To develop an HBCU-style school, Denver could kick out another beloved school

In far northeast Denver, two public schools share a former office building. But the building isn’t big enough for both – and on Thursday the school board is due to vote on a recommendation that doesn’t make either school happy.

District leaders are recommending the closure of Montbello Vocational and Technical Secondary School, an alternative school for students at risk of dropping out. MCT has been in the building longer and serves approximately 70 students, most of whom are on track to graduate this year.

Closing MCT would make room for the building’s new school, an HBCU-style high school called Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy. The academy serves about 135 ninth and tenth graders this year and plans to add 11th and 12th graders over the next two years.

MCT students and staff do not want their school to close. And Smith STEAM families don’t want their school located in an office building that doesn’t have a library, a kitchen to cook hot meals on-site, or a regulation-size gym.

Meanwhile, several school board members who must make the decision said they felt conflicted about closing a school that serves Black and Latino students to expand another.

“Let’s say – and this is very, very hypothetical – that MCT closes,” said Michelle Quattlebaum, who represents the Northeast region on the board. “Do you know what will happen to STEAM students? They will know that we only had our school because other students who look like us, who are marginalized, lost their school.

School closures are always controversial, and there are likely to be more in Denver as elementary school enrollment declines. The situation with MCT and Smith STEAM is both a precursor to these difficult decisions and a very unique situation.

MCT delays closing

Smith STEAM is a district-run high school that was founded by a group of black parents and community members with technical assistance from district staff. In 2020, the school board approved its temporary co-location with MCT for two years while the district continues to seek a long-term facility. The first school of its kind opened in the fall of 2021.

Students stand outside an office building which has been converted into two schools

Students stand outside the old office building that houses the two schools.

MCT is what the district calls a gateway school. Intentionally small, bridging schools are designed to serve teens who have been expelled from other schools or are behind in credits. The far northeast region has other bridge schools, and the district said MCT students can go to Vista Academy or Legacy Options High School next year.

But MCT staff say their school is unique. It offers the only automotive technology program in this part of town, and many students go straight from MCT to high-paying jobs at car dealerships, staff said. The school also achieved the highest possible academic performance rating in the state this year, indicated by the color green.

“How do you close a green school? Principal Arnetta Koger asked the school board during a public comment session on Monday, three days before Thursday’s scheduled vote.

MCT’s 70 students face many challenges, staff said. Some are homeless. Others are teenage parents. Most, if not all, have full-time jobs in addition to school. Some students suffer from severe anxiety that prevents them from attending large secondary schools.

“MCT gives them a place to call home,” teacher Laura Hutchinson told the council. “It gives them a place where they call home and feel like they have a family.”

Senior Kim Rojas said she didn’t know what to expect when she came to MCT last year. She said she found caring friends and teachers who made her feel heard.

“This school is a good environment for students to feel welcome and not feel ashamed,” Rojas said in an interview. “I really like this school.”

Teacher Whitney Homra told the board that the old office building where MCT is located may be lacking “but it’s our home and we want it”.

Smith STEAM wants the facility it was promised

During the same public comment session, Smith STEAM students, parents, and educators asked the district what it promised them two years ago: a different facility that could accommodate their growing high school. They didn’t talk about MCT’s recommended closure but instead focused on the flaws in the building.

“The building we’re in is not a school,” said sophomore Jessie Matthews, who is also student body president. “Ninth-grade biology classes have to go into the 10th-grade chemistry room to do experiments because the biology class is the size of a prison cell.”

Freshman Camille Harley said the cafeteria — which doesn’t have a kitchen to prepare hot meals on-site — “is small and the food is just bad.”

“We deserve to have a space where we can be ourselves,” said sophomore AiVory Pearson. “We don’t have land. We don’t have an auditorium. We do not have a code compliant gym.

School board members said they were also concerned about the facility. Vice President Auon’tai Anderson (no longer called Tay) said the district should elevate the school, which draws inspiration from historically black colleges and universities, especially in light of its 2019 commitment to recognize and foster black excellence.

“Every time I walk into this building, I should feel like I’m walking into Wakanda,” he said.

District staff told a board meeting last week that they had looked for another facility for Smith STEAM but had not found one. While a facility may not be available at this time, Superintendent Alex Marrero said, a facility may be available in the near future “depending on action taken by the board.” He recently said his team is working on recommendations to close some elementary schools and the board is expected to vote next month.

But elementary schools, and any others recommended for closure, likely won’t close until 2024. MCT and Smith STEAM will run out of room to cohabit next year.

“I struggle with this tremendously,” board member Scott Esserman said. “I don’t question anyone’s intention, but we’re not getting it right – and we have to.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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