more houses = more kids

Why Denver Public Schools wants to build more schools in Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch

PHOTO: Brent Lewis/Denver Post
Izaiah Fofana, held up by his teacher, Lisa Monroe, learns about family members during class for 3- and 4-year-olds at Green Valley Elementary in 2014.

In far northeast Denver, where homebuilders continue to blanket the plains with earth-toned, two-story houses and school enrollment continues to grow, Green Valley Elementary is bordering on bursting. With 764 students, it’s the largest elementary school in the city.

And inside the one-story brick building, space is at a premium.

The copy room has been converted into part of a fourth-grade classroom for 30 students. The copiers were moved into the hallway, hidden behind a gray-colored temporary wall. Another temporary wall functions as a tiny makeshift classroom for kids who need extra help.

The librarian’s office is now home to the school psychologist, while a storage area has been taken over by three teachers who help English-language learners.

The art classroom was moved out of the building altogether into half of a trailer; the other half is occupied by six math tutors. There is no plumbing, so students wash out their paintbrushes in a portable sink that sucks water from one plastic bucket and drains it into another.

A temporary divider in the hallway of Green Valley Elementary serves as an intervention classroom.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A temporary divider in the hallway of Green Valley Elementary serves as an intervention classroom.

“We are using every square inch of the building and then some,” said principal Trina Jones.

In fact, a majority of schools in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch, Gateway and Montbello are at capacity, and some are overflowing. The same is true for the fast-growing, family-friendly east Denver neighborhood of Stapleton.

As such, Denver Public Schools staff recently estimated the district will need to add 1,950 elementary, middle and high school seats in the far northeast in the next three years. Another 1,500 seats will be needed in Stapleton, even as school enrollment levels off citywide.

The estimates come as DPS is gearing up to ask voters in November to approve a bond to pay for school construction projects. In a time of state budget pressures and tightening district funds, DPS officials hope bond money can be used to pay for building needs that might otherwise go unmet.

The first meeting of a community advisory committee that will help the district assess those needs and craft the bond request is scheduled for later this month.

Slowing enrollment growth

DPS is the largest school district in the state, with more than 91,000 students. That’s nearly 10,000 more students than five years ago, and enrollment is expected to keep growing.

But the pace will slow down, district planning staff said. While more families are choosing DPS schools, a drop in the birth rate during the recession coupled with rising home prices and an increasing number of single-family houses being converted into pricey townhomes that don’t yield as many children is expected to keep the district’s population growth minimal.

Some gentrifying neighborhoods have even seen enrollment decreases. Some of the biggest have been in northwest Denver, where the number of elementary students declined by 4.4 percent this school year. That number is expected to stay relatively flat over the next five years.

Even though there are nearly 5,000 residential units planned for the wildly popular area, the majority of them are high-end apartments and condominiums, DPS planning staff said.

A single-family home for sale in Green Valley Ranch.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A single-family home for sale in Green Valley Ranch.

According to the district’s calculations, apartments and condos yield an average of .07 DPS students per unit, while single-family houses yield an average of .43 students per house.

Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services, said DPS is not considering closing any schools in northwest Denver right now due to low enrollment.

“We have to continue to see how things go in the area,” he said. If the new construction ends up attracting young families with infants and toddlers, Eschbacher explained, “we should hold on.”

Stapleton: new houses, lots of kids

The affordable northeastern neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Gateway, and the pricier northeastern neighborhoods of Stapleton and Lowry, are among the last in Denver where new single-family houses are being built in great numbers.

A combined total of nearly 10,000 more housing units, many of them single-family, are expected to be constructed in those four neighborhoods in the coming years, according to DPS planning staff.

And some of those homes are projected to produce more DPS students than average. The district has found that the yield from houses in Green Valley Ranch and Stapleton, in particular, is much higher: .80 in Green Valley Ranch and a whopping .83 in Stapleton.

“Stapleton is growing like crazy,” Eschbacher said. The houses there routinely sell for more than a half-million dollars, but he said that unlike other wealthier neighborhoods, where a large percentage of the kids attend private schools, the majority of families choose DPS.

“It’s lifting the schools up,” Eschbacher said.

To meet demand, DPS has opened a new elementary school in Stapleton every other year since 2010. The district will open another, Inspire Elementary, in a temporary location this fall. Inspire will need a permanent home capable of holding 500 students in the fall of 2017. And the following fall, DPS planning staff project Stapleton will need yet another 500-student elementary school.

A sign in Stapleton marks the site of future housing development.
A sign in Stapleton marks the site of future housing development.

Additional middle school capacity will be needed as well, Eschbacher said. But instead of building a new middle school right away, he said the district will first grow the size of the popular McAuliffe International School from more than 800 students this year to about 1,150.

At the high school level, an additional 500 seats will be needed in Stapleton by 2018, DPS planning staff predict. The plan, Eschbacher said, is to add capacity to Northfield High, a new comprehensive high school that opened on the Paul Sandoval Campus in Stapleton this fall.

Pressing needs in the far northeast

The needs are even more immediate in Green Valley Ranch and Gateway. DPS planning staff estimate an additional 500 elementary, 450 middle and 500 high school seats will be needed there by 2017. Another 500 elementary school seats may be needed in Montbello by 2018.

The district has already approved a new high school program for the far northeast: STRIVE Prep RISE, another link in a charter school chain that currently operates nine DPS schools. It has also identified a geographic location, on the newly named Regis F. Groff Campus in Green Valley Ranch, but it doesn’t yet have funding for the building, Eschbacher said.

Green Valley Elementary is one of many far northeast schools that are at capacity.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Green Valley Elementary is one of many far northeast schools that are at capacity.

Meanwhile, the district is soliciting ideas for a new elementary school and a new middle school to open in the far northeast in the fall of 2017 through its annual Call for New Quality Schools. McGlone Elementary, a turnaround school that’s shown impressive progress and wants to begin serving middle schoolers, is expected to be among the applicants.

Elsewhere in the city, DPS planning staff is monitoring enrollment growth. The district is especially keeping an eye on the Mayfair Park and West Wash Park neighborhoods, where elementary school additions may be needed by 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Other capacity needs identified recently by DPS planning staff stem from a dearth of programming rather than a fluctuation in student enrollment.

For instance, staff said there are no high schools in southeast Denver serving the estimated 486 neighborhood students who are at risk of dropping out or not graduating. Currently, those students have to travel downtown to attend a school that meets their needs.

On the other end of the age spectrum, DPS staff identified several neighborhoods with a shortage of available preschool seats, including far southeast Denver.

Denver voters last approved a DPS bond issue in 2012. A small portion of the $466 million in bond money went to space-crunched Green Valley Elementary to turn that former copy room into part of a classroom, as well as pay for other reconfigurations meant to squeeze in more students.

But not much more squeezing can be done. And with more kids on the horizon, principal Jones said she hopes the school will be able to expand to meet the demand. Green Valley currently has a waiting list for every grade except kindergarten.

“I do not like to turn down neighborhood kids,” she said.

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.