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:

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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