It came as a shock when the principal of Northfield High School at Paul Sandoval Campus resigned last October—just two months into the Stapleton school’s first year. Northfield represented a unique model for Denver Public Schools: Its “innovation plan” aimed to prepare all students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) track, which is normally reserved for just the brightest pupils. But Northfield—perhaps the only school in the country looking to offer “IB for all” to a population with 50 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—was soon drowning in complaints about unruly classes, a late final bell, and the lack of a guidance counselor. The school descended into parents-said, principal-said chaos, which culminated in principal Avi Tropper’s departure. Now the district has asked Amy Bringedahl, formerly the principal at DPS’ Merrill Middle School, to bring stability to Northfield. We spoke with Bringedahl about how she plans to ace that test.
Name: Amy Bringedahl
Occupation: Principal, Northfield High School
Favorite subject in high school: Sports
5280: You’re heading back to high school. Did you have fun the first time around?
Amy Bringedahl: In seventh grade, I was staring out the window, not paying attention. After calling my name a couple of times, the teacher said, “What are you? Dumb?” For the next few years, that shut me off. I was not an A student. I barely made it through high school. I think the only reason they didn’t kick me out was that my mom was the school secretary. There was a teacher, though, whom I made a connection with. One day, I told her I might want to be a teacher too. She said, “You’d be good—but teaching doesn’t pay very well.”
Why did the school district choose you?
My track record. At Merrill we went from being at the lower end of performing to meeting and exceeding expectations the last three to four years.
How do you cater to honors students and low-performing students simultaneously without a class dissolving into chaos?
We have to be very intentional in how we group classrooms so we have a balance of achievement levels and diversity. At Merrill, we achieved that by scheduling classes by hand, rather than through a computer. We will hand-schedule all of our students at Northfield, too.
Some people have expressed doubts that IB for all can be successful at a school with so many students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Are they wrong?
Schools often fail because we don’t teach students grit and determination. We need to model that for our kids. That’s what we’ve done at Merrill, and it’s the reason our kids have succeeded. Just because students are from a different socioeconomic status, that doesn’t mean our expectations should be lower. If we hold them to high expectations, they’re going to get there.
What will be different at Northfield in 2016-17?
A few things. The intent of the innovation plan was for three advisers to be hired for each grade. They would follow that class through all four years of school. Because of this format, there was no budget for additional social and emotional support such as a guidance counselor. In 2016-17, we will have a social-work intern, a full-time school counselor, and a part-time academic counselor and psychologist. In addition, all teachers, support staff, and administrators will meet with a core group of 15 to 18 students three to four times a month. They will advise that group of kids through their high school careers. That will allow us to budget for the additional social and emotional support. We’re also adjusting what had been an 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. schedule to a 7:45 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. schedule so students can participate in after-school activities. What is important now is not focusing on what went wrong last year, but rather focusing on the future and potential within Northfield.