The Denver Public School Board just navigated a difficult set of decisions regarding the renewal of 16 of Denver’s 58 charter schools. The DPS charter renewal process and outcome was an exemplar for how to do school authorizing with a focus on student learning, whether charter- or district-managed. 

Van Schoales

These Denver charter school renewal decisions will be the first in what will be a very difficult set of decisions. These decisions will impact the finances of the district, the number of quality schools — and most importantly, whether the board can shift the district out of its current academic slump to support more students to higher levels of learning.

Only 37% of Denver’s fifth-grade students are reading at grade level while most other Colorado school districts with student demographics similar to Denver’s made more academic progress.

The Denver School Board will need to make some hard choices in the context of a soon-to-be-shrinking budget because of post-pandemic reductions in federal support, and decreasing student enrollment. 

Denver, as with urban school districts such as Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Austin, and others,  is on a downward student enrollment path that is unlikely to change, because of declining urban birth rates, gentrification, and rising housing costs. 

DPS staff predict district enrollment will drop 1% to 2% percent per year into the foreseeable future. That’s greater than 1,000 fewer students per year — the equivalent of closing three elementary schools every year. 

School districts are good at growing. Denver has done a fairly good job of creating new Early Childhood Programs and a host of new schools, as Central Park and Green Valley Ranch expanded the footprint of Denver as the student population of Denver grew until 2016. 

On the other hand, school districts are generally terrible when forced to shrink. Most districts fail to get ahead of these inevitable challenges and turn them into opportunities to right-size their operations while shifting the focus to supporting students most needing support. Shifting resources from one place to another is far more difficult than creating new places to spend. No one wants to close a school. 

The last time Denver “right sized” the district was in the fall of 2005, shortly after Michael Bennet became Denver’s superintendent. Some of the circumstances of DPS 2005 and 2022 are similar: There are too many small, inefficient, low-performing schools. The larger demographic context is totally different in 2022: Denver’s student population is shrinking, not growing.

Closing and consolidating schools is never easy. No community wants to lose a school, regardless of how poor its performance may be. School closings are often seen as an attack on the community. 

It may be hard to imagine, but the declining enrollment presents DPS with a remarkable opportunity to redesign many of Denver’s lowest performing schools in partnership with the community. It’s hard to do, but we have seen it done successfully occasionally in Denver, across Colorado and the country. 

DPS has begun to set the right path to this work with a committee that will be led by community members most impacted by these changes. It will now be critical to ensure that everyone is working from a common set of facts about demographics, finances and student achievement. Without a shared understanding of the current reality, the projected changes and what’s possible, it will be difficult for these processes to not devolve into divisive political battles.

While this is important for framing a discussion about right-sizing the district, the focus must be about ensuring students have greater support. The communities affected must have access not only to better schools but transportation to the best schools in Denver. 

So, how does DPS define a quality school? The district is not equipped to provide its own answer. The district depends on a state system that is driven by metrics that correlate closely to the race and income of student families, not to how the school is performing relative to its circumstances, and has too low a bar on quality overall. 

Unless DPS has specific, measurable, standards to define a good or effective school, there will be no way for the district to drive academic and other forms of student learning. DPS has to clearly define school quality so that it can thoughtfully manage district resources and drive improvement.

Denver Public Schools not only can “right size” the number of schools to ensure all students have access to schools with quality mental health supports and the arts, but can use this process to drive improved achievement and enable every Denver student to fulfill their full potential after graduating.

Van Schoales, of Denver, is Senior Policy Director at Keystone Policy Center.

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Twitter: @VanSchoales