North High's "I Am a Viking" campaign highlights school's successes

Things are changing at North High School: Test scores are up. More kids are taking AP classes. And there's a renewed focus on extracurricular activities, such as sports and music. That's according to the folks behind a new pro-North campaign called "I Am a Viking" -- a reference to North's mascot.

"There's a perception that students at North High School are not invested in themselves," says Corrie Houck, North's communications specialist, "and that's not true."

North hasn't always gotten the best press. For years, it suffered from a low graduation rate, poor test scores and frequent changes in leadership. In May 2011, Westword wrote a cover story, "Passing on Education," about possible cheating in the school's "credit recovery" program -- and how some administrators seemed to condone it.

In the fall of 2011, North got a new principal -- Nicole Veltze -- who came from Skinner Middle School, where she'd spent years helping to boost that school's enrollment. Veltze set out to do the same at North, and Michael Kiley, a northwest Denver parent and onetime school board candidate who sits on the school's Collaborative School Committee, says North has grown by leaps and bounds and is headed in the right direction.

"There's a dialogue that we need to strip down our focus, that our kids are under-performing on the world stage and we need to focus on fundamentals," Kiley says. "But Nicole believes the opposite" -- that in order for kids to succeed academically, they need to first be engaged in school through activities that excite them.

To foster that, every freshman and sophomore participates in "club day," Houck explains, where they spend half an hour each Wednesday participating in a club. The clubs represent a wide arrange of interests. There's a debate club and a chess club, she says, but the school also offers a breakdancing club and a hair-and-nails club. In addition, Houck reports that more than half of North's students play on a sports team.

"It helps kids grow their character," she says. "They're not just here to learn; they're part of a community. We're building a community of kids invested not only in high academics, but in high achievement for themselves."

North has also added more Advanced Placement classes and has plans to keep growing its offerings next year. In the past three years, Houck reports that North has seen double-digit increases in the number of students who score proficient in reading, writing and science on the state standardized tests. However, state statistics show that North's graduation rate has decreased from 64 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2013.

Kiley acknowledges that there's still a lot of work to be done, but he says the "I Am a Viking" campaign is an attempt to acknowledge the positive changes that have already taken place and continue to unfold. Thus far, the campaign has unveiled three ads -- one featuring Veltze, another featuring North senior Jorge Vega and yet another featuring North alumnus and prominent Denver lawyer Steve Farber.

The ads are aimed at several audiences, Kiley says, including northwest Denver parents who are in the process of choosing a high school for their eighth-graders. "We're trying to answer the question: 'Do you have strong options here for sports, music and academic excellence?'" he says. "But we're also trying to show our older residents that North is coming back to its former glory. It's headed in right direction; it's a real asset to the neighborhood, as opposed to a challenge."

The plan is to unveil two "I Am a Viking" ads per week on North's website, Facebook page and Twitter account. In total, more than 75 students, alumni, faculty members and parents will be featured. "Someone said, 'How long is the campaign going to last?'" Houck says. "And I said, 'We have so many amazing kids and amazing stories to tell about our kids at North High School, this campaign could go on forever.'"

Continue reading to see the full ads.

More from our Education archive: "DPS lawsuit: Meet teachers who reject claim district is getting rid of good educators."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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