Denver Discovery School has chosen a new leader, in the wake of several months of instability. Pam Kirk comes to the Stapleton middle school with nearly five years of experience as the leader of Asbury Elementary, in south Denver, which was a great training ground for the 15-year Denver Public Schools veteran.
“Some of the work we did at Asbury was to take a very traditional elementary school and make it less traditional. We brought in project-based learning. We received a significant grant from the Gates Foundation to do personalized learning,” said Kirk. “And in the last year and a half we’ve done a lot of work with equity.”
Kirk says that she was interested in the principalship at DDS because she was ready for a new challenge and because she believes in small middle schools and project-based learning.
“I really believe it’s important for families to have choices,” said Kirk. Her own children went to a small middle school, and one of her daughters pursued project-based learning at a small college in Canada.
DDS is the only school in the zone and one of very few middle schools in DPS that takes project-based learning as its focus, said Kirk. In project-based learning, “teachers come up with a guiding question that aligns all of the work that comes through that piece,” she said. Students bring in multiple disciplines – language arts, science, math – to address the guiding question, and the work involves real-world, hands-on experiences.
Third graders at Asbury, for example, Skyped with experts in Montana, read fiction and nonfiction and put together a culminating project about wolves in answer to the question “Is the big bad wolf really bad?” Middle schoolers pursue more sophisticated projects, but ones that are equally engaging and multidisciplinary.
While DDS has had its share of challenges this year, Kirk is open-eyed and ready to address them. “My goal for the next few months is to really build those systems and structures that we all need to have in place,” she said. She is already working on staffing, communication and school culture, and feels that already there are “significant changes that you’ll see…in the classrooms. Students really know the expectations as they walk into classrooms.”
Getting the budget under control is also a priority and an area that Kirk is comfortable with, “Asbury is also a very small school…so I’ve done budgets. I know how to get a little dollar out of a rock if need be, and how to shift things around.”
The budget will help guide decisions about the schedule and electives. A recent community survey about those issues yielded mixed results, with about half the respondents saying to keep the longer school day of 8:00 to 4:00 and another half preferring a shorter 8:00 to 3:00 day and some voting to keep all of the electives while others suggesting a variety of changes.
Kirk says she will meet with the Collaborative School Committee and with staff to make decisions on these and other issues. “A big part of this is for everyone to be included. It’s not my decision,” she said. She wants “to really work with everyone, not just in this decision, but in all decisions. I am not ‘Marge-in-charge.’ I am someone who needs collaboration.”