Denver students and staff want answers about why the principal who turned their school around was removed from executive role

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver Public Schools headquarters, March 23, 2023.

Update: As of Friday, June 7, DPS reversed its decision. Find the latest here.

A former Colorado principal of the year who also rapidly turned around a struggling school is being asked to leave his position at that school. The decision has caused upheaval and grief among students and staff in the last week of the school year.  

Courtesy of Colorado University.
Denver Public Schools Principal Sheldon Reynolds.

Denver Public Schools said it is simply phasing out an “executive principal” role across the district and the position was never meant to be permanent. The district informed staff and teachers at the Montessori Junior/Senior School two days before the end of the school year that Sheldon Reynolds, a celebrated and popular leader with a strong track record of turning schools around, would no longer have his position.

Reynolds asked to stay on as principal but was told he can instead continue to lead the elementary school, Center for Talent Development (CTD) that he also oversees, and would be welcome to reapply for the principal position at Montessori.

“Principal Reynolds was asked to serve as the executive principal of the school for a limited time frame,” the district said in a statement. “He remains the principal of CTD, the school he founded and where he will return after completing this assignment for the district. We are appreciative of Principal Reynolds efforts and look forward to his continued leadership and success at CTD.”

Teachers called the decision confusing and reckless and said the timing at the end of the school year is harmful to staff, students, families and the community.

“This decision is inequitable, dishonest, disrespectful, unfair, and most important of all, harmful to students,” said teacher Julie Buck. She said students were sobbing in teachers’ arms this week and wrote out their feelings in notes to Reynolds.

“Shock, grief …desperation…. abandonment,” she said, describing students’ feelings. “This man is like a father to a lot of these students. He leads by example and his presence has been a constant…. Absolute heartbreak.”

She said this particular cohort of high school and upper middle school students had gone through four leadership changes and found stability with Reynolds, she said.

“The inconsistency in this building is what caused students to fail,” she added.

The move is the latest in a school year that saw several principal removals or shuffles that have upset community members

The Denver School Leaders Association, the union that represents DPS principals, has advocated for more protections for principals who are transferred. It’s also argued that executive principals should be covered by the same protections. The union contends principals should not be transferred in a way that’s punitive or discriminatory.

“We want to make sure that if people are being transferred that they have as much say as possible, that they are going to places that are going to utilize their skills and their knowledge and their background,” said Moira Coogan, president of the DSLA.

She said it doesn’t always appear that principals have been involved in the conversations. She said the district has argued during negotiations that they can move people based on their skill set to fulfill a district need.

“However, when individuals and the community have raised concerns, there has not always been a clarity about where that matches,” Coogan said.

Rapid turnaround of a ‘failing’ school

Reynolds, as an executive principal, oversaw two schools, Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School and a Denver elementary school, the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary School (CTD), where he was a leader for a decade.

That school was on the brink of closure when Reynolds arrived in 2015. His efforts to improve and revitalize the school prompted the district to invest more resources in a new school model he was creating. By 2019, CTD received the highest school rating of any school in DPS’s northwest region. Reynolds also worked intensively to address inequalities around gifted education and served as a peer coach to other principals. In 2022, he was named Colorado’s Outstanding Elementary Principal of the Year.

Courtesy DMHS
Picture of some of the student body at the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School on the day they were notifed their executive principal was being removed from the position.

During his two years at Montessori Junior/Senior School, Reynolds moved the school, where nearly 70 percent of students live in poverty and 80 percent are students of color, from the lowest performance rating red to the second highest green. Ninety percent of teachers indicated they were returning next year.  Reynolds played a major role in securing a five-year innovation and design grant to continue to carry out his vision for the school relating to hiring, training, retention, scheduling and curriculum.  

“So now they're just going to give that funding and that vision and that design to a different principal makes no sense,” said seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher Caitlin Weaver.

To remove Reynolds at this point is “cutting him off at the knees,” said Buck.

The district says the grant will continue no matter who the leader is.

District response

The district says the “executive principal” role was born out of a need to develop leaders in a rapidly growing school system, a need that no longer exists amidst declining school enrollment. It said because Reynolds maintained his position at CTD, he does not need to go through a competitive process. Since the principal role at Denver Montessori has officially been vacant, there will be a formal process for that position, it said.

“We understand that the announcement may have surprised members of the Denver Montessori community, but that role was not intended to be permanent.”

Teachers at the school see the situation differently. Weaver said Reynolds went through a full hiring process and was chosen by teachers and the community, and said he believed he was there for the long haul.

“Why would he submit a five-year redesign contract if he was here temporarily? He was not here temporarily….It feels political. There’s no data to make sense of it.”

Courtesy DMHS
Students at the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School wrote notes to Sheldon Reynolds after learning this week that he is being removed from his executive principal position.
Courtesy DMHS
Students at the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School wrote notes to Sheldon Reynolds after learning this week that he is being removed from his executive principal position.

Teachers also say the timing is inappropriate. The window for teachers to transfer schools was June 1, before they were told Reynolds wasn’t coming back. They’re also upset that instead of having an interim principal and going through a hiring process next year, as is typically the case, they’ve been told it will be in the summer when teachers are out of the building and can’t weigh in if they’re out of town. 

 The DSLA’s Coogan is also concerned about the timing of the transfer. The Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School has had four leaders in five years. She said it’s critical that the public and school staff believe what’s happening is fair and transparent.

“For our leaders to have a successful entrance into a school, you want the trust of the community and if the process to get you there hasn't been fantastic, then it's hard for that community to welcome you in the same way,” Coogan said.

Weaver questions DPS’ commitment to its values of “students first” and “integrity.”

“Why did I have 20 students bawling into my arms the other day? How is that ‘students first’? How did a principal that moved us from red to green…how is taking that principal students first? And how is it ‘integrity’ to take our principal in the last week of school without giving us any warning without giving us any voice?”