Local middle school, Denver Discovery School (DDS), is in transition. With the sudden departure of three lead administrators in as many months and the revelation of budgetary and other woes, the tight-knit school community is rallying to regain its footing.
In 2014, DDS opened in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton (GPH/S) enrollment zone, helmed by first-time principal, Kristen Atwood. Innovation plans called for a small, 360-student school that promised large-school amenities and high achievement. Like its big-school counterpart, McAuliffe International, DDS offered a longer school day and robust electives in addition to traditional core classes. DDS also provided personalized and project-based learning.
Problems and Solutions
Flash forward to 2017, and things have changed. Atwood unexpectedly resigned in August, and Dana Ellis came on board as interim principal. Transparency took the forefront, as veteran principal Ellis began to communicate openly with parents about a host of issues, including budgetary woes, discipline and teacher retention.
Ellis stepped down due to health reasons in November, and the school is seeking new leadership. But in the wake of the turmoil, “people are coming together. It’s difficult, but we’re working together to get through it,” said parent Ann Margaret Williams, who is chair of parent-teacher organization, Friends of Denver Discovery School (FODDS).
To the surprise of many, Ellis revealed that DDS had overspent by about $250,000 over multiple years. According to DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, DPS had been aware and counselled Atwood. “Over time, the previous administration looked at having more students in an effort…to offer a more robust course of studies,” said Cordova. Enrollment had substantially increased to 450 students, but the additional funding those students brought wasn’t enough to cover program costs.
To balance the budget, interim principal Ellis let go an assistant principal, and DPS has paid back the school’s budget shortfall. In addition, parents and the Stapleton Foundation rallied to raise over $70,000 this year through FODDS. DPS will also provide additional budget assistance this year, said Cordova.
Concerns about school culture emerged as a priority this fall. Issues ranged widely, including student defiance, fighting between students and safety incidents, according to reports in the school newsletter and police records.
In response, the community stepped in. A new behavioral expectations plan was developed and DDS held a schoolwide community event, “Denver’s Not Alone,” “to increase personal power and self-esteem, to shift dangerous peer pressure to positive peer support, and to eliminate the acceptability of teasing, violence, and all forms of oppression.” DDS is in the district’s “top ten” list of schools, said Cordova, prioritized to receive support around equity, opportunity and social emotional needs. Williams noted that many new parents have contacted her about getting involved in improving the school.
DDS dropped to “Yellow” status from “Green” on recent School Performance Framework (SPF) reports. In part, the shift resulted from poor performance on measures of academic gaps for historically underserved students. But in part, growth scores on standardized tests for all students showed a marked decline from 2016 to 2017, with math growth particularly concerning. Growth scores compare students to ones who scored similarly in the past and indicate that almost every subgroup of students at DDS underperformed their peers in the 2017 tests, especially in math.
But the community is responding. According to FODDS meeting minutes, goals for improving academics include “training teachers on behavior management/discipline and culture/diversity, reducing classroom sizes as able, and staffing adjustments to better utilize teachers’ untapped talents.”
DDS has a higher than average rate of teacher turnover, according to Instructional Superintendent Heather Haines, and parents have been very concerned. To turn the school around, “what helps is teacher morale and strong leadership,” says parent Debbie Marshall. “If you have a strong leader, parent support, good morale, teachers can do really hard things.”
Parents are working to support the teachers, while the district is providing funds to hire paraprofessionals since a quarter of classes have more than 30 students. Haines says teachers will participate in school hiring and continue to engage in teacher-led professional development. The school is also carving out more professional development time, perhaps by shortening the 8-hour school day or adding late-start or early-release days. The incoming sixth grade class will be around 125 students, 15 less than current grades.
The pressures of competition within the GPH/S enrollment zone may have led the previous administration to make some unsustainable programming choices. “A lot of our advice to Kristen was…be the best DDS, you don’t have to be McAuliffe,” said Cordova.
New leadership is needed to fulfill the school’s original vision. As Marshall says, “Whoever the new leader is going to be, that’s going to be so important.” The Principal Advisory Committee has been formed and a survey sent to identify desirable characteristics. Candidates will be identified and interviewed in December, with a new leader coming on board in January.
Parents and administrators agree that the school is now moving in the right direction. The parent community is committed to “moving on and moving forward,” said Williams. The district is equally invested. “We know how important schools are to communities and to families. It is always our goal to work in collaboration with our kids and their families on making our schools the best that we can,” says Cordova.