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.”
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.
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: