For years, education activists called for Denver Public Schools to resurrect Montbello High School. The district voted to close its original incarnation in 2010, citing academic performance issues they thought they could solve by replacing the large school with a bunch of smaller, more specialized ones scattered through the city’s far northeast corner.
Though things haven’t gone exactly how those advocates hoped, the DPS school board voted unanimously to reopen Montbello High in 2021. Teachers and administrators are preparing to welcome the school’s first freshman class in over a decade.
When classes start next month, that first group of students will learn amid lots of construction.
Montbello High was built in the early ’80s. After it closed, the building was used by three smaller charter schools until this year. The district wanted to update the facilities before reopening the school.
Classes will begin in one half of the building as the other undergoes renovations, then they’ll swap sides so the rest of the project can be completed.
Anne Weber, DPS’s director of planning and design, said it’s a significant undertaking for the district, not only in its size but in the precedent it will set.
“It probably is the biggest project that DPS has built in a long time,” she said. “This is an opportunity for Denver Public Schools to decide how we should be designing high schools from now on.”
Construction is scheduled to finish in time for the 2024 school year when Montbello would have classes of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Right now, 1,100 of the 1,200 open spots in their initial freshman class have been filled.
The new school will offer career-focused tracks, like training for jobs in welding, engineering, business, medicine and business. Weber said they’re using some “state-of-the-art” ideas in the design with flexible spaces that allow teachers and students to work in small breakouts or large groups.
Montbello resident Shaunte Timmons sat on a community advisory board for the school’s reopening and said she and her neighbors are excited to see how things go.
“I’m looking forward to it reopening, and a lot of kids coming in,” she told Denverite. “All these kids were going outside the community for school, and that shouldn’t have happened.”
Through surveys and meetings between the district and the community, DPS determined the school’s design should foster relationships and multiculturalism, put students first and be “restorative.”
While there is not a whole lot of information online about that last pillar, a lot of this project has been about restoration. Weber said the money and time DPS is putting in to revamp the building is a signal that the district heard outcries from residents about the school’s closure, both as a place for their kids to learn and also as a central gathering point in the community.
“I don’t live very far from here. I know the Montbello community has felt left behind,” Weber said. “DPS really committed to hear all the voices and bring people to the table for the design of the facilities.”
To that end, her blueprints show a large central plaza surrounded by classroom buildings. The idea is to make it easy for students (or parents, after hours) to gather in a place that is safely sealed off from public streets.
“The image of embracing the community,” she said, “it was very important to convey that feeling.”
Some changes aren’t sitting right with everyone.
Late last year, Coach Tony Lindsay Sr. learned he would not be hired to lead the new school’s football program, which actually continued after Montbello High closed the first time around. Former DPS officials told Denverite they recognized the school’s closure would impact cohesion in the surrounding community, and figured a sports program that unified all of the smaller schools in the area would make things easier for people.
Montbello High’s new athletic director said they went with another candidate based on what they heard in their “rigorous” interview process.
Still, there is a little irony in the decision because the team’s coaches led the campaign to reopen Montbello as a unified school. Brandon Pryor, an assistant coach who was often the face of that movement, called the decision a “slap in the face.”
Coach Lindsay took the news in stride and recently told us he is still fine with where things are heading. The Warriors football team, which was made up of kids from almost a dozen northeast schools, is so far continuing as its own program without a home. They’re practicing at DPS’s Evie Dennis campus in Green Valley Ranch with the same kids as last year, minus two who went to other programs and all of the seniors who graduated last year. Lindsay also said they won’t get many freshmen this year, as students starting at Montbello High will play on a separate Warriors team based at their new school.
Lindsay said his program is headed to the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, which Pryor and Lindsay’s son, Gabe, founded as an HBCU-style high school.
Timmons, the advisory board member, said the new administration’s decision not to rehire Lindsay has given her pause.
“That made a lot of people question, ‘OK, what’s going on? And what’s the real initiative behind this? Is it for the community or is it for some other motive?'” she said. “I want it to be good. I’m not particularly keen on some of the administration, and I don’t think the administration’s decisions have been geared toward the community.”
She said she’s cautiously optimistic and ready to watch this first school year begin to see if Montbello High’s landmark return is what she and others have been waiting for.