On Nov. 18, the STRIVE Prep charter school network’s board of directors voted to close the STRIVE Prep Excel located on the North High School campus and to consolidate that school with another STRIVE location.
“Over the past couple years, STRIVE Prep – EXCEL has been hit hard by low enrollment numbers across the district and particularly in Northwest Denver,” a press release issued by STRIVE Prep read. “A robust high school experience of high academic quality requires a large number of course offerings, extracurricular programs, and staffing structures. With only 259 students enrolled this year, the school has seen these important student experiences, and academic performance, suffer.”
The decision put an abrupt end to a mounting community debate about increasingly limited space on the North campus. Dozens of parents whose children attend North High School had organized and petitioned Denver Public Schools (DPS) to relocate STRIVE Prep Excel out of the building to make room for growing enrollment at North. They said former Superintendent Tom Boasberg had promised he would move the charter school out if North’s traditional high school enrollment ever needed the space. The group claimed students were having to eat lunch at tables lining the school’s hallways because the lunchroom was too crowded for both schools to co-exist on one campus.
The district responded by working with the North and STRIVE Prep Excel principals to free up four additional classrooms for North this year. Despite those efforts, the debate continued with some citing the district’s actions as proof DPS was intent on cannibalising traditional schools’ enrollment by co-locating charter schools.
Neighborhood dynamics’ impact on enrollment
North Principal Scott Wolf said he believes those changes, along with some additional construction happening now would have resolved space challenges in the short-term. “What’s hard is that the neighborhood is changing so quickly, and we don’t know what impact that’s going to have,” he said. “Our ability to capture our neighborhood students makes the biggest difference.”
Seven years ago, North’s enrollment was at a record low, and the district co-located STRIVE Prep Excel into the building to help keep the facility open. Wolf said that back then, North wasn’t able to attract neighborhood families to send their kids to North — but today, they are.
This is Wolf’s seventh year at North, and fifth year as principal. During that time, the school has grown from 779 to 1,339 students. While that’s significant growth, it’s still significantly smaller than some of the other DPS traditional high schools, like East, which has almost twice as many students.
Yet with demographic shifts throughout the city, DPS is seeing declines in the number of school-aged children and anticipates declining enrollment in many neighborhoods, especially Northwest Denver. Wolf said he’s seen a lot of families from the neighborhood get displaced and have to move out of Denver, tearing students who would have gone to North away from the peers they’ve grown up with. He wants to work with the district to find a way to ensure those students have priority enrollment at North.
“They’ve already lost their home and their neighborhood, and the last thing I want is for them to lose their school community because they now live out of boundary,” Wolf said. “It’s something we have control over and I feel like we need to make that happen.”
Wolf credits the school’s enrollment growth in recent years to a number of factors. He said a big part of the change is because he’s been able to retain 90% of his staff over the past three years. “That goes a long way to building a sustainable program because we’re not starting over each year,” he said.
Wolf acknowledged that “People used to think [North] wasn’t safe and wasn’t challenging.” He said they are turning that around, in part, by really listening to what families want to see and being responsive.The school has expanded its course offerings and made them more relevant for students, he said, citing an engineering class, athletics, band and choir, art and drama programs. “We have a lot of really great opportunities for our students,” he said.
As a district, DPS has put an emphasis on “supporting the Whole Child,” or ensuring that kids have the social and emotional supports necessary to succeed academically. Wolf said North is also focused on the whole child: “We committed to not just academics, but building the life skills of our kids,” he said, pointing to a Denver Health clinic in the building available to the entire community, and additional mental health supports put in place through partnerships with other organizations.
But North is also focused on academics, with a goal for more than 80% of its juniors and seniors to take an advanced placement (AP) or concurrent enrollment (college credit) course, or an apprenticeship. Last year, the school was just fractions of a percentage shy of the goal. “We really work to make sure we are appropriately placing [students] through our Academic Success class to help foster skill building and study skills for kids who have never been in an advanced class [so they can] be successful,” Wolf said. North’s AP pass rates exceeded the national average of 60% for the first time this year.
Asked why North didn’t pursue becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) program when neighboring feeder schools Brown elementary and Lake middle still both offered the program (Lake folded its IB program last year as part of a redesign), Wolf said it’s about outcomes. “I think there is huge value in IB,” he said. “For me it’s less about IB and more about what IB brings, the outcomes it fosters, and can we at North foster those same outcomes in a different way.” He said he wants to promote IB skills while fostering diversity, and he said Lakewood and George Washington high school have struggled with the integration because of their IB programs. “We want to have embedded honors [courses] so that we can have students of different levels and abilities be with each other and honor that diversity,” he said.
Most importantly, Wolf said, the kids like the culture they see at North and it makes them want to go there. “What makes North super unique is its diversity, from kids who have experiences across the board at home, but here at North, everybody connect with each other,” he said. “When families see that, they see it as a place they want to be,” he said.
By the numbers
While North has improved its ability to attract new families, its graduation rates and test scores have seen inconsistent gains. So, how well is North serving its students — by the numbers?
Graduation and dropout rates
The Colorado Department of Education reports graduation rates by school tracking based on the number of students who entered their freshman year and graduated four, five, six or seven years later. That’s because not all students graduate in the traditional four years: some take up to seven years, for a variety of reasons ranging from needing more time to complete graduation requirements to choosing to stay additional years to take advantage of programs in which the district pays for college courses and credits. (No one takes longer than seven years because students age-out of public school at age 21.)
Two years ago, North’s four-year graduation rate was just 76%. Last year, it was 85% (137 of 161 students). By comparison STRIVE Prep Excel (which is closing) had a four-year graduation rate of 78% and 90% by year five. Neighboring CEC Early College, just blocks away, had a 74% four-year graduation rate, and 98% by year six.
Wolf is quick to point out that North’s seven-year graduation rate is 91%. “We have students with IEPs (individualized education plans), in our 18-21 program and the offense program, and kids who go to Emily Griffith [Technical College] where DPS is contributing dollars toward college — so we technically don’t graduate those students in four years,” he explained.
Wolf is also proud of the fact that North’s dropout rate is 0.9%, below the state goal of a 2% dropout rate.
School Performance Frameworks
The Colorado Department of Education gives every school a performance rating. In the 2018-19 school year, North High School was rated yellow, which requires a school improvement plan. However, the school received a 52.7%, just a fraction of a percent below the 53% required to receive a green rating that indicates the school is approaching expectations on all measures. The yellow rating this year is up from orange the year before, and it was green in 2015-16 with 57.7%.
DPS has its own School Performance Framework (SPF), which it says differs from the state’s in that it “puts special emphasis on student academic growth, or how much progress students have made from one year to the next. In DPS, we believe what is most important is not where kids start, but how much they grow.”
North’s SPF rating from the district in 2018-19 was yellow, or “Accredited on Watch.” North scored just 22% (or 8.75 out of 39 points) for whether its students are performing at grade level, and 36% (or 33 of 91 points) for how much students are growing academically each year.
“There is no traditional high school in DPS that is higher than yellow,” Wolf noted.
- The only green and blue rated high schools in DPS are Denver School of the Arts, KIPP Northeast Leadership Academy, and five DSST (Denver School of Science and Technology) charter network schools.
- North shares the yellow rating with many other DPS high schools, including neighboring CEC (Career Education Center) Early College (which did better than North on all measures except Academic Gaps), Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Northfield, West Early College, Northeast Early College (formerly High Tech Early College), KIPP Denver Collegiate, George Washington and East (though it rated much higher on all measures and was rated green the previous year).
- STRIVE Prep Excel at North was rated red overall, and red on all measures except engagement, which was yellow.
North High School was also rated yellow in 2016-17, but dropped to orange, “Accredited on Priority Watch” last year, which Wolf attributes to changes in the way the district was scoring schools, particular on its Academic Gaps measures. Wolf serves on a DPS committee working to redesign the measures in the SPF.
Historically underserved populations
DPS has an Academic Gaps rating as part of its SPF that measures how well schools are closing academic gaps for historically underserved populations. Wolf said after dropping to an overall orange on the SPF last year, the school worked really hard to make progress in these targeted areas this school year.
North received a yellow rating, or “Approaching Expectations” with just 35% on its Academic Gaps measures, including ratings of:
- Yellow rating (35%), or “Approaching Expectations” for students in poverty — North has a higher rate of students living in poverty than other schools, as measured by 70% of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) benefits, compared to 65% across DPS and 41% across the state.*
- Red rating (29%), or “Does Not Meet Expectations” for students with disabilities — 27% of North’s students have disabilities, a considerably higher number than the 11% district- and statewide, and more than a quarter of the student body.
- Yellow rating (35%), or “Approaching Expectations” for English language learners — 29% of North students are English language learners, which is fewer than the 37% throughout the district (and higher than the 16% statewide), but still nearly a third of the student body.
- Red rating (26%), or “Does Not Meet Expectations” for students of color — Of North’s 1,300-plus students, more than 84% are students of color, which compares to 75% districtwide and 47% across the state.
* A recent A+ Colorado report said that the average school serving more than 80% students eligible for FRL benefits received nearly 50% more funding per student than schools with fewer than 20% eligible for those benefits.
Right now, Wolf said everyone at North is still trying to figure out what the new normal will be when the other school they shared their campus with for seven years closes.
“It’s a really challenging time for their students and staff and community. That school meant a lot to all of them and so we at North are trying to support them,” Wolf said.
Asked if North will actively recruit STRIVE Prep Excel students, Wolf said North is prepared to grow between 100 to 200 students next year, but was quick to add, “We want to make sure they have great education wherever that is. We will, of course, support any family that wants to come to North.”
Currently, two STRIVE Prep middle schools (Sunnyside and Lake) feed into STRIVE Prep Excel at North. The charter network said it is “consolidating” the North school with another of its high school locations, but Wolf said he will be working with the district to advocate that North be those students’ home high school.
North High School photos courtesy of Daniel McAllister.