DPS has announced that Ron Castagna will serve as interim Northfield principal for the remainder of the 2015-16 school year. Castagna was principal of Lakewood High School in Jefferson County from 1996 to 2014. He was named Colorado Principal of the Year in 2012 and Lakewood High School has consistently been ranked as a top high school. Castagna is coming out of retirement to complete the 2015-16 school year at Northfield High School after Principal Avi Tropper’s recent resignation. DPS says they will share information on the hiring process for the permanent principal in the coming weeks.
A limited amount of information is available on the DPS investigation of disciplinary incidents and the resignation of Principal Avi Tropper. What is known will be described later in this article. But the big-picture story is the vision for the school, the conflict it generated in the community before it ever opened, and how the school is doing today based on reports from parents and teachers.
The Front Porch attended many of the community meetings and talked to many people before the high school opened. We are presenting that information as background to better understand Northfield High School (NHS) and its mission. What it’s like in the school today is presented primarily as direct quotes from teachers and parents. The resignation of a principal creates uncertainty in a school and numerous people did not want their name used or spoke with the understanding that the article would carefully present their statements in the context they were shared. With that in mind, this article will clearly note whether explanations or conclusions are from the Front Porch or from a person interviewed.
A conflict waiting to happen?
It’s safe to say no new school (or existing school) has been without conflict. But it is also safe to say there were some competing goals from the start that set up this new school for many of the conflicts that have occurred.
Front Porch observation: The Stapleton community wanted a “comprehensive” school like Denver’s East High School. DPS wanted the newest school in the district to be diverse and to not have the achievement gap problem that currently exists in Denver’s comprehensive high schools.
Stapleton parents have participated in the development of new schools since the first families moved here in 2003. They have taken surveys on what type of school and curriculum will be developed and worked successfully with new principals to reach those goals.
As the child population at Stapleton aged, the community started having meetings about a new high school. At those meetings a strong desire was expressed to have a single large comprehensive high school, similar to East. When the plans showed individual buildings that could house smaller academy-style schools on the campus, the community reiterated their desire for a large comprehensive high school. The plans got redesigned to join two buildings to accommodate about 1,000 students.
In community meetings, Stapleton residents said a building for 1,000 wouldn’t be big enough—they thought almost everyone would attend the new high school. After a March 2014 community meeting, DPS Board member Happy Haynes, an East High School alumna, told the Front Porch “… there will be a guaranteed seat for every student at Stapleton who wants to be in this high school. I fully support that, and I support the idea of a comprehensive high school at the Northfield location, and further, I am, and I believe the other board members are as well, absolutely committed to that school being a diverse school …That’s a commitment the district has made.”
Front Porch observation: Haynes was using the term “comprehensive” to refer to a school that would offer a broad range of classes and opportunities to students. To the community, the term comprehensive meant “like East.”
DPS’ intention to have multiple schools on the campus was reaffirmed in a statement from Will Jones, DPS director of media relations, after the September 2015 dedication of the Paul Sandoval Campus. DPS chose to have a campus name as well as a high school name because they “anticipate an additional school will be built on the Paul Sandoval Campus at some point and want to ensure each school is appropriately represented.”
Former principal Avi Tropper says when DPS looked for a principal, they communicated that a high priority was to have an innovative plan for a diverse high school that ideally would not have an achievement gap. Tropper stated:
“Over the past year the team worked very hard to develop an innovative high school that would address the significant proficiency and opportunity gaps among Denver Public Schools students. The vision for Northfield High School has been to build a school that provides a superb education, grounded in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, for a diverse community of all students. Our emphasis on diversity was based on understanding that we live in a diverse world with great value in learning from and with a diverse group. Significant outreach across communities in Northeast Denver and detracked, inclusive classes ensured that this vision become a reality.”
Starting in June 2014, and up through DPS choice in January, Tropper held community meetings and met with students to share this vision.
Rumblings in the community
In March 2015, the outcome of school choice showed that 93 students in the Stapleton boundary (just under 50%) chose Northfield (not the numbers the community expected); 315 students from far northeast chose Northfield. As the 2014-15 school year came to an end and families focused more closely on the details of the new program, the Front Porch began hearing concerns that the program and the principal were not meeting their expectations or their needs. The program was not the traditional comprehensive high school they asked for and expected. Some of the concerns parents expressed in June about the NHS program were: the math placement test; the lack of a traditional guidance counselor position; the lack of a traditional athletic director position and the need for a schedule that better fits with the athletic programming at other schools; and that student council had less say about the dress code than they had expected.
In June, several parents told the Front Porch they and others had asked about such issues and Tropper was unwilling to compromise. The message they heard was that NHS may not be for everyone, and if it’s not the right fit, they could use the Round 2 Choice process.
As it has turned out, parents and students have been very happy with the “advisory program.” And the scheduling of all PE classes at the same time mid-day has given teachers time for planning, collaboration and professional development that history teacher Peter Wright says is “unique” and “huge, enormous” in its impact on the quality of teaching. (More later on “advisories” and why teachers say they’re happy with their jobs at NHS.)
Front Porch observation: Tropper designed the program that DPS had asked for—one that would ensure all students in a diverse school would succeed. Traditional comprehensive high schools in Denver have not achieved that goal. Tropper believed the compromises parents were asking for would interfere with that goal. By June some parents in the community were saying he was uncompromising and unsympathetic to their concerns and they started transferring to other schools. (And some felt it didn’t help that he’s not very “Colorado”; he’s blunt and talks fast like a true New Yorker.)
Parent and teacher feedback after two months of school
The final composition of the first class indeed created a diverse school—approximately 200 ninth-graders that are approximately one-third white, one-third Latino, and one-third black. “We have 40 schools with varying degrees of structure and academic success that feed into us,” says history teacher Peter Wright. “Everyone and everything is new—there are no (upperclassmen) role models.
“Two months progress has been enormous. The biggest thing we’re seeing is students are starting to take responsibility for each other. We’re having to correct student behavior less and less. If a student is talking in class, other students might respectfully ask the student to be quiet … I go through many days without any disciplinary issues …”
Advisor Jamie Doak says, “I see students able to express themselves and respect others when they’re speaking and able to handle conflicting opinions with respect and maturity. I definitely see that this model has benefitted our student interactions from the beginning of the year until now.”
Literature teacher Katie Langlois talks about working with her fellow teachers at NHS. “For me one of the things that really stands out is this spirit and culture of collegiality, professionalism and growth as an educator. I’m really growing as an educator in a way that’s safe and nurturing. I think it makes us teachers more comfortable to be ourselves with our teaching style and how we present lessons. We’re not worried or scared that we’re going to be reprimanded or chastised for being creative. And so we are creative … It’s more a culture of inquiry than of criticism.”
In an attempt to get a broad impression of feelings about the school from parents, the Front Porch posted a brief (admittedly unscientific) survey in the Stapleton “NextDoor.com” chat room and on a Facebook page for NHS parents. Surprisingly, given that people in online chat rooms often express strong and conflicting opinions, there was 100 percent agreement among all 12 respondents on four out of 11 yes/no questions. Responses were received between Oct. 19 and 21.
- All said their child had never indicated feeling physically unsafe.
- All said their child had never been bullied. (Eight said their child had never witnessed bullying.)
- All said the teachers are approachable and helpful regarding problems and concerns (one noted “except the teacher who left—he didn’t like her teaching.”)
- All said the advisors are approachable and helpful regarding problems and concerns.
- Eleven of 12 respondents said teachers present lessons in an understandable and organized way.
In addition to the yes/no survey answers, some parents did express specific concerns about NHS, particularly restorative justice, which will be covered in a later section, Northfield’s innovative model.
Why did the principal resign?
Following is what’s known about the events that led up to the principal’s resignation. Susana Cordova, DPS chief schools officer, says minors were involved so DPS can’t answer any questions.
On or about Oct. 8, a teacher emailed parents to say the administration was not addressing incidences of violence, and bullying in the classroom was escalating. “I am saddened that I am unable to properly educate your child due to this situation. I will no longer be teaching at Northfield High School because I do not feel that I can ensure a safe environment.”
On Oct. 8, Cordova and Gregg Gonzales emailed parents to say two families raised concerns about how their students were disciplined by a campus security officer. “In order to conduct a fair and thorough investigation, we have placed Principal Tropper and the security officer on leave.”
Two part-time staff also resigned at about the same time. According to Tropper, “Both part-time teachers expressed that they enjoyed working at the school and were resigning for personal reasons.”
On Oct. 12, 9News aired a six-minute video in which a parent said the security guard inappropriately handled her daughter.
On Oct. 20, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Cordova wrote a letter to Northfield families that said they had concluded their investigation and Principal Tropper had resigned. It said, “In cases where students do not act in accord with school policy, these cases must be dealt with promptly and fairly, in accordance with districtwide discipline expectations and in such a way that de-escalates conflict as effectively as possible.
“Our review has detailed multiple instances where this was not the case over the last two months at Northfield, including inappropriate use of force, inappropriate escalation of relatively minor incidents, inappropriate supervision of security personnel, stated intentions to use suspension as a tool to force at least one student out of the school and inappropriate behavior toward parents raising concerns.”
Tropper provided this statement: A restorative justice model with firm redlines around violence or attempted violence, created a school environment focused on learning. Quoting a consensus statement from the vast majority of the faculty, the people with firsthand knowledge of events: “As one would likely expect with any large group of adolescents, our school experienced its share of disciplinary challenges. There were a very small number of incidents at the school that required proper intervention and management, which is exactly what our staff provided. We completely disagree with the criticisms we have seen and heard regarding Northfield’s approach to student discipline and believe strongly in the way that the staff addressed the circumstances they confronted.”
An Oct. 20 article at Co.Chalkbeat.org included the following information. “(Tropper) described the district’s investigation as ‘tremendously flawed,’ featuring ‘falsehoods and lies.’ He said the district failed to talk to faculty who could refute some of the claims… ” (Co.Chalkbeat.org, Oct. 20, 2015, by Eric Gorski)
Understanding Northfield’s innovative model
Northfield’s model includes some innovations that some parents still don’t fully understand, including restorative justice, detracking, the advisory program and distributive leadership. Following are parent questions and concerns and teachers’ explanations of these aspects of NHS.
The greatest number of comments on the survey were in response to the question “Has your child indicated he/she believes the resolution-based approach to discipline, rather than a more traditional punitive approach, is working?” Four of 12 said yes.
Responses included, “My son feels there are many disruptive students in classes.” “My daughter specifically said that behavior issues have improved steadily since the beginning of the year.” “Regarding discipline, the school talks about a ‘restorative justice’ model, but has never explained what exactly that means.” “Seems to be working so far.” “… my main concern, since the end of last year, was that while the vision was there, the ability to implement and lead was not. What exactly does the restorative justice plan entail when handling an incident?”
“I have nothing against it but whatever they’re doing, it’s badly implemented,” says Parent Greg Francis. “They need to work on it. My thought is there have to be disincentives to these kids for fighting. The impression I was getting was that they’d do it again. If they’re not doing it again, then it’s working. But it seems like it’s not. And that is a distraction to the kids who are engaged, who are there to learn.”
Parent Karla Rehring says she hasn’t gotten much feedback about kids being out of control or violent or bullying. “From our perspective it’s not a big deal.”
History teacher Peter Wright says one of his colleagues is working on professional development for the teachers about restorative justice. “It’s not about punishing students, it’s about developing strategies for talking with them, helping them understand how their behavior impacted the community, and then allowing the student to come up with strategies or actions they can take to make it right and restore whatever harm has been caused. I think it’s been working great.”
Literature teacher Katie Langlois says, “I have not had a discipline issue with a student that I felt was resolved improperly. Whenever I had a discipline issue that I was unable to resolve on my own, I got an advisor or the principal involved. I have never walked away and felt it was handled poorly. It’s really, really beneficial because now here’s a student who made a mistake and we’re over it. Students realize I still care about them and their success.”
Parent Greg Francis says, “I think they need to serve the high achievers better. My son and all of his friends, pretty much, are finding the classes not very challenging.” And Francis would like more information on the math placements—he has just requested that information from the teacher.
Karla Rehring also talked to the math teacher about the need for a more challenging math class. She found the staff to be responsive. “When I did reach out, it was great. It’s still an ongoing process … One thing I’d like to see going forward is that there’s clear communication to the kids and parents of how that looks in the classroom because it’s so new. At all the other high schools you just sign up for honors class. If you don’t feel like your kid’s being served, wherever they are on the spectrum, you have to say, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ The teachers definitely want to make sure the kids are learning and growing.” Rehring acknowledges it’s diffficult for teachers to be sure all kids are challenged and says kids need to advocate for themselves and let teachers know when they’re ready for more work.
Literature teacher Katie Langlois says if she learned a student is bored or thinks her class is too easy, she would ask if the student has attempted all the honors tasks and what his/her level of mastery is on those honors tasks. “I don’t think I’ve had any students accomplish the honors tasks in my class easily. Every single student that has completed the honors task at a high level has required a lot of coaching and teaching from me. I have not had a student who has completed the honors task and then said, ‘But this was too easy.’”
Josh Griffin, a vice-principal from D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School who spent an entire day observing at NHS says he doesn’t think there’s a downside for more advanced students. “I think it’s challenging for teachers to maintain a level of rigor and challenge that draws all students into it, but I believe that can be built in for the highest achieving student. And that’s what I observed.”
The advisory model.
Students have a 90-minute class every other day with their advisor, and continue having classes and an advisory relationship with that person for the full four years. The advisors are responsible for about 70 students each and teach one less class per day than the academic teachers so they have time to meet individually with students.
Rehring says she thinks students who aren’t having any serious problems might never make a special appointment to meet with a school counselor. But seeing their advisors every other day in class, students feel comfortable talking to them about their classes and advocating for themselves in that setting. She thinks in the advisory system, problems get identified and advisors can get additional resources for students when needed.
Josh Griffin says, “There’s immense power in having one person work with a small group in what will be a relatively large school. Assuming there’s no faculty turnover, your student’s advisor is going to know your student very well in academic and personal ways and can support them. If the concern is about college counseling, they’re going to be very well equipped to help students with that based on their knowledge of the students.” Griffin says his school has 1,030 students and three counselors.
Distributive leadership and mid-day PE.
Surprisingly, distributive leadership and PE are connected. Based on research that shows taking breaks and moving physically improves concentration, NHS requires every student to take a PE class at the same time in the middle of the day. NHS has hired part-time PE teachers who come in and work with students, leaving all teachers free for planning and collaboration during that time. The teachers’ comments indicate this structure has created a better opportunity for growth as a teacher than they have experienced in other job settings.
PE teacher Krista Meikle explains that students on a team have PE together to condition for their sport. After school, coaches work on skills and strategy since the team has already done conditioning that day. She likens it to the approach used in college sports and says so far it has been very successful for her students on the volleyball team. NHS has both a varsity and JV girls team that are competing strongly. Meikle says the games are scheduled on Saturdays, so they don’t interfere with class.
Seven of eleven respondees on the survey said their student finds having a mid-day workout class helps him/her focus later in the day.
Peter Wright says that time allows teachers to both think ahead and plan for the future as well as grade papers and plan tomorrow’s lesson. “Our goal, even now, three years away from those IB exams, we want to make sure that we’re developing in them the skills and dispositions to be successful on those tests—and we couldn’t do that if we didn’t have devoted time set aside to collaborate.”
In other schools, the principal or vice principal often observes teachers. At NHS the mid-day collaborative time allows the teachers to work together to improve their skills. Josh Griffin says, “I was very impressed with their model of calling on the teachers to see how they can most effectively develop themselves as professionals. There’s a lot of autonomy and pragmatism in their professional development model.”
Jamie Doak says, “I’ve never taught in a school before where I got to see the whole staff have a common room for all our desks and offices. During that hour we either have structured meetings or we do professional development, talk about academic data, behavior issues and collaborate as a team of teachers for those students. On the day or two a week that we don’t have those meetings, we get to hang out and have lunch together. I think teachers being friends with each other really boosts school culture as well. From my point of view, this is one of the closest staffs I’ve ever taught with. We’ve really bonded. It’s not, ‘We’re here, we teach, we go home.’ It feels more like a family.”