How Denver Public Schools decided which schools should close next year

When leaders of Denver Public Schools present their plan to close schools to the Board of Education on Thursday afternoon, they’ll provide more detail about how they decided which schools should shutter next year, according to a copy of the presentation reviewed by The Denver Post.

Colorado’s largest school district announced last week that it is recommending 10 schools — mostly elementary schools — close ahead of the 2023-24 academic year as a way to address declining enrollment.

Parents and an education coalition called Educate Denver criticized the proposal for not having more details about how DPS employees decided which schools to recommend for closure, beyond an enrollment threshold of a school having fewer than 215 students.

The presentation planned for Thursday’s school board meeting provides more insight into that decision, revealing that the district decided against recommending four other schools with low enrollment for closure because they didn’t meet other criteria, such as having a nearby school for students to go to next year.

It also provides more information on the plan for Denver Discovery School and Whittier K-8. Under the proposed closure plan, students at those schools will not have a designated school that they will move to next year, but will instead choose a school within their enrollment zones.

The elected school board will vote Nov. 17 on whether to approve the school closure plan. At least one board member, Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, has said he will not approve the plan.

Here’s what we know so far about DPS’s proposed school closure plan:

How did DPS decide which schools to close?

DPS has 29 schools with fewer than 300 students. Of those, 14 schools have fewer than 215 students, which is one of the primary criteria used by the district in its decision.

So how did the district decide only 10 of those 14 schools should close?

The district used four sets of criteria to decide which schools should close. The first was the enrollment threshold of fewer than 215 K-8 students.

Then, according to the presentation, DPS looked at:

  • School boundaries
  • Whether there was another school with the capacity to accept more students within two miles of one closing
  • Whether the closure would result in stronger TNLI/dual language services. (TNLI is for Spanish-speaking students. They are taught primarily in Spanish in their early elementary grades, with English instruction gradually introduced.)

Most of the schools recommended for closure met all four conditions. Four schools — Denver Discovery, Fairview Elementary, Palmer Elementary and Whittier K-8 — do not offer the TNLI program, so that condition was not applied to them.

Whittier and Denver Discovery only partially met the criteria regarding school boundaries, according to the presentation.

The other schools are not in the same boundary as the ones that will accept their students if they close. Whereas there are schools within the two-mile requirement in the same enrollment zones as Whittier and Denver Discovery, said district spokesman Scott Pribble.

Four schools — Hallett Academy, Kaiser Elementary, Beach Court Elementary and Ashley Elementary — with low enrollment were not recommended for closure because they did not have another school within two miles that could absorb their students, according to the slides.

What is happening with Denver Discovery and Whittier?

Both will close if the school board approves the district’s plan, but instead of merging with a single school, students and their families will choose which school to attend within their enrollment zones.

Denver Discovery students are “guaranteed a seat” at one of the five schools in the Greater Park Hill-Central Park Enrollment Zone. While Whittier students would have a seat at one of the six schools across the Greater Five Points Elementary Enrollment Zone and the Near Northeast Middle School Enrollment Zone.

Where will students at the eight other schools go if they close?

Students at the other schools will automatically be enrolled in a school already identified by the district. However, the district notes that families still will be able to pick another school via the School Choice process.

Here are the other eight schools recommended for closure and where their students would go:

  • Columbian Elementary students would go to Trevista at Horace Mann
  • Palmer’s K-5 students would go to Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
  • Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy students would go to Valverde Elementary
  • Schmitt Elementary students would go to Godsman Elementary
  • Eagleton Elementary students would go to Cowell Elementary
  • Fairview Elementary’s K-5 students would go to Cheltenham Elementary
  • Colfax Elementary’s K-5 students would go to Cheltenham
  • International Academy of Denver at Harrington students will enter a new enrollment zone with Columbine Elementary and Swansea Elementary

Why are schools closing?

DPS officials have said they need to close schools because there are fewer students enrolling in the district. Elementary schools, in particular, have been hit hard with enrollment falling by 6,485 students since 2014.

DPS has attributed the drop in enrollment to lower birthrates and rising housing costs, which is causing families — especially from historically Latino and African-American neighborhoods — to leave the city, according to the district’s presentation.

DPS estimates that K-12 enrollment will fall by more than 3,000 students in the next 5 years. In Colorado, school funding is also tied to how many students are enrolled, meaning that with fewer students, the district is also getting less money.

“Over 50% of the neighborhoods in DPS are forecasted to continue to have significant declines at the elementary and middle school levels,” the district said in the slides. “The problem of declining enrollment will persist.”

However, the Denver Housing Authority believes that at least one neighborhood — Sun Valley — will see an influx in children because of redevelopment projects in the area, and that it would be enough to keep one of the schools proposed for closure open.

In its presentation, the district said the schools recommended for closure are costing the district more money than others in the city.  The median amount that the district spends per student across all of its schools is $15,246. By comparison, the cost at the schools recommended for closure is $22,248 per pupil.

Not only are expenses higher at these schools, but most of that money is going toward keeping the schools open as opposed to providing more services to students and employees, according to the slides.

Schools with low enrollment are more likely to have larger class sizes and fewer electives. Children from different grades are merged into a single class or instruction that is normally taught in Spanish is combined with classes taught in English, according to DPS.

By merging schools, more students would have access to more electives, such as art and foreign languages, and each school will have more support staff, such as psychologists, social workers and nurses in their building, according to the district’s presentation.

The district isn’t alone in closing schools. Districts across the U.S. are considering similar moves, including in neighboring Jefferson County. where the school board will vote next week, on Nov. 10, on whether to shut down 16 schools.

What will happen to the employees at the schools if they close?

All staff will have a guaranteed role in the district and they will move to the new schools with their students. They will also at least be paid the same amount they currently are during the 2023-24 academic year, whether at the new school or elsewhere in the district, according to the presentation.

Positions that are managed by the central office, such as those that provide food services, will also continue to have roles in the district, according to DPS.

But there is uncertainty about what happens after the 2023-24 academic year because the teachers union and district still are negotiating the consolidation plan.

What will happen to the empty school buildings?

What will happen to the school buildings is still to be determined. The district says it will not sell the buildings and will work with the community on how they should be used.

The district plans to turn two of the buildings, Colfax and Palmer, into preschools.

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