By Erica Meltzer
While school closure should be a last resort, the Denver school district should consider closing or consolidating schools with the fewest students, according to committee recommendations presented to the school board on June 2.
Elementary and middle schools with “critically low enrollment,” meaning fewer than 215 students next school year, as well as schools with fewer than 275 students that expect to lose 8% to 10% of their students in the next few years, should be considered for consolidation, the recommendations said. The thresholds wouldn’t apply to high schools.
“There are no schools being considered. There is not a list.”
Alex Marrero, DPS Superintendent
Not all schools identified for consideration would actually close. The district should work closely with the community and apply a series of “equity guardrails,” considering how far students would have to travel to school and which schools have specialized programming, especially for students learning English and those with disabilities, the recommendations said.
Committee members said they intentionally did not look at which schools would be affected by the enrollment threshold, and they could not tell board members how many schools would be affected.
“There are no schools being considered,” Superintendent Alex Marrero said. “There is not a list.”
The earliest schools would be identified is next school year, based on that year’s data, and barring exceptional circumstances, no schools would close until the end of the 2023-24 school year.
State enrollment data shows 27 Denver elementary and middle schools with fewer than 275 students this school year. Of those, 19 serve student populations that are more than 90% students of color or more than 90% from low-income households, or both. Just three of the schools are majority white.
The school board doesn’t need to approve the policy, a district spokesman said, but it would have to approve any future school closures. At the June 2, meeting, members asked insistent questions that suggest they are hesitant to go down the path laid out by the committee.
Vice President Tay Anderson said he doesn’t want to close schools where students of color are making academic gains. The committee did not recommend looking at academics or at whether schools have been able to maintain programming despite budget constraints.
Board member Carrie Olson, a former bilingual educator, said she’s concerned about closing schools that offer the type of bilingual programming required under a federal consent decree that governs the districts. Even if similar programming is available a few miles away, she said, some families may remove their children from bilingual programming rather than add a drive or a long walk to their already complicated lives.
Board member Michelle Quattlebaum asked if district enrollment could be stabilizing and noted that Denver opened many new schools during a period when — it turned out — elementary enrollment had already peaked.
Marrero said he would seek community feedback on the criteria and schedule more board discussions before finalizing any plan.
Denver is not alone in struggling with how to respond to declining enrollment, and the decisions are often wrenching. Aurora Public Schools engaged in a five-year planning process that used complex regional criteria to identify schools for closure, but school board members still hesitated when parents fought to save their schools. They first voted to keep two elementary schools open then reversed themselves two months later.
Because Denver schools are funded based on how many students they have, small schools struggle to offer complete educational experiences. Students may go without electives or even vital services, and teachers are stretched thin covering multiple grades. But many families appreciate feeling part of a community where every adult knows their child.
Denver used $6.7 million in federal relief money this year to shore up the budgets of small schools and expects to spend another $9.8 million next year.
Denver first identified 19 schools for potential closure last year based on projected enrollment declines. With Marrero new on the job and the community in an uproar, the district put that process on hold and started the process, bumpy at first, that led to these new recommendations. Five schools on last year’s list have enrollment higher than the threshold created by the new committee and wouldn’t be considered.
A number of Denver charter schools also fall below the enrollment threshold. State law doesn’t allow the district to unilaterally close charter schools with low enrollment. The committee recommended using financial viability to identify schools that should be considered for closure and incorporating that criteria into the contract and renewal process. Some charter schools have closed voluntarily due to low enrollment.
The recommendations use the word “consolidation” throughout, rather than the more jarring “closure.” “We do not recommend closure, but rather that schools are always considered to be consolidated,” the committee wrote.
Chalkbeat asked Denver Public Schools the difference between consolidation and closure. The difference, spokesman Scott Pribble said, is maintaining as much continuity of programming, norms, and values as possible.
“If one school is identified in this process, but has a strong arts program or a valued annual celebration, those aspects of the school could live on through the consolidation process,” he wrote in an email.
The implementation guidelines say that all students from a closed school should be able to attend the same new school, unless they choose to go elsewhere. All staff from the closed school should be guaranteed positions at the same new school. Specialized programming such as dual language, Montessori, or a science and technology focus should carry over from a closed school to its designated replacement.
The recommendations also encourage small elementary and middle schools to look at merging into K-8s or small middle schools to join a high school to create a 6-12 school.
This year, the district had 90,200 students in preschool through 12th grade, compared with 93,800 in 2019. But the district’s elementary enrollment actually peaked in 2014 and its middle school enrollment in 2018.
More than 85% of school-age children in Denver attend Denver Public Schools. Roughly 6.6% attend private schools and another 8% attend school in a neighboring district.
While some families sought other options due to frustration with pandemic remote learning, Denver officials say the main culprit is declining birth rates and rising housing prices that force out families. The population under 18 plummeted over the last decade in gentrifying neighborhoods in southwest Denver, the Northside, and Elyria-Swansea, while it grew in southeast Denver.
Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. This story was originally published by Chalkbeat.
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