By Eric Heinz
Lake Middle School students are getting a lesson in participatory democracy and the power of protest, as Denver Public Schools (DPS) recently announced it would not consolidate with another school with the campus.
Lake students, faculty, and parents organized to argue against moving Next Steps school onto the campus, saying the school was already cramped and that the facility could not adequately meet the needs of the specialized services Next Steps would require.
Students held a “mock walkout” and spoke at the school board meeting that more protests were to come if the board didn’t heed the will of the school community.
It appears to have worked.
Since the arrival of STRIVE Prep at the Lake campus, students said they’ve had to create makeshift classrooms in the library and other unconventional spaces, as the student population was around 600.
Although DPS documents show the school might have a capacity of up to 1,000, students say it was difficult to manage with the enrollment they had.
Although STRIVE is expected to leave the Lake campus next school year, DPS was going to move a program known as Next Steps in its place. Next Steps is currently at the former Barrett Elementary School. Steve Smith, a teacher at Lake Middle, told The Denver North Star there is a possibility Next Steps will move to Fairview Elementary next year, which is slated to close due to declining enrollment.
DPS administration told The Denver North Star prior to publication that the district had not made a decision, but one would be forthcoming.
“I don’t understand why DPS staff were ever considering Lake as a possible placement for next steps, but I do give Dr. Marrero credit for taking leadership,” Smith said. “While the closing of Fairview will certainly disappoint many, if the significant renovations that are needed at Fairview can be done while the new housing units are built, I think there is a decent chance that Fairview may reopen once the new buildings are filled.”
Next Steps is part of a network of different schools separate from traditional instruction and that are intended to address students’ learning difficulties or behavioral issues. But Next Steps is dedicated to addressing some of the most severe behavioral cases and could include high-school-age students.
Although there’s been trepidation from Lake Middle students and parents, DPS stated the current enrollment for Next Steps is 15 students and that number could decrease as some of them graduate.
As DPS continues to wrestle with its declining enrollment numbers, Smith said it would have been difficult to balance bringing in a new school when something like Next Steps could cause parents to pull their kids from Lake, making its enrollment decline as well.
Speaking with some of the current students at the school, they had a collective fear that another program from Denver Public Schools next year would continue to make learning difficult.
Students gathered recently across the street from campus to hold a mock walk-out to demonstrate what they’re willing to do if Next Steps is moved to Lake.
Jaci Tylicki, a parent and president of the Lake Middle Parent Teacher Organization, said her child is planning to attend Lake Middle next year as a sixth-grader, and she had concerns about Next Steps moving to the school.
“It’s really sad. It’s the kids who, unfortunately, have the most issues, and I’m really concerned about the safety of my kids,” Tylicki said.
Tylicki said the only feasible spot for Next Steps would have been in the basement of Lake Middle, which she doesn’t see as a constructive environment for students with severe behavioral issues.
Julie Rottier-Lukens, the executive director of the Office of Exceptional Student Services, said Next Steps has to leave Barrett because Monbello Career and Technical High School and Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy share one building, and the academy needs more space, so DPS deemed Barrett as the best alternative.
“We as a district and as my role in trying to ensure that we are providing the services to any child with a disability under our watch, that’s part of where we have to be looking at different facility options in order to find that space,” Rottier-Lukens said.
She said she’s collaborating with DPS staff and representatives to find the best location for Next Steps, but a decision does not need board approval.
“We realize we haven’t been in this situation before where we’re trying to find a location for a separate school,” she said. “This is not a program that would be supervised or managed or led by any other school principal. We have hired our own director for that program. So it is operating as a separate program.”
Rottier-Lukens said one of the main difficulties DPS faces in trying to move a program like Next Steps is that it has to have the right facilities, and the district may even have to do additional retrofitting to meet those specifications.
“We’re looking for certain criteria of a facility with separate entrances, no ability to share the cafeteria, and we don’t want to share any common space, hallways, restrooms, et cetera,” she said.