It's a cold Saturday morning in Montbello. A small group of people are gathered at a local doughnut shop coming up with the recruiting strategy that will have them knocking on the doors of about 125 fifth-graders in the area.

The goal? To persuade parents to sign up their children for one of the two brand new middle schools they're opening up in the area come August.

The challenge? Most parents have never heard of West Denver Prep - a network of high-performing college-prep charter schools that got started in the west part of town and is now venturing into the far northeast - and know nothing about its reputation.

"Whenever we go into a new neighborhood, it's always the toughest because the neighborhood doesn't know," says Alicia Lucero, enrollment manager.

That's why her recruiters - which include school staff, students and parents - know there'll be a lot of uninterested parents who won't even give them a chance to explain why the Montbello and Green Valley Ranch campuses of WDP might be a good fit for their kids. Armed with test scores and top performance rankings to prove their successful track record, the recruiters hope to persuade them otherwise.

Opened in 2006 with the chief purpose of preparing students for college, the network of four schools caters almost entirely to 1,100 low-income children of color (90% are Latino) in grades 6-8. In 2009, WDP got approval to open two more campuses, one in Lake and the other one in Highland, but not before a contentious battle on the school board and in the community. Many teachers, parents and community members balked at the idea of struggling Lake Middle School having to share its campus with WDP.


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Controversy aside, the schools have thrived.

In 2011, its Harvey Park campus ranked No. 1 for academic growth as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests. The other three campuses ranked in the top seven.

In addition, in 2011, all four campuses earned a "distinguished" School Performance Framework rating, meaning they exceeded district expectations by achieving high academic status and growth. DPS uses the rating to measure each school's performance based on student academic growth, student academic proficiency, parent satisfaction, re-enrollment rates and student engagement.

The art of recruiting

On this particular morning, the recruiting team, which includes the principals of the two new schools, hopes all this favorable information will help them persuade parents on the fence. All recruiters are equipped with marketing materials and Google maps showing where current fifth-graders live.

"It's just a time for us to make sure that every fifth-grader knows there's an awesome option in their neighborhood," says Lucero.

After a minor mixup with the first address, Jennifer Troy, who will lead the Montbello campus, and a student get out of her car in front of the first house on their list.

"Let's see how it goes," Troy says cheerfully as she walks to the front door.

Jennifer Troy, principal of West Denver Prep s new Montbello campus, speaks with Yvonne Olivas and her daughter Brianna about the charter schools  rankings
Jennifer Troy, principal of West Denver Prep s new Montbello campus, speaks with Yvonne Olivas and her daughter Brianna about the charter schools rankings and reputation during a recruitment visit. (Manuel Martinez/Viva Colorado)

She has to ring the doorbell twice before a couple of girls come to the door. Their parents are not home so she leaves some information.

The team of two crosses the street and knocks on someone else's door. Loud Spanish music is coming out the windows, but it's a while before Briana Olivas, 10, finally answers. When she acknowledges that she's in fifth grade, Troy asks for her mother.

Yvonne Olivas comes to the door. Troy delivers her spiel. As expected, Olivas says she's never heard of the new school and that she plans on just sending her daughter to Martin Luther King Middle College, the same school her older children already attend.

Troy tells Olivas about WDP's high rankings. She also tells her that they expect all of their students to not only go to but also to graduate from a four-year college.

Olivas doesn't seem completely convinced, but she's not uninterested either.

"She showed some interest," says Troy  later. "That's good. We'll have to follow up."

Lucero, the enrollment manager, hasn't been so lucky.

"It's hard when they think we're trying to sell something," she says as she walks up to a brown house. The woman who comes to the door doesn't even let her introduce herself, says they're trying to get dressed.

"Can I leave something with you?" asks Lucero. But all she gets is an emphatic no right before the homeowner shuts the door.

Students go to their classrooms after attending the morning meeting at West Denver Prep’s Highland campus on Dec. 7, 2011.
Students go to their classrooms after attending the morning meeting at West Denver Prep's Highland campus on Dec. 7, 2011. (Manuel Martinez/Viva Colorado)

"I haven't had any success," Lucero says.

But her luck is about to change.

At first, it doesn't seem like Jeanne Kouakou is at all interested as she listens to Lucero through her kitchen window. But something she says catches Kouakou's attention and she asks Lucero to come in.

At the kitchen table, Lucero is about to explain why WDP is a great choice for Tiffany, but first she asks what her favorite subject is. "Reading," the fifth-grader says.

"Guess what? We have two periods of reading," boasts Lucero.

In fact, because many students enter WDP schools an average of two years below grade level, students receive two periods - or 100 minutes - of math and reading every day.

But that's not the only thing that's different at WDP's four middle school campuses.

Not a typical middle school

For starters, every morning, as students walk through the door, they are greeted by their principal. "They know all of them by name," says Lucero. 

The school day - which starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 4:20 p.m., making it longer than the majority of the public schools in Denver - begins with a morning meeting in which teachers make announcements, talk about expectations and celebrate students' accomplishments. It's all about "building a sense of community," Lucero says.

Because their whole purpose is for their students to strive for college, everything at WDP revolves around this objective. Grades are identified by the year their students will graduate from college. A current sixth-grader, then, belongs to the Class of 2022.

Memorabilia from different universities abounds throughout each campus. In fact, each classroom bears the name of its teacher's alma mater.

Classrooms are equipped with smart boards and all teachers develop their own curriculum based on local, state and national standards. Students do not rotate from class to class; teachers do. The school day is rigorous and students get homework every single day, but they can call their teachers at home if they need help.

Seventh-grader Zoey Aragon says what she likes most about DWP is "the support we get from our teachers."

"They care more about our future than they would at other middle schools," says the 12-year-old who loves math and science and would like to become a forensic scientist.

Strict discipline

A merit system that rewards students for their efforts and good behavior keeps most of them on track. Every six weeks, students are given a "paycheck" that reflects their conduct and which they can use to purchase stuff like school supplies and gift cards at what they call the Strive Store.

"Every day we're constantly rewarding students, setting them up for success," says Lucero. "Instead of telling them, 'Don't do that,' we teach them about good choices."

Students wear uniforms that consist of jeans, a polo shirt (its color is based on the student's grade), a black or brown belt and black or brown dress shoes. Girls can't wear makeup, dye their hair or use fake nails.

"At first, I didn't like that you have to wear a uniform and tuck your shirt in. I wasn't used to wearing fancy shoes, but I'm kind of getting used to it now," says 11-year-old Alberto Nava, who is in sixth grade and wants to go to the University of Florida to become a doctor. His parents didn't finish high school and now his older siblings and him have their sights on college.

WDP's mission of "providing opportunity for all students regardless of their background and their income level" is what convinced reading teacher Lee Vigil to work at the Highland campus. In fact, WDP is a family affair, she says. Her daughter is in seventh grade and her husband, Antonio Vigil, has designed and will lead WDP's first high school, SMART (Science, Math and Arts) Academy, in the fall.

"There's a connection between teacher, student and family. We all depend on each other," says Lee Vigil.

"The students and parents know that and it starts when we knock on the doors of fifth-graders to talk about our promise."

Just like Lucero has been doing in Kouakou's kitchen back in Montbello. The enrollment manager is wrapping up her presentation about WDP and their promise that every student will attend college.

"It sounds like a good school," says Kouakou after the 15-minute meeting.

Both mother and daughter have shown a lot of interest, asked a lot of questions and want to continue the conversation.

"That makes me go home happy," says Lucero.