The top-performing alternative high school in the Denver Public Schools (DPS) district this year is Denver Online High School, which serves a surprisingly diverse array of students. It began in 2003 with just six distance learners, but now 240 students from the larger Denver metro region attend classes.
Principal Ian Jones has been a key factor in that growth. Jones came from an online charter school background two years ago and was excited to join the DPS system and make use of its considerable resources and support services. Denver Online gives Jones “inspiration,” he says, with its diverse, friendly and open-minded student body, which includes dancers, soccer players, transgender people, teen parents, and even a student who plans to graduate with a BA by senior year.
The school operates on a blended model, where students spend some of their time online and some of the time on the Smedley Campus in northwest Denver. Ninth- and tenth-graders meet with teachers and other students on a weekly basis, where they lounge on couches for discussions or use laptops to continue working online. The school offers weekly speakers, extracurricular clubs, a National Honor Society group and even hosted its first student-organized prom (theme “Express Yourself”) last year. This is all part of a drive to promote community and school culture.
“We serve a variety of students, but most fall into categories that I call the 4 B’s: Brilliant, Busy, Bullied, or Bombarded,” says Jones, who is passionate about serving them all. Academically advanced students who can’t find a challenge in a traditional school enjoy a tailored program that offers concurrent enrollment in real college classes. Likewise, kids who are dedicated to arts or sports gain the flexibility of working around their schedules. Students who have been socially marginalized in middle or early high school find a welcoming culture at Denver Online. The school is also a haven for teen parents, homeless students, and students who need to work to support their families.
Adam Johnson, a sophomore who sports a shock of bright blue hair, found himself “distracted” at the traditional high school he attended: “I decided to seek out something that was going to fit my needs better so I could further my education in a more productive way.” He is able to take more advanced classes than he would have at public school and has also started a choir program, which meets weekly and participates with the drama club in performances.
Tailored, Rigorous Education
Jones and his staff interview each prospective student at enrollment and closely monitor them, especially those who have had trouble at other schools. “It means the kids are really engaged. It is a very personalized experience for them,” says Jones.
Many families are surprised to find out how rigorous the school is. Jones has re-vamped the curriculum, enhanced college-level offerings, and strengthened college/career readiness in collaboration with DPS. Since most coursework is conducted online in a Facebook-like forum called Schoology, writing is an essential part of every class, even math, which is particularly challenging online.
With this emphasis on rigor, Denver Online has been winning awards recently including a Mayor’s Award for Innovation for the art program and a DPS Living Core Values award for Collaboration for Jones. Bucking the reputation of alternative high schools, the school scores in the top 7 for ACT scores, according to Jones.
The motto of the school is “Do More” and that is certainly what draws many students to it. Alyssa Maisel, a sophomore, is a classical ballet dancer who trains seven hours a day, five days a week, at the National Ballet Academy. The Aurora resident wasn’t able to negotiate a schedule at a Cherry Creek School District high school but loves Denver Online. “It is so much freedom. I couldn’t go back to a regular high school,” she says. Maisel started taking college-level writing classes as a freshman and hopes to graduate with an associate’s degree, which will support her in her plans to join a ballet corps directly after high school.
Likewise, Holly Sherman, a 17-year-old fashion model who spends part of the year in New York City, loves the flexibility of Denver Online: “When I work during Fashion Week, 6am–3am, I have no time to do school. My teachers are very flexible … I don’t do school for sometimes up to a couple of months … catching up isn’t really that hard if you buckle down and do your work.” Although Sherman is rarely on campus, she has met some really “cool, spiritual people” and especially appreciates its nonjudgmental culture, compared to the fashion industry where “98 percent% of it is rejection—you’re judged hardcore.”
Jones says, “The kids inspire me every day because they are starting to see the opportunities that our flexibility provides and take advantage of them.” He ardently encourages his students to follow their passions both in and out of the school. And with a background in institutional systems, Jones has his eye on scaling up the school to share its remarkable curriculum with students across the region.
To learn more about Denver Online High School, visit their website at http://online.dpsk12.org or email community development coordinator Kaci Sintek at firstname.lastname@example.org or Principal Ian Jones at email@example.com.