When Northfield High School opened its doors in 2015, no teams or clubs were in place for freshmen to join—they were the ones who would create them. A number of boundary families looked to East and George Washington instead, feeling a small new school could not offer the academic rigor or varsity sports they sought. Less than half of the school’s boundary students made it their first choice. Today, however, NHS has the longest waitlist of all DPS high schools.
The first class of 194 freshmen, in a city known for its large, historic high schools, were reminded daily of how small they were as they moved through a facility built for 1,000 students. Graduating senior Xyla Ontiveros says, “I remember when it was just us. The hallways were so empty! ‘No one’s out here’ we thought at the time….Now, everyone’s in the hallways, and there’s so much commotion.”
But small was the reason some chose Northfield. “I went to a tiny school [Bill Roberts] and I wasn’t quite ready to go from a really small school to a really large school like East,” recalls Ellie Clifford, who says she grew socially and academically as the school did. “It ended up that this was perfect for me.” Myra Luu’s parents sold her on the idea of NHS, saying, “It would be a great opportunity to start somewhere fresh, instead of someplace where the culture was already set.”
Fast forward four years as that first class is preparing to graduate. With a fall 2019 freshman class of about 315 and a total projected population of 980, NHS is establishing its place among the city’s high schools. Not only does it have the longest waitlist of any DPS high school, the district has committed to the construction of a new classroom building. Slated to open in fall 2020, this space will add about 900-1,000 seats to NHS.
As they anticipate their May graduation, four seniors sat down with the Front Porch to reflect on the school’s first four years. Though longtime residents have seen every fledgling school endure some growing pains, Northfield had an especially rocky start. Its first principal left within a few months of the school’s opening due to his mishandling of student discipline. Even before that, a number of families had changed their first-round choice of Northfield to other schools due to philosophical differences with that principal. But since then, Principal Amy Bringedahl has steered a course for NHS that has made it one of the most sought-after DPS high schools this year, and each of the seniors we spoke with expressed their gratitude for her leadership.
The students speak fondly of many of the teachers and staff who have shaped their high school experience—and it’s clear that NHS’s strengths go well beyond academics. In fact, they speak first to the support and guidance they received outside the confines of classes. Jamie Doak, the school-based therapist, receives high marks all around. Of IB Coordinator Peter Wright, Clifford says: “He genuinely cares about us…he’s seen us grow and he has grown with us.” Ontiveros echoes this sentiment: “He literally takes us in like his own children and really wants us to succeed.”
Devion Hinton recalls Micah Porter, the school’s former athletic director, and credits him and Engagement Specialist Ezekiel Ocansey with helping him to stay focused and on track: “When I got knocked down, they were the first two people who helped me up; they encouraged me to get through a lot of stuff with school and family.” “He’s amazing,” agrees Ontiveros of Ocansey. In retrospect, they even appreciate how tough their Language Arts teachers—Johanna Zablocki and Julie Catalini—were on them. They recognize now that their teachers’ rigor stems from their commitment to students’ academic success.
That success looks different for each of the seniors, who share their respective post-graduation plans. Luu is one of only ten freshmen accepted into CU Denver’s 6-year BA/BS-MD program. Hinton plans to attend Metro State and hopes to work in sports medicine. Ontiveros is going to take flying lessons this summer, so she can work toward her dream of becoming a commercial pilot after completing a degree at Metro State. Clifford is entering a program in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder after a trip to Europe this summer. She’s already taken advantage of local college classes as part of her high school education, attending regular lectures at Anschutz in her field of interest. Fully 83% of graduating seniors plan to continue their education, having applied to college and/or technical-vocational schools.
These students represent the diversity that was built into the school’s mission. In addition to being the boundary school for Stapleton and a portion of Park Hill, at least 35% of seats each year are set aside for students living in the Far Northeast Denver zone. The Class of 2019 is 36% Hispanic, 33% White, 23% Black, 4% Asian and 4% multiple races, with almost 47% Free and Reduced Lunch eligible. These seniors represent elementary and middle schools from both the Stapleton and Far Northeast zones: Clifford and Hinton came from Bill Roberts. Ontiveros came from Farrell B. Howell in Montbello, and Luu attended Omar D. Blair in Green Valley Ranch.
Northfield’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been a draw for some, while other students appreciate its CareerConnect courses, which offer career-related and college credit courses. Clifford and Luu opted for the IB diploma, while Ontiveros and Hinton chose the more traditional degree path. All participated in sports, from swimming to basketball and football—and most participated in multiple school clubs and activities, which they helped organize. “Especially being the first graduating class, it was hard. We started off as a Council without any experience or guidance,” says Luu of her time on Student Council. “Each year we look for ways to grow and become better, getting advice…we try our best.”
The graduating seniors are eager to dispel the notion they’ve heard from area high schools that their new athletic programs are “weak” and believe that this year, in particular, they have demonstrated that NHS athletes are to be taken seriously. They brag about the school’s strong basketball, cross-country, and volleyball teams.
The four share some advice with Northfield’s incoming freshman class. “Build good relationships with your teachers and make sure you work on your time management,” says Hinton. “Keep your mind open! With a new school there will be changes, but there’s nothing that’s ever set in place. Be better and grow better,” recommends Luu. Ontiveros shares that being open-minded is key to success in high school. Having lived through the school’s growing pains, Clifford advises incoming students: “Fight for the classes that you want. Stand up for yourself.”