changing of the guard

Denver middle school principal tapped to lead Northfield High

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Northfield High School opened in fall 2015 with about 200 freshmen.

Denver’s Northfield High School, which has gone through several changes since its tumultuous start and the abrupt departure of its founding leader, has named a new principal for next year.

Amy Bringedahl is currently the principal of Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver. Before that, she was an assistant principal at several Denver schools, including South High. She’s been an educator for 23 years in both Michigan and Colorado.

Bringedahl said she wants Northfield to be the top high school in Denver Public Schools while staying true to its vision of an inclusive and tough academic program.

Northfield, which is located in northeast Denver and started this past fall with ninth graders and a plan to add a grade every year for the next three years, was designed to erase academic divides by offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate program to all kids.

“I am a very competitive person,” Bringedahl said, “and with the potential that’s there, I see nothing that would bar us from creating a world-class education for all of our kids.”

Amy Bringedahl
Amy Bringedahl

Bringedahl was one of two finalists for the job; the other, Stacy Parrish, is a principal resident at North High School. DPS announced Bringedahl’s hire to the Northfield community Wednesday.

Retired Lakewood High School principal Ron Castagna has been serving as the interim principal at Northfield since founding principal Avi Tropper resigned in October following a district investigation that found multiple instances of inappropriate student discipline at the school.

Tropper was hired in December 2013 to helm Denver’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Ahead of Northfield’s August 2015 opening date, the former New York City assistant principal spent more than a year designing the academic program and recruiting the staff.

Tropper also helped author the school’s lofty innovation plan, which requested waivers from certain state and district rules to allow the school to carry out its program.

Among the characteristics listed in the plan: All students would take International Baccalaureate classes, usually reserved for the highest achievers, in math, science, English, history and a foreign language. They’d also choose two “pathways” of study from a roster of electives including biomedical science, engineering, studio arts and theater.

The plan also calls for students to attend school from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. because research shows teenagers need more sleep in the mornings; to abide by a dress code that prohibits hoodies, yoga pants and clothing with words on it; and to participate in physical education every day.

Interest was high. Northfield was the second-most requested high school in all of DPS for this school year. It opened with a diverse class of about 200 freshman, many of whom live in the nearby neighborhoods of Stapleton, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

District statistics show that a third of the students are white, a third are African-American and a third are Latino — a rarity in a district where most Latino students attend predominantly Latino schools. Half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a proxy for poverty.

But there were concerns from the start. Parents wondered how the late release time would interfere with after-school athletics and how the “IB for all” philosophy would play out in the classroom. The dress code seemed overly strict and contradictory: students weren’t allowed to wear hoodies but the school had sweatshirts branded with the Northfield logo for sale.

Parents said the biggest problem was a lack of communication from school leaders.

“It was enough where it created a lot of negative feelings in the community,” said Chris Baumann, a Stapleton parent whose daughter is a Northfield freshman.

Northfield ninth-graders head out of the gymnasium for their first day of classes.
Northfield ninth-graders head out of the gymnasium for their first day of classes.

Baumann said that after months of feeling as though they weren’t being heard, some of his friends and neighbors decided to send their kids to another high school at the last minute.

Two months into the school year, Tropper was put on administrative leave pending the student discipline investigation. In the end, he resigned rather than face being fired, DPS said.

Tropper told Chalkbeat in October that he did nothing wrong in the student discipline cases. He said he resigned because he didn’t believe the district bought into the Northfield vision.

The district tapped Castagna to take his place on an interim basis. A veteran principal with experience leading an IB high school, Castagna said he quickly realized Northfield was aiming to do a lot without having all of the pieces in place. For instance, only one teacher was trained in IB and the school didn’t have an IB coordinator, which is a requirement of the program.

Castagna has since chosen a staff member to fill that role and has helped the ninth-grade teachers develop a curriculum that will give students a good baseline of knowledge to take on the challenging IB classes that will eventually be offered in 11th and 12th grade.

Castagna has also made changes to improve the school’s culture. When he arrived, the atmosphere felt “somewhat chaotic,” he said.

“It wasn’t a very welcoming environment,” Castagna said.

His first two days, he said he watched as adults stood at the doors, opening kids’ jackets to look for dress code violations. A student pointed out that Castagna himself was out of compliance because he’d worn a tie decorated with school buses labeled with the words “School Bus.”

Castagna relaxed the dress code and tweaked the bell schedule. Students now get out of class at 4:20 p.m. so they have 25 minutes to seek extra help from teachers if they need it.

Bringedahl said she’s looking forward to meeting with Castagna and other district officials to learn more about where the school has been and where it’s headed.

“Now that the hiring process is done, it’s time for me to dig into the innovation plan,” she said. Bringedahl added that there are some “great components to it” and that she’ll work with Castagna, the teachers and parents to figure out what’s doable for next year.

Baumann and other parents credit Castagna with stabilizing the school after a rocky start. Thad Jacobs, who lives in Green Valley Ranch and has a freshman daughter at Northfield, noted that communication has improved and the school culture seems more vibrant.

By the time his daughter is a senior, Jacobs hopes Northfield is everything it’s trying to be: an inclusive place with a strong athletics program where all students take high-level classes.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Here’s the DPS letter announcing Bringedahl’s selection:

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”