Northfield High School was founded on a visionary plan to have a diverse student body with a full IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum for all students and, ideally, no achievement gap. After the resignation of founding principal Avi Tropper in October, DPS tapped the recently retired Lakewood High School principal, Ron Castagna, to serve as interim until a permanent principal starts.
Susana Cordova, DPS Chief of Schools, says DPS is 100% committed to the plan as designed for Northfield and they are not currently thinking about changing that plan. “The vision at Northfield is how do we change the traditional paradigm of who is successful in a traditional IB program. We’re sure we’ll have learning to do along the way around how we help more kids be successful…We prefer at this point to err on the side of getting more kids through than backing off the vision.” She says they’ll figure it out and make adjustments as they work with the program and the vision.
Cordova says DPS has had “tremendous success” opening up the advanced placement program. There was concern about the kids not being successful and pass rates going down. In fact, she says the rates have gone up “a little” and they’ve tripled the number of kids taking AP. They accomplished this by getting more kids to enroll and making sure they had support; changing students’ beliefs about themselves; changing teachers’ beliefs about what it takes to help kids to be successful; providing support for teachers through AP training and group work; and, in some cases, double blocks for AP classes so students would have a lab class to support the AP class.
Cordova says one way Northfield has paved the way for other DPS high schools is having a later start time. Ten DPS high schools have now expressed interest in a pilot program for later start times next year. Changes to start time and length of day at Northfield would be a school based decision, she says, and an important subject for the hiring committee.
Hiring a permanent principal
DPS has convened the hiring committee for Northfield and Cordova says they have had “incredibly high interest” in the position. In the past when DPS has selected a successor principal and there’s a need for stability at a school and a new principal who could use a year as an apprentice, DPS has had interim principals stay another year. Or, she says, “We may find a real rock star veteran principal, in which case we want to make that move as quickly as possible. But it will be hard to say until we have a candidate pool.”
Interim principal Castagna, when asked by a parent at a recent open house if he would stay next year, replied, “If the district and students and parents want me, it’s hard to pick up and leave something you’re just making headway in. I love being here.”
It is unknown how long Castagna will be at Northfield—but it didn’t take long for him to start having an impact. Whether that impact is temporary or longer term remains to be seen, depending on the permanent principal selected. Castagna’s philosophy about what works at a high school is unambiguous—and it is not eye-to-eye with Cordova’s vision described above. It sounds like the traditional comprehensive high school Stapleton families talked about in meetings while the school was being planned.
IB for all?
DPS has comprehensive high schools that offer something for everyone. For Northfield, Cordova says, they are committed to a new model that changes the paradigm.
Castagna, with many years of experience at a traditional high school with an IB program, expresses concern that an all IB school wouldn’t be as welcoming to a wide range of students. “The sad part for this place would be if it would develop a reputation that you can only go here if you can cut it.” He would give every student IB for two years. “Then they’re going to have to come to some sort of a crossroads to decide, ‘Do I want to continue with IB as the full meal deal, or do I want to take one class, or do I have another pathway within the school to be successful?’ What’s the pathway when they choose not to take our full model? What I don’t want to say is, ‘Well, then, you have to leave our school because you don’t fit in.’ That to me just throws the whole model upside down. It becomes an elitist setting.” And he points out that even the best, most engaged parents can’t force some kids to do things that they’re not willing to do.
“You want to prepare kids to make great choices and be successful…I can’t force them at the end of the day to finish an IB, but I don’t want them to leave.” He says Lakewood High School programs included a wide variety of AP courses in addition to IB—and striving to do something after high school became part of the culture there, whether it was college, two-year college, vocational schools, training programs, or military. “What’s wrong with the original goals of public education in America,” he asks, “productive citizens being able to take care of themselves, and give back to the world we live in? When you look at comprehensive high schools that try to meet the needs of all kids, that’s what floats my boat.”
The IB Program
As a longtime principal at a high school with a successful IB program, Castagna says the IB program is “hard.” He has seen average-ability kids “with incredible work ethics” complete the program, but he adds, “It is not for the faint of heart who don’t have that work ethic and know how to manage time.” Students who complete the IB program, he says, will be the best prepared students in their dorm when they get to college.
The current Northfield plan calls for students to select a pathway (or two) in freshman year and stick with it for four years. In traditional IB pathways, Castagna says, “You take five core classes and then you get to pick an elective. You don’t have to pick your elective pathway til junior year.” He believes students should have the opportunity to try different electives, pointing out that he, like many others, changed his college major several times. “Let them find out what really floats their boat.” (He likes that phrase.)
Diversity—one of NHS’ strengths
Castagna is excited about the diversity of NHS, currently one-third White, one-third Black and one-third Hispanic. “The breath and fresh air of this place is that you can come in from all walks of life.” He cites a favorite example of the importance of getting students interested and involved in sharing diverse viewpoints. “When IB said one of their goals was to have people work towards getting rid of land mines (IB chooses an issue each year that students can work on while fulfilling their community service requirement), a couple of the kids from South Korea said, ‘You realize that’s the only thing that keeps North Korea from marching down the road and just devastating South Korea?’”
Castagna believes the school’s innovation plan offers him and the staff the flexibility to make some changes that make the program run more smoothly. He looks at the plan as “a great gathering of good ideas…a lot of stuff about what the research says,” but adds, “If there’s any flaw in it, it’s that you’ve got to have some experience of sitting in this seat for a while to understand, ‘Can I make this work? There are the practical pieces of how much staffing are you going to have in terms of teachers to make this work? What can I afford to do within the research?’”
Changes Castagna has made
- A dress code that “expects students to learn what ‘appropriate’” is.
- A lower GPA for sports eligibility, 2.0 as set by CHSAA (Colorado High School Athletic Association) that doesn’t scare kids off from trying harder classes.
- Two mid-day PE periods rather than all students in PE at the same time, starting at semester.
Castagna’s suggestions for future changes
- For next year, Castagna’s choice would be a schedule from 8:30am to 3:40pm.
- He’d like to get supplemental pay for teachers and add some after-school work sessions for students.
- He would like the school to give weighted grades to reflect honors work.
- He would like to see a class size of 300 rather than 200 since a bigger school can offer more options (in sports and music, for example).