Credibility:

  • Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
An elementary classroom is decorated with spelling and phonics reminders Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Many students transferring from schools on Jeffco Public Schools’ closing list will go next year to elementary schools that have performed poorly on state standardized tests, with some showing significant lags in student scores even before the pandemic hijacked in-person learning, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of state data.

The district’s school board in November unanimously approved closing 16 elementary schools in the wake of a steep dip in enrollment. A birth rate decline was one of the major causes of the district seeing fewer students — a trend rocking districts across the state and country.

Results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success — the state’s set of standardized exams — show that at eight of the Jeffco schools that will receive students from schools that will close, fewer than half of pupils met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English language arts in 2019. At 14 schools, fewer than half of kids met or exceeded expectations in math. 

Meanwhile, in 2022, fewer than half of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English language arts at nine schools, and fewer than half of kids met or exceeded expectations in math at 15 schools.

The academic performance of schools set to close is even worse: In both 2019 and 2022, 14 closing schools posted scores in which fewer than half of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English language arts. Not one school excelled in math — fewer than half of kids met or exceeded expectations in both 2019 and 2022 at all closing schools, according to state data. 

The academic struggles reverberating across Jeffco elementary schools raise the question of how the receiving schools will manage an influx of students while also trying to help kids make significant gains.

“We don’t shy away from the fact that we need to improve our academic outcomes for our students,” said Dave Weiss, chief of schools for Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado’s second-largest district. “And so we’re aware of how each of our schools are performing, and we’re working as a district right now through our district’s strategic plan to implement resources and curriculum that will support improvements.”

It’s not just the 17 receiving elementary schools that are struggling. Academic performance districtwide has remained “relatively flat” in the past few years, Weiss said. The district of nearly 68,000 students is focused on helping all its schools inch forward.

At the state level, 45.7% of kids in grades 3-5 met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English language arts in 2019, down to 43.1% in 2022, state data shows. In math, 36.7% of students in grades 3-5 met or exceeded expectations in 2019, down to 35% in 2022.

Districtwide efforts to help students better grasp reading and math are in motion. Under Jeffco’s new strategic plan, the district is focused on better monitoring of student progress and is exploring the best ways to track student outcomes, said Tara Peña, chief of family, school and community partnerships for the district.

The district is also introducing new resources to aid educators in teaching literacy and math skills, Weiss said. Most elementary schools are diving into “HMH Into Reading,” a curriculum based on literacy research that allows teachers to tailor instruction to individual students, without having to create their own instructional materials. Additionally, five elementary schools are beginning to implement a program called “Illustrative Mathematics” this school year with 30 more debuting it next year. The program, which is also part of curriculum in the district’s middle and high schools, equips teachers with lessons tailored for students who struggle to reach grade-level standards, Weiss said.

“One of our goals eventually is that kindergarten through algebra, students will be using ‘Illustrative Mathematics’ as the resource,” he said. “That way, the vocabulary, the content, the structure are all the same.”

Kindergarteners complete math exercises Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. Little Elementary serves students kindergarten through fifth grade and will be enrolling nearly an additional 100 students from Parr Elementary and other surrounding Jefferson County schools starting in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Individual elementary schools are also preparing to open their doors to new students while continuing to prioritize improvements to academic performance this year.

At Powderhorn Elementary School in Littleton, Principal Tom Szczesny said he is collaborating with other principals and instructional coaches throughout the district and planning times to shadow classes at each others’ schools to understand teachers’ approaches to math lessons.

“We can make sure that our practices are aligned and that we’re learning from each other,” said Szczesny, whose school will take in students from nearby Colorow Elementary School next year.

Another component of helping students reach their potential in math and reading revolves around simply building relationships with them, he said.

“Part of our jobs as educators is to stay connected with our students, know who our students are, develop, maintain, foster our relationships with students while promoting their academic excellence,” Szczesny said.

Other Jeffco schools are also driving momentum around bridging ties between students from closing schools and the peers they’ll sit beside at their new school come fall. A retired Jeffco administrator is helping the closing and receiving schools figure out how to develop a sense of community starting now, Peña said.

“What does the new school community need to look like, and how do we create that culture of belonging at the receiving school where the students and families still feel seen?” she said. For example, one pair of schools is planning a joint summer camp while another set of schools has created a pen pal program among third graders.

The challenges of running a school with low enrollment — and the ways they hurt academic outcomes

Academic performance was not one of the factors that Jeffco’s board and district leadership considered when determining which schools to shutter and which schools to open up to affected students. 

Instead, they looked at elementary schools that had an enrollment of fewer than 220 students or that were using 45% or less of their building capacity. The district also assessed geography, taking into account whether at least one other elementary school was less than 3.5 miles away with enough room to accommodate kids from the nearby closing school.

“We were really focused primarily on schools that were unsustainable because of their size,” Weiss said. “That’s really what was driving this process.” 

Jeffco has the capacity to teach about 100,000 students, but with a declining birth rate in Jefferson County and fewer school-aged children than two decades ago, the district is facing 30,000 empty seats, Peña said.

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education, said Jeffco Public Schools took the right approach in focusing on factors other than test scores when determining which schools to consolidate.

Test scores do “a poor job in reflecting the actual quality of instruction in the school,” Welner said. “Instead what they’re measuring is poverty and lack of opportunities to learn associated with poverty.”

If the burden of school closures is placed on schools with lower test scores, he added, “then that burden is being placed on schools serving already marginalized communities. It’s the poor-get-poorer problem.”

Kindergarteners complete math exercises Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. Little Elementary serves students kindergarten through fifth grade and will be enrolling nearly an additional 100 students from Parr Elementary and other surrounding Jefferson County schools starting in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

As many of Jeffco’s schools have shrunk, they have lacked the resources to provide students the well-rounded set of programs, Weiss said.

Factors like school enrollment and building capacity “really were more concrete for us and made a little more sense in terms of just how we could potentially best support our students by getting them in a building that was a little more healthy size wise and could provide more resources to our kids,” he said.

District administrators and teachers say that smaller student counts in a school have far-reaching effects on the kinds of opportunities kids can tap into and the support they receive, which then shapes how well they learn. Districts are allocated state funds largely based on how many students are enrolled in their schools — and that impacts how many staff a school can afford to hire and the extent of resources they can give students, including after school programs and mental health services.

“The money follows the students, and when there’s a small number of students, we don’t have enough financially to support some of those things,” Weiss said, adding that underutilized school buildings have been inefficient for the district to maintain.

The sacrifices some schools have had to make have cut more directly into the classroom, with schools in some instances combining two grade levels.

“When we have a school that’s small enough that they can’t run one classroom at one grade level, that’s a problem,” Weiss said.

Little Elementary School in Arvada is among the low-enrollment schools that will receive students from Parr Elementary, less than a mile away in Arvada. Little has the capacity to educate more than 400 kids, but currently has just under 250.

“We have to kind of pick and choose what resources we can put into place, and sometimes that means that we’re not able to afford all the different things,” Little Elementary School Principal Julie Waage said.

Julie Waage, principal at Little Elementary School in Arvada, has held her position for nearly five years. Little Elementary serves students kindergarten through fifth grade and will be enrolling nearly an additional 100 students from Parr Elementary and other surrounding Jefferson County schools starting in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The school previously had full-time art, music and physical education classes, but without adequate funding, it now shares teachers of those subjects with other schools. It has also had to forgo educators who can give students extra time and help learning critical reading and math skills and can only afford to hire a part-time social worker and social emotional learning specialist, while other schools bring those staff members on full time, Waage said.

Her school could also use more paraprofessionals so students have more opportunities for small-group and individual instruction.

“With the consolidation, we have the option to bring back some of those additional supports for our students,” Waage said. “It’s definitely a challenge when you’ve got so much more room in your building than what you have (in terms of) students. Without the students, we can’t afford the staff, and so we’re really limited in what we’re allowed to do.”

Jenn Withee, principal of Green Gables Elementary School in Lakewood, understands the pain of scaling back on critical resources for children in their earliest years of learning. Withee was principal of Fitzmorris Elementary School in Arvada during the last school year and oversaw the school until it closed in the spring due to dwindling enrollment.

Withee was concerned about her former school’s enrollment and budget when she took the helm in July 2021 and the school’s enrollment was down about 30 students from projections, prompting the school to cut a teacher.

“When we lost that teacher in September and I just continued to look at our numbers and our classrooms and the experience for kids when there were five first-graders in a room,” Withee said, “I just, I knew there was potential for closure because sustainability was just not there.”

The minimal number of students hindered the school’s ability to meet their needs from the beginning of the day before school started to the end. Many parents struggled with care before and after school, Withee said, but the school lacked the budget to pay staff to look after students during those hours.

The school also lacked enough staff members to manage clubs and tutor students throughout the school year, Withee said. With a scarcity of staff, the school operated with one teacher per grade — “if that,” she said. That restricted how much educators could collaborate on the standards they were trying to get students to meet and how well they could learn from one another in their approaches to teaching.

Two teachers at Fitzmorris Elementary School presided over classrooms containing two grade levels, Withee noted.

“I truly believe that part of equity is ensuring that all kids receive high quality grade-level instruction every day, and split classrooms make that very difficult,” she said.

“We do it because we have to, but I just genuinely believe it’s not what’s best, even with your most masterful teachers,” Withee added.

By consolidating schools to maximize classroom space, district administrators say students will be surrounded by more educators and will access more of the resources that can help accelerate their learning.

“In schools that are resourced we do see better results,” Weiss said. “We do. And so, you know, right now, it was about these communities that don’t have the resources they need. It was more about us making sure that we got those kids to a place where they could get those resources. That was the priority.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin