Kim Benson doesn't know why Teller Elementary has such a bad reputation. She just knows that many parents who live around Congress Park won't even consider enrolling their children there.
"I've heard from families that have moved into the neighborhood that they've been told they shouldn't even look at Teller," says Benson, a member of the school's Collaborative Decision Making committee (CDM). "We've literally had people who haven't even visited Teller decide to enroll their kids elsewhere. I don't know what's behind its reputation, because no one can ever tell us what, specifically, they've been told about Teller. It's all so vague."
The bad rap dates back more than a decade, however, to when there were two elementary schools in the Congress Park neighborhood: Teller, at 1150 Garfield Street, which served the lower-income families on the eastern side, and Stevens, at 12th Avenue and Columbine Street, which served the western, more affluent side of the neighborhood.
Stevens closed in the early 1990s because of low enrollment, but instead of being flooded with former Stevens students, Teller's population declined dramatically from 349 in the 1995-96 school year to 281 today. The reason for the drop is a Colorado policy that allows parents to enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhoods, a choice that parents in Congress Park have been making.
DPS knows of at least 53 kids in the Teller attendance area who go to other Denver public schools, including Bromwell, Palmer and Steck.
Of the six families with elementary-aged kids on Dave Meggitt's block, his is the only one with children who attend Teller. The rest are spread out between Park Hill Elementary, Bromwell Elementary, Stanley British Primary, a private school in Park Hill, and Good Shepherd, a Catholic school in Congress Park. None of these is as racially and economically diverse as Teller, a factor Meggitt thinks may be behind the flight from the school.
Almost 30 percent of Teller students are Hispanic, 30 percent are black, 37 percent are white and the rest are Asian and American Indian; 12 percent are native Spanish speakers, and 68 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. This makes Teller representative of the entire Denver school district, where 53 percent of the students are Hispanic, 22 percent are white, 20 percent are black, 23 percent are native Spanish speakers and 69 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By comparison, Bromwell, which is recognized as one of the best public elementary schools in Denver and is one of the most sought-after, is 86 percent white; only 1 percent of the students there speak Spanish, and just 8 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"I like Teller because it's racially diverse. I want my kids to grow up in the real world," Meggitt says. "I think a lot of parents feel their kids will get a better education somewhere else, but I beg to differ. I get really defensive when people compare us to Bromwell."
But that is exactly what is happening, say some parents. To compete with Bromwell and other schools that are luring students out of the neighborhood, parents and staff are proposing changing the school's name to Congress Park Elementary.
"Park Hill Elementary has a lot of students from our neighborhood. People love living in Park Hill, and they feel tied to the school of the same name," says Julie Lang, a Teller parent and chairwoman of the school's CDM. "And everyone in Congress Park loves to live in Congress Park, so why not call the neighborhood school Congress Park Elementary?"
The idea first came up at a CDM meeting last fall but wasn't floated publicly until a couple of weeks ago, when the school approached Congress Park's neighborhood association. CDM members are now accepting feedback from neighbors but won't approach the Denver Board of Education unless the majority of the community supports the name change.
Teller principal Karti Lyons says the marketing effort is necessary because parents have so many choices of where to send their kids. "Teachers are basically ambassadors to the school," she explains. "My struggle is to get the word out that Teller is a great school with a veteran staff." (Almost 80 percent of the teachers at Teller have been there more than eleven years, compared to 47 percent district-wide.)
Aside from changing the name, the staff at Teller also hopes to offer a full-day, tuition-based kindergarten next year as a way to make it more attractive to local parents. "One of the problems in Congress Park is that we have no daycare that feeds into the elementary school, like in Park Hill," Lang explains. The school will charge $250 a month for the service, but it needs to enroll twenty children by May 1 to be able to hire a teacher. The school may also add Spanish instruction at the kindergarten level and eventually add Spanish as an after-school program for all students.
Parents say Teller has made huge improvements to its academic offerings and that student discipline problems -- fights and the use of foul language on the playground -- that may have contributed to the school's poor reputation have declined. About four years ago, Teller started a peer-mediation program in which teachers train students how to resolve problems on the playground; this year, 25 fourth- and fifth-graders have volunteered to mediate disputes during lunchtime. Lyons says playground problems have been reduced by 90 percent since the program began.
Teller now offers after-school enrichment classes in science, art and music; on Wednesday evenings, parents and teachers run a study hall, and on Tuesday and Thursday nights, kids can come in for one-on-one tutoring. "I think people just haven't taken the time to see what changes have been made at Teller since Stevens closed," says CDM member Benson.
And Teller sometimes outscores Park Hill on the CSAP exams. Last year, Teller ranked 15th out of 84 Denver elementary schools on the third-grade CSAP reading test, with 67 percent of students scoring in the "proficient" category; Park Hill ranked 26th, with 57 percent of third-graders scoring a proficient.
"My wife and I joke that we're just average Joes," adds Meggitt. "There are no giant brains in this household. We have average kids, but they're doing outstanding at Teller. People are missing out by not coming here. Through the years, the school has gotten a bad rap, but I think it's just a lot of perception."
Kris Foerstner had that perception. A single mother who moved to Congress Park a couple of years ago, she planned to enroll her daughter in Bromwell "because I'd heard better things about it," she says. "It has a better reputation. I heard that Teller's academic success wasn't that great, but I didn't check into it. My friends said that Bromwell has better test scores." Foerstner had initially moved into what she calls a "bad" apartment building in Congress Park. "I saw firsthand where these kids come from," she says. She now lives in a house around the corner from Teller but still sends her daughter to Bromwell.
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Foerstner predicts that changing Teller's name won't convince parents to enroll there. "It's just a Band-Aid. It really won't do anything."
If Teller, named for former U.S. Senator Henry Moore Teller, does become Congress Park Elementary, it will mark the first time a Denver public school has been renamed for marketing purposes. Benson says she's not sure whether it would help the school overcome its reputation, but she says it's worth a try if the majority of Congress Park residents support it. So far, no one has indicated that they're wildly in favor of or opposed to the name change.
Meggitt sees the effort as the first step in dispelling lingering perceptions. "Slapping the Congress Park name on it will be like a business posting a sign saying 'new management.' I really believe it will entice people to come here."