Denver’s oldest high school has lived through three relocations, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and other changes—both in and outside its campus—in 143 years. But when John Youngquist returned to replace Andy Mendelsberg as East’s principal in October 2017 (Youngquist was principal of East High School from 2007 to 2011), he knew he was taking over during one of the most tumultuous periods in the school’s storied history.
On August 23, 2017, Denver Public Schools (DPS) superintendent Tom Boasberg learned that cheerleaders had been brutally forced into the splits by cheerleading coach Ozell Williams during a June summer camp. Disturbing cell phone videos showing the athletes being pushed toward the ground as they scream and cry for help surfaced on 9News, and quickly went viral. Following an arduous investigation, DPS found that both Mendelsberg and athletic director Lisa Porter acted negligently in failing to report the incidents or take action to terminate the cheer coach. In September 2017, Williams was fired, Mendelsberg retired, and Porter stepped down.
Then, in November 2017, Younquist—as East’s newly appointed principal—became aware of a sexual assault involving two East students that occurred in May 2016, and encouraged the family to file a police report. In April 2018, five administrators, including Mendelsberg, a vice principal, a counselor, and two deans were charged in court with failure to report the assault—a violation of a state law that requires school personnel to report incidents of physical or sexual abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours (the district maintains that they did notify the Denver Police Department of the assault). The trial is ongoing, and a hearing is currently scheduled for August 21—coincidentally, the same week that East High Angels return to school.
After an academic year fraught with scandal, it’s easy to feel anxious about the future of East High School. But Youngquist isn’t. Sitting on his back porch on a balmy Saturday morning in June, he appears far removed from the heated, head-spinning controversies of the past year. Instead, he maintains that the community is as strong as ever, and everyone—from the administrators to the teachers and the students—are eager to move forward.
“One of the more frustrating aspects [of last] year for the East community was the inability of people beyond East to see the amazing experiences of students within the school—the work they were doing, the celebrations we were engaging at the school site, and the successes that students and teachers were experiencing over the course of the year,” he says. “We not only have the responsibility, but the opportunity to protect the great history and tradition of East High School. That is happening and it has been happening.”
Youngquist is unable to speak directly about the incidents because the investigations are ongoing, but he pointed to new policies that he’s instituting this year to cultivate community and restore an atmosphere of trust and safety within the school. First, every East educator is required to attend a mandatory reporter training before school starts. Second, the administration has hired three student engagement advocates—a new position in which these individuals will sit in on classes and act as a resource for both students and administrators. The hope is that these changes will allow educators to stay more in tune with the needs of the student body by actively monitor students’ emotional health and academic success.
“We need to [be] proactive and make sure we are a place that has [a type of] relationship with students and families that they will come to us whenever there is a question of any sort,” Younguist says. “Our commitment is to make certain that we know our students well enough to design an academic program with the support to ensure their success.”
To Youngquist, fortifying trust among the students is an antidote to a number of academic ailments—from preventing sexual assaults to addressing a chasmal achievement gap and floundering attendance rates. He says he believes that the entire education system improves when students feel valued by both teachers and administrators. “It is so important that we connect with every student who walks in the door this fall and that we work to gain an understanding of the supports they need to be successful,” he says.
Beyond changes on the administrative level, East is also introducing “restorative practices” (Youngquist’s term) to buttress its defenses against future controversy and connect more intimately with each student. Youngquist says the work began earlier this month, when incoming freshmen entered the school for ninth grade academy—a weeklong program that aims to acclimate these students through icebreakers and team-building activities. This year, Youngquist says the program will focus more robustly on “what it means to be an Angel” and embracing diversity, by providing opportunities for individuals from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds to bond. Each year, a link crew consisting of 200 upperclassmen is trained to act as mentors to ninth graders. The administration is looking to sustain the ties between these students by extending link crew activities throughout the school year.
Above all, Youngquist says the administration and students are looking to celebrate East’s strengths instead of mourning the stability it lost last year. “We are the comprehensive [public] high school in Denver that has the highest graduation rate, highest academic outcome, and the highest college-bound rate. We know that we have represented the strength of the school,” he says. “Right now our challenge is ensuring that every single one of our students grows over time academically in the ways that matter most and will carry them into their future.”
Editor’s Note: The author, Madeleine Hughes, is an East High School alumna and graduated in 2016.