says the district is not committed to the original vision for the school.
November 2015 The district brings in Ron Castagna, below, a retired principal from suburban Jefferson County, to temporarily take the reins of the school. The district also re-establishes some more traditional roles at the school, such as assistant principal and secretary, and modifies the daily start and end times.
January 2016 The search begins for a new permanent principal. Some staff members cheer the changes, but others are concerned that the district is backing away from the original vision. One teacher files a grievance, asserting that changes made to the school violated the innovation plan.
March 2016 The school system appoints Amy Bringedahl, below, a principal at a nearby middle school, to be Northfield’s permanent principal. Staff members are still figuring out budget and scheduling for the school’s second year. More than half the school’s founding staff have either left or do not plan to return.
April 2016 The district is still in the midst of constructing a brand-new campus, and the school is fully enrolled for the 2015-16 school year. May 2016 Orientation begins for the incoming freshman class. Bringedahl announces the first new staff members for the 2016-17 school year, and the school’s bell time for the fall is officially changed from 8:45 a.m.-4:45 p.m. to 7:45 a.m.-2:50 p.m.
District officials flagged concerns about disciplinary practices in the investigation that preceded Tropper's departure. Tropper contested the district's report.
The transition in leadership created its own complications. The competency-based grading system's quirks weren't worked out well into the year: At one point, more than half the students were failing in math, and students were turning in work from the first semester through February, according to Ron Castagna, the interim principal who replaced Tropper.
Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, which implemented a noted detracking program, said attempting to do so while also implementing so many other new features—and while operating without key figures like a guidance counselor—may have been overly ambitious. "Detracking in and of itself is such a profound reform that if you try to layer other reforms and changes on top of it, your school is going to be overwhelmed," Burris said.
But Tropper pushed back against this characterization, saying that the design elements would have supported detracking.
Susana Cordova, the district's acting superintendent while Superintendent Tom Boasberg takes an unpaid sabbatical with his family, attributed the school's challenges to leadership, noting that the district had successfully opened dozens of other types of schools in recent years. But, in a district that prizes autonomy for its school leaders—Denver's school board and superintendent embraced charter schools and decentralization—some school staff members accused district leaders of throwing Northfield under the bus.
"If the district approves innovation status, … it is contingent upon the district to provide the structures and supports for that model," said Scott Esserman, an advisory-class teachers at the school who filed a grievance against the new school administration.
To Castagna, the interim principal, the kitchen-sink nature of the plan should have raised red flags. "Did anyone look at that plan?" he said. The logistics of asking high school teachers to loop with students, running a school without an assistant principal, and the budgetquestions raised by having advisers and applying for International Baccalaureate certification seemed like too much.
But former principal Tropper said he believed some of the issues were the result of decisions made at the district and school level to not follow through with key pieces of the plan after his departure: For instance, the initial design had a weeklong period at the end of the semester when students should have been able to turn in work.
The school's next principal, Amy Bringedahl, said that she is committed to the core of the school's plan—"classrooms balanced by diversity and achievement level"—but is open to making changes to other parts.
As the school year draws to a close, a new class of 200 students is signed up to start school, Bringedahl has started hiring, and Northfield is on track to apply for the IB status that will allow it to carry out its mission. The school's community has started the Northfield High Foundation, dedicated to supporting the school, and construction is continuing on the new facility.
Despite the turmoil, students spoke highly of the school's teachers and of their experience in a genuinely diverse school.
"It gives you a chance to see who you really fit in with and find your true self," said Tae, the entrepreneurial student. And as far as having a school that's offering IB for everyone, Tae is optimistic: "I think it can happen."
"You can't go back," said Bringedahl. "But the goal's to restart and create a great experience for kids."
Vol. 35, Issue 33, Pages 23-26Published in Print: June 2, 2016, as A Bold Reinvention Gets a Rocky Start