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 plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s broader diversity plan.

See full letter below:

Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

By the numbers

NYC middle schools, pre-Ks meet diversity targets — and more high schools join initiative to spur integration

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

New York City middle schools participating in an admissions program designed to encourage integration met their targets in making offers to incoming students, Chalkbeat has learned.

Additionally, two more high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions pilot, bringing the total to 21 participating schools — still a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,800 schools across the city.

This is the third school year that principals could apply to the program, which allows schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a measure of poverty. In some schools, only a sliver of seats are set aside; at others, it’s more than half.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have come under increasing pressure to spur integration in city schools, which are some of the most segregated in the country. While the education department has been eager to tout the Diversity in Admissions program, many activists have criticized the approach as piecemeal, calling instead for wider-scale approaches. The city has promised a broader plan by June, and the chancellor recently hinted that changes to high school admissions could be a part of the proposal.

The four middle schools in the diversity program all met — or surpassed — their set-aside targets in making offers to incoming students, according to data provided by the education department. However, it’s not guaranteed that all students who are offered admission will actually enroll.

Two of the participating middle schools are in Brooklyn’s District 15, where parents and Councilman Brad Lander have called for enrollment changes. At M.S. 839, 42 percent of offers went to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At the Math & Science Exploratory School, 30 percent of offers did.

Two high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions program for the 2017-18 enrollment cycle: Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, and Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. Both will set aside 63 percent of seats for students who qualify for free lunch — a higher threshold of need. Currently, 83 percent of students at Williamsburg High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (rates for only free lunch were not immediately available). Only about 50 percent of students at Academy for Careers in Television and Film qualify for free lunch, according to Principal Edgar Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said he has seen the school’s population slowly change since it opened almost a decade ago. Television and Film was a Title I school when it launched, meaning enough students were poor to qualify for additional federal funding. The school has since lost that status, and Rodriguez said joining the Diversity in Admission pilot will help preserve economic diversity.

“We work very hard, in the four years we have students with us, to provide them a space that gives them a sense of the real world,” he said. “The school is already diverse as it is, and I think ensuring the diversity continues, and that it’s sustained over time and deepened, just enhances that experience overall.”

The education department also shared offer information for nine pre-K sites in the Diversity in Admissions program.

Most pre-Ks in the diversity program met their offer targets, except for the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. The school aimed to make 10 percent of offers to students who have incarcerated parents, but the school wasn’t able to make any offers based on the students who applied and priority status given to other students.

A recent report by The Century Foundation found that the city’s pre-Ks are more segregated than kindergarten classrooms. Testifying recently at a state budget hearing, Fariña seemed to chalk that up to parent choice.

“I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying,” she said. “This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K.”