Many parents of Denver fifth-graders are scrambling now to get their kids into the best schools - -wherever they are in the district. It often means overlooking the school down the block. And now neighborhood schools are trying to win them back. CPR's education reporter Jenny Brundin has this story on Grant Beacon Middle School.
Reporter Jenny Brundin: Here’s Principal Alex Magana’s challenge: He presides over a tidy brick school on a beautiful tree-lined street in Denver’s Platte Park neighborhood. It’s quiet, students walk from class to class in an orderly fashion.
Classes are small here - in part by design in math and English - but also because they simply don’t have as many students as they should. That’s because many people in the nearby neighborhood aren’t sending their kids here. And empty desks mean less money for the school. Magana says it’s hard to shake the image of what the school was like five years ago.
Principal Alex Magana: People weren’t sending their kids to this school because we didn’t have the scores and people want to see that this is a high-performing school and the bottom line is, our scores weren’t where they should be.
Reporter: Five years ago, things began to change. A new principal let go bad teachers and the ones who didn’t buy into the school’s new mission: that all kids could succeed. The teachers who stayed committed to after-school tutoring. Since then, the number of students doing math at grade level has more than doubled. And key, says Magana, parents started to get involved.
Magana: We started with three parents saying we want to promote our school.
Reporter: It’s night time. A group of parents is gathered in the school lounge. They discuss new ideas for fundraising. And they push.
Parent Dave Zarou: What’s the status of the school website?
Reporter: The question is directed at community liaison Vanessa Coates. She’s been sent by the district to help the school sell itself. Parents tell her the text is too dense.
Vanessa Coates: Well, let me tell you about some of what we are doing.
Reporter: Coates promises them she’s working on it. Another parent -- Nick Bottinelli –- has met with a school board member who told him Grant needs to get in touch with the “influencers” – also known as 5th grade teachers. Parents always ask them where to send their kids.
Nick Bottinelli: I have no idea what type of contacts to make.
Coates: I have something to tell you!
Reporter: Coates interrupts.
Coates: That’s actually on our plan.
Reporter: These parents believe having more families from the neighborhood involved in the school will make it more vibrant. If they could just get parents to step foot in the school. At a recent open house, they touted the school’s new iPads, an honors program, and the fact that there are two teachers in every math class. And that Grant is now third among middle schools for academic growth. But the stereotypes persist. Principal Alex Magana tells the group he’d just gone through his whole spiel when some parents relayed their fear.
Magana: That’s their fear. They said, you know, are there gangs? After going through everything!
Reporter: Some in the group shake their heads. Outside the school, parent Dave Zarou says:
Zarou: A bad rap is hard to shake…even though changes do occur and there’s new life here and it’s a wonderful environment for learning. It’s a safe place, trying to reach out to the neighborhood and say ‘take another look. Don’t be stuck in the past and images that might have you transport your kids across town when you’ve got an excellent school right across the street.
Reporter: But competition for students between Denver middle schools is fierce. It’s hard for Grant to compete against schools that offer everything from fantasy football and yoga to foreign languages. But the parents persist.
Parent Liz Kailey: You guys are a feeder for Grant middle school, have you heard of Grant?
Reporter: This fall, every weekend, rain or shine, they set up a Grant booth at the Pearl Street farmer’s market.
Marie Stall: My son goes to DCIS.
Reporter: Marie Stall tells Grant parent Liz Kailey that though she lives right around the corner from Grant, her son goes to Denver’s Center for International Studies, a few miles away. Stall isn’t sold on Grant -- yet.
Stall: It’s still not quite there. Maybe my younger kid might end up going there. It still has some work to do but the program’s getting better and better.
Reporter: Principal Magana acknowledges the school has much more to improve on, like its writing scores and lifting those bottom scores. But he has plans. And next year hopes to build a pre-AP program and enrichment programs. That’s enticing to parents like Laurie Carr. She’d rather her child spend five hours a week doing art, instead of commuting.
Laurie Carr: I’m like a half a block away from the school so I’ve been watching it pretty closely and it’s getting a lot of outside fix ups and I see the activity around there picking up. It seems like the energy level there has definitely gone up since I moved into the neighborhood four years ago.
Reporter: The boost Grant’s gotten from parents may be paying off. This year, the school’s enrollment jumped 16 percent over last year. Jenny Brundin, Colorado Public Radio News.
[Photo: Grant Beacon Middle School]