DPS reverses decision after teachers rally to keep principal at northwest Denver school

Jenny Brundin / CPR News
The Denver Public Schools headquarters near downtown.

A popular former principal of the year will now stay at his Denver school just days after Denver Public Schools removed him from the school earlier this week.

Sheldon Reynolds, a celebrated leader with a strong track record of raising achievement at struggling schools, was the “executive principal” overseeing two schools: Denver Montessori Junior/Senior School in the northwest part of the city and an elementary school, Center for Talent Development at Greenlee (CTD) in west Denver.

When the district decided to phase out the executive principal role, Reynolds asked to stay on as principal at DMHS but was told he can instead continue to lead CTD and would be welcome to reapply for the principal position at Montessori.

The decision caused upheaval and grief among Denver Montessori students and staff in the last week of the school year.  It rattled many in the Denver school community, especially because Reynolds had moved the school from red to green in performance ratings in less than two years. The school had been through four leaders in five years and Reynolds provided some stability, said teachers, who rallied to keep him.

Friday morning, in a letter to staff and families, the district announced that Reynolds will remain as principal.

“We appreciate your patience as we work through this process to provide Denver Montessori with a solid leadership foundation for the future,” it said.

The district said it came to their attention that Reynolds had already been through a formal interview process to be principal at DMHS. According to the district, when there was a reorganization of supervisory leadership, it was not aware that Reynolds had already been through the interview process.

“We know Sheldon Reynolds is a great leader and will do great things at Denver Montessori, and we’re happy the way that it worked the way it did,” said district spokesperson Scott Pribble.

On Friday, teachers celebrated.

“Everybody was just cheering,” said teacher Caitlin Weaver. “It's just great to know that our voices matter. I think it's so rare that we feel like the district hears us so to feel like the district heard us and we used our voices to make a change just feels really meaningful and empowering.”

Reynolds’ outsized impact on students’ education, school culture

When Reynolds, who was named Colorado’s Outstanding Elementary Principal of the Year in 2022, arrived at Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High, it was struggling, in the state’s lowest performance rating. Reynolds wanted to bring in a new model. Teachers left and he recruited a new team.

In the old school, parents and students had chosen the alternative Montessori model where student led inquiry was central. Students had concrete responsibilities such as working in the garden, cafeteria, a local coffee shop or engaged in building projects. They also planned and executed twice yearly trips.

In the previous school model, the school structure had also been very loose compared to traditional schools. Students had a lot of freedom. For example, they could look at a board each morning and decide what classes to go to. That worked for some students but others didn’t go to classes and as a result, didn’t have the credits to graduate. The new team saw gaps between students based on economic background.

Reynolds eliminated many of the old programs and ushered in a new model. That caused pushback from some students who were used to a lot of freedom. Some families left. It was not always smooth. Students were vocal in their opposition and there were petitions to get Reynolds and some teachers fired.

But the new teachers pressed on. The goal was to teach students “productive struggle,” how to overcome failure and fully take advantage of autonomy and freedom within a structure. Reynolds brought in a “talent development model,” which teachers say allows them to step outside of the traditional lesson model. Instead of one lesson one day, teachers are encouraged to move on when students are ready.

“We teach the lesson for as long as it takes for students to have a deep, rich understanding of the content we're teaching,’ said Weaver. “And I think that that has really allowed us to dig deeper into critical thinking with our students and results in a higher-level understanding of the content.”

She said she had to step back and let go of rigorous structure and release control to her students who would ultimately guide her and take ownership over their learning.

“The results were astounding,” she said. 

Weaver, a veteran teacher, has worked for principals where she felt her voice didn’t matter or who micromanaged teachers into a certain model of teaching. She said Reynolds trusts teachers as experts.

“Sheldon really pushes us to not believe that there's one way to teach that we all have our own teaching styles and our own personalities and that those are all valid,” she said. “It's about us finding the best way to reach our students and still be us as teachers. And I think that that allows students to see us and trust us so much more because they're seeing us as our authentic selves and not us as robots.”

While some of this year’s graduates still lament the loss of the old school model, many more students were won over.

“By the end of this year, the same students that signed this petition (to get her fired) were crying and hugging me and telling me that I was their favorite teacher,” said Weaver. 

Other teachers say they look forward to continuing the vision, plan and structures that are in place at the Montessori school.

“I’m confident that DPS leadership will be proud of this decision and this direction,” said teacher Julie Buck. “It represents what DPS can and should be all about.”

For the first semester of the next school year, Reynolds will still oversee the elementary school CTD until the district hires a new principal by the start of the second semester. At that time, Reynolds will be solely the principal of DMHS.