Sky's the Limit

Skyland Community High School faces renewal or revocation of its charter next week. Itís out to prove it can make the grade.

Thursday, February 15, marks a day of reckoning for several area charter schools. That's the day the Denver Public Schools Board of Education will make its final decision on renewing -- or revoking -- the charters of eight different schools, including P.S.1, the state's oldest charter school at twelve years old; the Life Skills Center; Denver Connections Academy; and Skyland Community High School. It's a decision that will affect hundreds of students, many of whom have spent their academic careers shuffling from one school to the next.

Students such as Nereida Montoya, who has thrived at Skyland Community High School since having to leave Manual High School when it was shut down last year.

As a sophomore at Manual, Nereida ditched school frequently and was hardly a model student. At Skyland, she's almost always in her seat -- even on class-presentation days, the ones she was once most likely to ditch. But there's no getting around public speaking in principal Arthur Baraf's curriculum; he requires numerous "exhibitions" each year as both a comprehensive summary of a student's required internship experience and a road map of their academic achievement during the current year as well as the upcoming one.

For Nereida's last exhibition, in November, eleven high school students and a handful of teachers sat in a classroom on the second floor of the former Cole Middle School building, where Skyland is based, ready to listen and assess her performance. A note on the board read, "You must attend at least ten exhibitions. This is non-negotiable. You are juniors and you are leaders in this school. Support our school culture."

Nereida explained to the room exactly how she obtained her internship in the field of massage therapy, and what she had learned thus far. Her mentor, Carmen, a licensed massage therapist, sat nodding with approval. Next, Nereida discussed a segment that her class did on immigration, led a hands-on demonstration during which everyone made replica cell structures using cookies (cells), food coloring (nuclei) and icing (cytoplasm), then struggled through a basic cross-multiply-and-divide algebra problem. Her advisor, Jeremy Cooper, quickly determined that she would need to pay more attention in that subject.

Throughout the entire hour-long exhibition, Montoya's mother sat in the back of the classroom beaming, her elementary-aged son translating her eldest daughter's remarks into Spanish in her ear.

After the presentation, Cooper asked Nereida how often she had had to speak in front of a group at Manual.

"Not very often," she replied. "I did something like this once at my old school, but I hated it. I'm very shy. Every other time I would have to speak in front of a class, I would ditch to avoid doing it."

"Why didn't you ditch today?" Cooper asked.

"Because now I want to graduate."

But graduating may not be that easy; if Skyland closes, she'll have to find somewhere else to earn her diploma.

A great deal of Baraf's time is spent making sure that doesn't happen.

The 29-year-old Wesleyan University graduate came to Skyland in 2003 preaching the word of The Big Picture, an innovative approach to secondary education he learned about while studying under Ted Sizer, a leading educational reformer in the United States, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sizer used the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island as an example of what could be done in public education. The school was the result of an ambitious experiment to improve education spearheaded by Stanley Goldstein, the retired founder of the CVS Corporation. He recruited two educators -- Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, who were senior fellows at the Coalition of Essential Schools in Providence, where Sizer served as chairman -- to help transform education in the state.

Goldstein and the school district asked the voters of Providence to pass a bond issue to create a new school dedicated to educating one student at a time, often by keeping teachers with the same students throughout high school and championing internships. They did, and in 1996 the Met opened its doors. The process also inspired the creation of The Big Picture Company to develop similar schools across the country. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backed the idea, and Big Picture schools started popping up around the United States.

"I liked the authenticity of the learning, how real it was, how engaging it was to kids," Baraf says. "You could see how it was important to educators of Big Picture that the students found real meaning in what they were learning."

After graduation, Baraf applied to several Big Picture schools but in 2003 decided on Skyland, one of the company's three schools in Colorado, because it was brand-new, with a three-year charter. He became an advisor to a group of fifteen tenth-graders.

"They were a tough group of kids," Baraf says. "A lot of them had gone to East and failed out. One kid was just out of a detention center and was on an ankle monitor; almost all of them were free-lunch students. It was definitely a three-year journey getting them from tenth through twelfth grade."

A journey that saw all fifteen of Baraf's inner-city advisees accepted into four-year colleges.

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