The Denver Public Schools Board of Education, with the exception of one member, has lost its moral compass.

In Denver Public Schools, 92% of district-run high schools (as of 2018-19) ranked in the lowest three levels of the district’s school performance framework. You can easily guess what that means for academic quality and results.

The achievement gaps between students of color and white students are growing – yes, growing.  Gaps in math scores between white and Black DPS students have grown over the past decade — from 35 percentage points in 2010 to 43 percentage points in 2018 (all grades).  And it’s the same for white-Latino math gaps — they grew from 36 percentage points to 41.

Tony Lewis

So when a group of families wants to start a new high school for their children, what do DPS board members do? They politicize it. They delay it. They try, effectively, to deny it.

Over the past several years, families and educators have been meeting to plan, design and run a new high school that will work for their kids. These students currently attend the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) Noel Middle School and will be graduating next May ready to attend a high-performing high school in their neighborhood. 

This was how DSST Noel Middle School was created – by and with community.

DSST Noel Middle School’s student body is one-quarter Black and two-thirds Latino.  Six percent is white. Eighty percent qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. This is a low-income school defying the odds of low academic performance.  

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DSST Noel Middle School was ranked the No. 1 school and No. 1 middle school in academic performance in the entire district in 2019, the most recent year of measurement.  

These 450 students deserve a high-performing high school in their neighborhood.

On Sept. 4, DPS staff reviewed the performance data of all the currently operating DSST schools and recommended that the DSST Noel High School be approved to open in the fall of 2021. 

On Oct. 22, the DPS board, after four agonizing delays in making a decision, voted to push the approval of a new school out for another year to 2022, against the recommendation of the staff and the one board member who wanted the school to open this coming year: Barbara O’Brien.  

The board has failed this community of students and parents.  

This is not a story of charter schools versus traditional schools.  It is not a story of education reformers versus teacher unions.  It is not a story of financial drain on the district. 

It is the story of an elected board failing to listen to its constituents.  It is the story of a school board that cannot run and manage its own schools to a high standard, and that now refuses to allow others to run their own, better-performing schools.

This is a story of student and parent desire and demand.  It is a story of a community united behind a new school that will serve its children well.

This is a story of failed leadership by the board. It is the story of decisions that perpetuate a system that says: “We don’t need to listen to you people right now.  We know what’s best for your kids. Trust us.”


This is one facet of institutionalized racism: Denying people with few resources the choice of quality. Keeping students of color in low-performing schools.

Board members, it seems, cannot be bothered by parents who founded a school that worked for their middle school-aged children and who now want the same for the next four years. 

They cannot hear the 250 or more Noel-community parents who spoke at board meetings or signed petitions in support of this new school. 

They cannot be bothered to address the continued academic gaps between our white students and our students of color.  

They cannot, one imagines, be bothered to fix the devastatingly disastrous academic performance of their own district-run schools.

They must be too busy with other, more important matters.  

Tony Lewis for 20 years has led the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which aims to improve public education in Colorado.

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