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DPS bans NE innovation leader from schools and staffs further hampering progress of teachers and students

Cover photo: DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero.

Denver Public Schools has banned the leader of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, that oversees McAuliffe and Swigert International schools, from entering district buildings, working or communicating with school leaders and staffs or to have access to student records.

For all practical purposes, the action means that NDIZ Executive Director Colleen O’Brien will no longer be able to do her job.

It is the latest in a string of incidents over the past six months by the administration of Superintendent Alex Marrero that has served to undermine the leadership and innovation practices of McAuliffe, NDIZ and Northfield High School.

On Tuesday, parents, students and teachers staged a protest at McAuliffe over the district’s failure to renew its innovation plan after more than a year of review. Innovation schools are autonomous from district rules and policies to a point. They craft an education plan, calendar and budget that best serves their community.

Parents, students and teachers protesting DPS actions Tuesday at McAuliffe International School. Photo: Brian Weber

The McAuliffe school community fears that the district, at Marrero’s order, is eroding its ability to operate in the way that has made it the highest performing middle school in the district. Along with McAuliffe and Swigert, NDIZ also includes McAuliffe Manual Middle School.

In July, Marrero fired Kurt Dennis, the founding and successful principal of McAuliffe, ostensibly for revealing protected student information. However, the overwhelming consensus is that Dennis was fired for speaking out about lax district safety measures.

In August, Dennis was accused of improperly using a room in the school for “seclusion,’’ which is to lock disruptive students in by themselves which is against district policy. In actuality, the room was used for de-escalation of unruly or emotionally charged behavior with the permission of parents and students.

Assistant Principal Micah Klaver was also put on administrative leave at the same time in relation to an investigation into the use of the room. He has yet to be reinstated.

The district then ordered the longtime principal of Northfield High School, Amy Bringedahl, to be interim principal of McAuliffe until a permanent replacement for Dennis was hired.

In February, Northfield hired Jessica Rodriquez Bracey to replace Bringedahl, who has worked for DPS more than 20 years and who planned to retire at the end of this school year. She took over Northfield in 2016.

Bringedahl was to continue as Northfield’s principal this year to support Rodriquez Bracey’s transition into the role permanently. A transition year with a principal mentoring a successor is considered the ideal way to change school leaders.

However, the district’s forced move of Bringedahl yanked that benefit away from Northfield. It has also greatly diminished the final year of the veteran and highly regarded Bringedahl.

Northeast Denver Innovation Zone Executive Director Colleen O’Brien. Photo: NDIZ.

The district apparently also found unexplained fault with O’Brien’s action during the de-escalation room investigation. She was informed of the decision Monday (11/13) evening after speaking to the DPS board during a public comment session about the need to hire a third party to complete an investigation into Dennis’ actions. O’Brien did not respond to a request for comment.

“After a thorough and careful review of the outcomes from the ongoing investigation, it has become clear that the actions and oversight under Dr. Colleen O’Brien have been in direct conflict with district policy and the values and standards we uphold in Denver Public Schools,’’ the district statement said.

The statement goes on to say that the district “is not in a position to take any action concerning her continued employment with NDIZ” because she is employed by the zone, not DPS.

“However, the schools within NDIZ are filled with DPS employees and students,’’ the statement said. “Given the gravity of these findings, it was necessary to take appropriate action to limit Dr. O’Brien’s access to students and staff, as well as student information.”

The district did not specify what policies O’Brien may have violated. Asked if the district agreed that even though it was not her employer, it had terminated  O’Brien’s ability to do her job, district spokesman Scott Pribble said:

“I think that this is a question for the NDIZ Board.’’

The answer is yes.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, a nonprofit online education news organization, Anne Rowe, the chairperson of the innovation zone’s board and a former president of the DPS school board, said:

“What they’ve done has made it impossible for Colleen to do the work that she does really well to support our schools, our educators, and our kids,” Rowe said, “and we’re working really hard as a board to ensure that support continues until we find a resolution to this.”


The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities gives grants to Central Park area schools. 

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