Class Wars

Northeast Denver's schools are running out of room.

Parents in northeast Denver have had enough. They're sick of learning every year that their schools are failing, they're tired of hearing that their kids aren't doing well because they're from poor neighborhoods, and they're fed up with bringing their demands for better teachers and more schools before the Denver Board of Education, only to be ignored.

While the parents fault themselves for not being more vocal in the past, they also blame their school-board representative, Bennie Milliner, for failing to fight for them. Members of the Northern Corridor Coalition, a newly formed organization of about twenty parents and community leaders in the Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods, are planning to try to recall Milliner. If they succeed, they want his replacement to focus on reducing class sizes because they say overcrowded schools are the reason kids are getting lost in the shuffle.

"We have eight elementary schools feeding into one middle school here and only one high school," says Anthony Doane, who sends his two kids to Knight Academy in southeast Denver, where there are four middle schools.

Simple equation: Maurice and Angelle Frilot have firsthand experience with crowded schools.
Simple equation: Maurice and Angelle Frilot have firsthand experience with crowded schools.

"There are 1,600 kids at Martin Luther King Middle School, and Montbello High School is over capacity," adds Doane. "A lot of dissatisfied parents are taking their kids out of the neighborhood schools and enrolling them in schools in southeast Denver. Why should we have to take our kids out of our neighborhood schools so that they can do well, when we are part of the same school district?"

At Oakland Elementary, the Montbello-area school that scored the highest on the math portion of the Colorado Student Assessment Program test, only 16 percent of fifth-graders scored "proficient" in the subject. By comparison, Slavens Elementary in southeast Denver had the highest scores in the district, with 56 percent of its fifth-graders at the proficient level in math.

Maurice Frilot has experienced the crowded northeast Denver schools firsthand. When he attended Oakland Elementary in the 1970s, classes were held in a warehouse until McGlone Elementary was built later that decade (another elementary school has since been built and named Oakland). Before Martin Luther King Middle School opened, kids in the Montbello neighborhood were bused to Place, Hamilton and Hill middle schools. Frilot's wife, who teaches at Maxwell Elementary, had 39 students in her class when the school first opened in 1998. "That's testament to how much new schools are needed here. By the time it was built, it wasn't enough," he says.

Denise Wanzo would like to see an alternative school built in northeast Denver. She works in the discipline room at Martin Luther King and witnesses the problems that crowded classrooms cause every day -- teachers can't keep the peace when there are disruptive students, struggling kids don't get enough attention and talented kids don't get challenged. "I've got eighth-graders who can't read," she says. "And there are teachers who don't give a doggone what happens with kids and just label them 'bad.' We want strong principals and teachers that want to be there. We're tired of the leftovers."

The parents delivered a letter to the school board on March 9 detailing their concerns and asking for help in removing disruptive students and in getting new teachers and administrators. So far, there's been no response. "I don't believe they believe we're serious," says Doane, adding that the group is sending the board another letter.

Milliner admits he hasn't responded to the letter, but he says he was shocked when he received it, and that the group's demands were too general to address. "These same people have been at meetings with me and the superintendent and have said nary a word about their concerns. And then to send a generalized letter to the board of education three weeks ago, demand a response by March 17 and then go to the press saying I didn't respond is disingenuous. They were asking for new teachers and principals in their schools, and that is not going to happen in a couple of weeks."

He also says accusations that the district isn't doing anything about overcrowded schools are unwarranted. Voters approved a $305 million bond in November 1998 to build nine new schools across the city, he points out; of those, three will be built in northeast Denver. Green Valley Ranch Elementary School will open in September 2002; and classrooms are being added to Montbello High. "I don't know how we could move any faster than we are," Milliner says. "The district is actively working to alleviate this problem."

As for the recall effort, Milliner, who was appointed to the board in December 1996 and ran for re-election in November 1997, believes the reasons behind it are personal. "A lot of those people supported my opponent, Sherdyne Cornish," he says. "If they find 7,500 people who will sign a petition to recall me, then maybe I need to be recalled, but I don't believe they can do that."

Elsie Sweed, a parent who is not a member of the Northern Corridor Coalition, wants new administrators to be hired at Montbello High because she says kids frequently suffer when the school makes mistakes.

Sweed took her son to Colorado College last spring to discuss a scholarship he had applied for, and ran into one of his classmates. The girl said her twin sister had stayed home because her counselor at Montbello had reportedly told her that she didn't qualify for the money because she planned to go to veterinary school. Sweed says the counselor at the college informed the girl that she had bad information, but by then, it was too late for her to get the scholarship.

"She lost $4,000 because she was given erroneous information," Sweed says. "We have followed the process the school district has identified for parents who have concerns. We feel if we were Anglo or in a more affluent area, our concerns would be addressed. These are basic concerns -- to have dedicated people at our schools. I resent when I read in the paper that kids are getting low test scores because they come from low-income communities where their parents aren't involved. When parents try to get involved, they are encumbered, discounted and discredited. We've had to fight with people from the school district to have meetings that affect our community in our community and to hold them in the evenings so that working parents can attend. The administrators say they want parent involvement, but they don't."

Sweed is hoping that a federal civil-rights complaint will encourage the district to respond. The advisory board of the Denver Educational Excellence Program -- which was created to help students at Montbello High prepare for college and earn scholarships -- filed a complaint last week with the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights. Sweed says the program had been helping kids for eight years until its administrator was fired last April for reasons that were never fully explained to the advisory board. Since then, she says kids have missed out on opportunities to get college scholarships. The education department has agreed to investigate, she adds.

"I think they have some legitimate concerns," says school-board president Elaine Berman, "and from my perspective, I'm pleased that they're organizing and banding together to try to improve schools in northeast Denver."

Even though Frilot supports the effort to recall Milliner, he says the parents in Montbello are as much to blame for poor-quality schools as the board. He wants the Northern Corridor Coalition to attract more members -- the group held a rally at Montbello High on April 1 to drum up community support -- and then he wants the members to come up with a plan to require parent participation in schools.

"The problems in our schools are bigger than any one teacher or administrator," he says. "Our school-board representatives have always been lax, but we can't entirely blame Bennie -- he hasn't been at the root of the problem as long as we have. We haven't approached him in the right way because we've never been in a crisis state of mind. But our schools are in crisis."

Frilot and his wife don't have children in DPS, but they've already decided that if the schools in northeast Denver don't improve by the time their baby daughter is old enough to attend, they'll send her to school across town.

And when Doane's daughter attends middle school next year, she'll either go to Place, Hamilton or the Denver School of the Arts, a specialty school. "I won't subject my children to overcrowded schools and inferior teaching," he says. "No school in the Montbello region will see our children until things change."

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