It’s mid-November and Parr Elementary School in Arvada is lacking its typical upbeat atmosphere.
“You walk into these buildings, and you can feel it—there’s this air of sad,” said Kaylie Weese, a mother to four kids in the school and president of the parent-teacher association.
On Nov. 10, Jeffco Public Schools announced that Parr and 15 other elementary schools would close and consolidate with other district schools. The decision came after a pair of elementary schools were abruptly shuttered over the previous two years.
Weese knew that Parr Elementary might be on the chopping block before the district released its list of recommended closures in August. She has seen staff pulling extra duty — taking on breakfast and lunch duty or covering for teachers who are out. One of her daughters is in a combined kindergarten-first grade classroom. Her second grader is in a classroom with 25 kids; she regularly tells her mom that she has trouble learning because it’s too loud. (The school’s target class size for grades K-3 is 18-24 students; the Colorado public primary school average was estimated at 22.8 in the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent data).
“I understand that they had to make a hard decision. I understand it’s not really good for anybody,” Weese said. “I see why [the school closure] is necessary because I see my kids struggling with it.”
Still, the fallout has been tough to navigate. Weese’s three daughters cried following the school board announcement. Her 6-year-old worries about what will happen to her school building after they leave.
“I don’t know what to tell her,” Weese said.
School closures come at a confluence of social, economic changes
Parents across metro Denver are grappling with those same uncertainties. Aurora Public Schools shuttered eight schools over the past two years. Denver Public Schools was debating closing 10 schools this fall, but the school board ultimately opted not to close any for the time being, after public outcry. (DPS superintendent Alex Marrero told Denverite that the 10 schools that were spared remain “on watch.”)
Declining enrollment — a consequence of falling birth rates and increasing out-migration as a result of gentrification and the rising cost of living — has led to critical budget concerns for metro area school districts. Marrero has called Denver’s situation a “crisis.”
Parents and staff perceive a crisis of their own: As these conversations continue, they worry about specialized programs, such as education in one’s home language, or physical education or art classes, not being available at receiving schools (where students transfer to when their school closes); whether students of color are being disproportionately impacted; how transportation to new schools will work amid a bus driver shortage; and the lack of community input into these major decisions.
Shantelle Mulliniks is the parent of four children, two of whom now attend Colfax Elementary School and two who formerly did. The school, located three blocks south of Sloan’s Lake in northwest Denver, was on DPS’ list but will now remain open. Her concerns haven’t abated with that decision, though.
“The district,” she said, “has done a really poor job at bringing families along into what’s going on.”
Colfax Elementary sits on a busy traffic corridor, its playground a break from the motels, car dealerships and new commercial buildings that line the thoroughfare with which the school shares a name.
Hipolito Garcia has worked there as a preschool teacher for 13 years. He’s seen a lot of turnover among his colleagues during that time, including four different principals. He’s watched rising unaffordability force families out of the surrounding Sloan Lake neighborhood, and new families move in.
The school’s third grade classroom currently has 29 students (and a maximum of 33; with 27 or more students, a paraprofessional is brought in to assist the teacher), while the Spanish-speaking kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes have been forced to combine into one room. (Approximately one quarter of Colfax’s students are English language learners.) Its closure has long felt like an inevitability to him.
“Since I’ve been there, the mention of our school closing has been whispered every year, for different reasons,” Garcia said.
Colfax was on the original list of 10 DPS schools recommended for consolidation by Superintendent Marrero in October. Schools were included if they had fewer than 215 students, or fewer than 275 students but expected to lose 8-10% of their student headcount in coming years. The schools also needed to be within a couple of miles of another school with capacity to take on additional students. (Jeffco Public Schools used similar benchmarks.) Academic performance was not considered.
Colfax’s school community is diverse and largely low-income. Nearly 90% of its students identify as non-white and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, typically considered a measure of poverty. The elementary school also serves as one of six DPS community hubs where neighbors can access much-needed services including a food pantry and on-site assistance signing up for Medicaid.
Nine of the 10 schools on DPS’ 2022 consolidation list serve majority Black or Hispanic students, and nine of them serve a free or reduced-price lunch population of 80% or higher. In Jefferson County, an average of 54% of students at the 16 recommended schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, nearly double the district average of 28%.
Some parents and teachers have expressed concern that these families had less of a voice in the decision-making process, whether because of language barriers, transportation availability or simply having the time to join community meetings. In early November, when DPS cut its recommended closures from 10 to five, “the schools that had parents that spoke up and a voice were taken off the list,” said Amy Bergner, a fifth-grade teacher at Schmitt Elementary School in southwest Denver who also has two kids enrolled in DPS.
“Our parents don’t feel they have a voice,” Bergner added. “Many of them don’t speak English. Many of them, they’re not citizens. To come out and to criticize or to fight against a system, they can’t do it.”
The districts have argued that their unification recommendations will create a more equitable landscape by allowing them to better align resources across all schools. That’s Amy Kamb’s hope. She’s a K-3 literacy interventionist at the soon-to-be-closed Parr Elementary in Arvada. The school has had to share its art, music and physical education teachers with other institutions; lacks mental health counselors; and has had to juggle large class sizes in certain grades.
“When you don’t have enough people to work in the school, it hurts the kids,” she said. “Our hope is that we’ll have more supports at the [new] school — that’s the big plan.”
Colfax’s Garcia was a member of DPS’ Declining Enrollment Advisory Committee that helped create the criteria for consolidation — or unification, in school district speak — and advised the superintendent. He knows better than most that the closure conversation isn’t over, but merely paused.
“This is something that’s not going to stop,” he said. “The fight continues.”
The student count in Jeffco dropped by 3,600 in 2 school years
Jeffco Public Schools has seen some of the largest student census declines in the state, losing about 5,000 students over the last three years. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, the DPS student count dropped by more than 3,600. The district projects a further decline of approximately 3,000 elementary and middle school students over the next four years and an additional loss of $36 million in funding, The Denver Post reported.
“There is no way that districts can keep significantly underfunded facilities going for any amount of time. It’s a budget burner that faces districts all across the country,” said Margaret “Macke” Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University. “What we’re seeing is the size of the population of kids who are going to need K-12 education is shrinking. … This isn’t a problem that’s going away next year.”
Knowing that a school has previously been on a closure recommendation list might also force parents to make anticipatory choices — opting for other, more stable schools, which would further impact enrollment numbers and potentially create a need for additional closures.
Neither DPS nor Jeffco considered school performance in their criteria for closure, but “low enrollment and low performance are correlated,” Raymond said. That’s concerning for current students but also for future district plans: According to CREDO’s research, kids take about a year to adjust to a new school. But if they move to a worse-performing school, the disruption is larger, and they may not get back on track academically.
“The only place where this turns out to be a really good move,” Raymond said, “is when you close a school after a period, and you ensure every single one of those kids goes to a school that’s better academically.”
That doesn’t seem to necessarily be the case in these recent district closures or recommendation lists. Parents and school staff express frustration with both how districts handled the process and their lack of public and family engagement.
In an open letter to DPS published at the end of October, Educate Denver, a coalition of civic leaders, requested a more transparent process, clarity around closure criteria and a commitment to a beneficial student experience. “It’s not that schools necessarily shouldn’t have been closed and consolidated; it’s that the community wasn’t involved in that, and it hasn’t been communicated by the district why this is happening,” said state Sen. James Coleman, a member of the group.
That’s certainly how Parr parent Weese felt in recent weeks. She’s still unclear about how staffing will work and what will happen to the buildings that are being left behind—or who has a say in that decision. While she waits for answers from the district, she has choices to make for her own family.
Her oldest daughter is moving into middle school next year — meaning she could go through this process all over again as Jeffco Public Schools has said it will begin evaluating its secondary schools for potential consolidation in January. The school most Parr students graduate to is likely going to be on that potential closure list, Weese said, so she’s exploring other options.
“I’m terrified for all of them because these kids are so confused, and if they have to go through it again and not have it be acknowledged to them, I don’t know what will happen,” she said.
Her three elementary-age children will be moving over to Little Elementary School, the recommended receiving school less than a mile northwest of Parr. The staff at Little have been incredibly welcoming, Weese said. During a school event, her preschooler—who has been sad about leaving his current teacher—had the chance to meet the woman who will be his new kindergarten teacher. She took his hand and walked him around his new classroom, showing him where he’d be learning and, importantly, where the snacks were located.
When they left Little that night, Weese’s son looked at her and said, “OK, I’m ready for kindergarten.” For the first time, she felt like things were going to work out.
“We walked out of there thinking, this is going to be OK,” Weese said. She’s still worried about class sizes with all of the additional students, but she said she’s willing to see how things pan out: “If it’s not right for my kids, then I will look into it again.”
Freelance reporter Daliah Singer wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at collective.coloradotrust.org on Dec. 22, 2022 and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.