Dear DPS Community,
As members of our valued community, we appreciate your voice and commitment to Denver Public Schools. We understand that we represent communities with various perspectives on issues and concerns, and we strive every day to put Students First in all that we do. While we respect the various opinions of our communities, we also have a responsibility to ensure our community is informed of the facts and address any misconceptions.
Know Justice, Know Peace DMLK’s The Take podcast: The Know Justice, Know Peace podcast was started in 2020 under the supervision of a DPS teacher as a school project by students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle/High School. The podcast was originally created in response to the death of George Floyd, however, we know work of justice and equity is needed for future generations of our students. We want as many of our students as possible to have the opportunity to engage in this podcast, which is why we want it to continue as a DPS educational opportunity. To this point, several DMLK students involved in this podcast have graduated, and none have sought to claim the podcast for themselves. This dispute began when a former employee filed for an Limited Liability Company (LLC) to be formed under the name Know Justice, Know Peace with the intention to remove the podcast from DPS. In response to this filing by this former employee, we formally applied for state and federal trademark to protect our intellectual property. We also sent the former employee a cease and desist letter to dissolve the LLC. The former employee then named a former student the registered agent of the LLC, however, the former employee remains the sole owner of the LLC.
To be clear and to emphasize, DPS has never brought suit against anyone on the topic of Know Justice, Know Peace. Instead, we have worked to ensure this important means of expression remains for future DPS students. In fact, we offered a number of concessions and opportunities for collaboration, including editorial oversight, licensing of the podcast from the District (for one dollar), and the creation of program director positions to work with students on the podcast. All concessions offered were refused.
In September 2022, four students who were co-founding members of the podcast filed suit against DPS stating the podcast belonged to them. This contradicts the original claim made by the former employee stating the podcast belongs to the former employee. Again, it has always been our intention and goal for this podcast to continue as a DPS-sponsored opportunity.
American Indian Academy of Denver (AIAD): DPS is recognized as a high quality authorizer with many Charter Schools flourishing with our support throughout the years. As the district authorizer of AIAD, we have a responsibility to ensure schools are operating in a manner that supports student learning while being fiscally responsible and responsive to concerns as they are brought forward.
As with any DPS school, student enrollment drives the fiscal foundation of a school. Low enrollment equates to fewer financial resources to operate a school. With current enrollment at 134 students (nearly half the planned enrollment), the school will receive approximately $820,000 less in per pupil funding than originally budgeted for in their approved application. In addition to the financial gap created by low enrollment, there is a significant gap between budgeted and actual one-time grant funding this school has received. AIAD developed a balanced budget by anticipating receiving $900,000 in grant funding for this school year, and at this time, only 52% ($472,000) of grant funds have been committed to the school.
With the gap in enrollment and unfunded grant commitments, AIAD will run out of cash in January 2023, rendering them unable to meet payroll obligations or continue school operations. While the school is hoping to receive an additional $428,000 in grant funding this year, any grant disbursement delay or simply not being awarded would mean AIAD is unable to meet its annual financial obligations.
Again, as the authorizer we are in ongoing conversation with AIAD leadership regarding concerns and supports available. In fact, we have provided four notices of concern to the school’s leadership beginning in August 2021.
- Notice one was sent in August 2021 and was triggered by their primary account being overdrawn, which raised concerns about financial sustainability.
- Notice two was sent in November 2021 and was sent after reviewing the 2021 October enrollment data. The school’s enrollment was at 76.8% of the expected enrollment of 190 students for the 2021-2022, which directly impacts their financial foundation.
- Notice three was sent in May 2022 and included the previous financial and enrollment concerns in addition to new concerns regarding instructional hours being out of alignment of Colorado statute, school culture and educational programming.
- Notice four was sent in October 2022 and included the previous concerns as well as additional concerns focused on legal, mental health, special education, instruction and learning, and operations (transportation, student records/retention, engagement with support staff and families).
To be clear, we are committed to supporting all of our students and ensuring they have access to high quality educational offerings that meet the unique needs of their communities. However, as the authorizer we also have a duty to intervene when there are concerns. We continue to closely monitor the financial viability of the school, which as a charter school operates with financial independence.
Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy (RFSS): When the district and community collaborated to establish a historically Black college/university (HBCU)-style high school, Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy (RFSS) was developed and opened in 2021. The vision of RFSS incorporated not only a HBCU-style culture and a focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), it casted a vision of the school being located in the Far Northeast portion of DPS boundaries. In November of 2020, the Board of Education approved a resolution for a two-year temporary co-location of the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy with the Montbello Career and Technology (MCT) School at the MCT facility located on Airport Way.
The MCT facility has successfully been home to staff and students of MCT school for more than eight years. Educators who have taught in the MCT building have stated it meets and exceeds the educational needs of students and staff, which we continued to hear echoed during public comment at the Oct. 17 Board of Education meeting. Some members of the RFSS community have expressed concerns regarding the building being utilized as an educational setting for students. Specifically, concerns have been expressed in three specific areas:
- Cafeteria: There are 38 schools in DPS which do not have kitchens onsite, including the MCT facility. Hot breakfast and lunch items are prepared off site and then delivered to these campuses daily. Warming tables, serving lines and grab-and-go options are offered as part of the food services for the MCT facility. Currently there are 135 students who attend RFSS. Approximately 14 RFSS students receive breakfast each day and approximately 40 students receive lunch each day.
- Library: Presently, there is not a dedicated library on campus. A multi-use space has been identified as a place to make books and other resources available to students. In addition, all students have access to DPS’ digital library, SORA, which includes an extensive offering of books and articles. School leaders at RFSS have requested a dedicated library space, which our planning team has included in the list of future school needs as RFSS grows in enrollment over the next few years.
- Gymnasium: In 2017, DPS upgraded the gym at MCT with a new floor and paint. The gymnasium at the school is not a competition gym, and is intended to be used for high school physical education classes. RFSS students have the opportunity to participate in the regional athletic program for competitive sports, and after the Far Northeast (FNE) athletics program is dissolved in the fall of 2024, students will have the opportunity to participate at Montbello High School. The leadership of RFSS has stated interest in starting their own athletic program, a request the district has approved and sent to CHSAA for consideration.
We continue to keep an eye on the low enrollment at RFSS, which, as we shared previously, drives state per pupil funding. The initial class (2021-22) of RFSS was funded at 125 students regardless of actual enrollment. As that class (current 10th grade) moves through the school, it will be funded at 100 students regardless of enrollment due to an agreement made between DPS and RFSS. Over the past 15 months, actual enrollment of that class has been 60-70 students. This means the school is receiving more funding than the number of students enrolled. In addition, beginning this year the school is funded at the small school minimum of 215 students, although having an actual enrollment of approximately 130 students.
As a result of the enrollment agreement, RFSS has the second highest per pupil funding among DPS high schools at $15,240 per student. To put that in perspective, this funding is over 75% more than average per pupil high school funding in the district, despite being under enrolled by approximately 60 students. This is yet another example of how DPS is supporting the success of Robert F. Smith STEAM and working to ensure the school is able to thrive.
From RFSS’ inception, district leaders have worked closely with the school leader to support branding and school signage; to create a science lab, a music classroom, and dance studio; and purchase new furniture and classroom technology exclusively for RFSS students. For the 2023-24 school year, DPS is adding more lockers for students to accommodate school growth, as well as additional furniture/technology in all RFSS classroom spaces, the Commons (multi-use space) and the cafeteria. As the school grows, district leaders will continue to work closely with the school leader of RFSS to determine the specific scope of facility and academic improvements needed to support the ongoing success of RFSS.
In closing, we will continue to make decisions keeping our values, our integrity and students at the core. We will continue advocating for and supporting the needs of all students, with a specific focus on our most marginalized students. We will continue doing the best we can for all students. Our students deserve and need us to work collaboratively to ensure they are experiencing success now and into their future. There is no time to waste. We must act now and act with urgency.
We encourage you to continue sharing your voice and perspective, however, we ask you to seek the facts and share the truth.
Dr. Alex Marrero