While school closures should be a last resort, the Denver School District should consider closing or consolidating schools with the fewest students, according to committee recommendations presented Thursday to the school board.
Elementary and middle schools with “extremely low enrollment,” meaning fewer than 215 students next year, as well as schools with fewer than 275 students who expect to lose 8% to 10% of their students over the next few years, should be considered for consolidation, recommendations said. The thresholds would not apply to secondary schools.
Not all schools identified for review would actually close. The district should work closely with the community and enforce a series of “equity safeguards,” considering how far students would have to travel to school and which schools have specialized programs , especially for English language learners and people with disabilities, as recommended.
Committee members said they intentionally did not review which schools would be affected by the enrollment threshold and could not tell council members how many schools would be affected.
“No schools are being considered,” Superintendent Alex Marrero said. “There is no list”
The first schools would be identified next school year, based on that year’s data, and barring exceptional circumstances, no schools would close until the end of the 2023-2024 school year.
State enrollment data shows 27 Denver elementary and middle schools with fewer than 275 students this school year. Of these, 19 serve student populations made up of more than 90% students of color or more than 90% from low-income households, or both. Only three of the schools are majority white.
The school board does not need to approve the policy, a district spokesperson said, but it should approve any future school closures. At Thursday’s meeting, members asked probing questions that suggest they are reluctant to go down the path set out by the committee.
Vice President Tay Anderson said he doesn’t want to close schools where students of color are making academic progress. The committee did not recommend reviewing academics or determining whether schools have been able to maintain programming despite budget constraints.
Board member Carrie Olson, a former bilingual educator, expressed concern about the closure of schools that offer the type of bilingual program required under a federal consent decree that governs 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 car ride or a long walk to their already complicated lives.
Board member Michelle Quattlebaum asked if enrollment in the district could stabilize and noted that Denver had opened many new schools during a period when — it turns out — enrollment in the primary had already peaked.
Marrero said he would seek community feedback on the criteria and plan more discussions with the board before finalizing any plans.
Denver isn’t alone in struggling to respond to declining enrollment, and the decisions are often heartbreaking. Aurora Public Schools embarked on a five-year planning process that used complex regional criteria to identify which schools to close, but school board members were still hesitant when parents fought to save their schools. They first voted to keep two elementary schools open, then reversed two months later.
Jeffco Public Schools closed two schools in two years without notice before beginning a planning process in earnest this spring.
Because Denver schools are funded based on the number of students they have, smaller schools struggle to provide comprehensive educational experiences. Students can go without electives or even vital services, and teachers are strained to cover multiple levels. But many families enjoy the feeling of being part of a community where every adult knows their child.
Denver used $6.7 million in federal relief funds this year to shore up small school budgets and plans to spend another $9.8 million next year.
Denver initially identified 19 schools for potential closure last year based on projected enrollment declines. With Marrero back on the job and the community in turmoil, the district put that process on hold and began the initially bumpy process that led to these new recommendations. Five schools on last year’s list have enrollments above the threshold created by the new committee and would not be considered.
A number of Denver charter schools also fall below the enrollment threshold. State law does not 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 these criteria into the contract and renewal process. Some charter schools have voluntarily closed due to low enrollment.
The recommendations use the word “consolidation” throughout, rather than the more discordant “closure.” “We are not recommending closure, but rather that schools still be considered consolidated,” the committee wrote.
Chalkbeat asked Denver Public Schools the difference between consolidation and closure. The difference, spokesman Scott Pribble said, is maintaining continuity in programming, standards and values as much as possible.
“If a school is identified in this process, but has a strong arts program or a popular annual celebration, those aspects of the school may continue through the consolidation process,” he wrote in an email.
The implementation guidelines state that all students in 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 in the same new school. Specialized programs such as dual language, Montessori, or a science and technology emphasis should be transferred from a closed school to its designated replacement.
The recommendations also encourage small elementary and middle schools to consider merging into K-8 or small colleges to join a high school to create a 6-12 year old school.
This year, the district had 90,200 students in preschool through 12th grade, up from 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 Denver school-aged children attend Denver public schools. About 6.6% attend private schools and another 8% attend a school in a neighboring district.
As some families sought other options due to frustration with remote learning amid the pandemic, Denver officials say the main culprit is falling birth rates and rising housing prices that evict families. The population under 18 has fallen over the past decade in gentrified neighborhoods in Southwest Denver, the Northside and Elyria-Swansea, while it has increased in Southeast Denver.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at [email protected].