More poverty, fewer federal dollars: Suburban Denver schools face hard choices about who gets cut off

As poverty grows along Denver’s borders, some suburban schools are finding they have fewer resources to serve a changing crop of students.

School districts are seeing areas of concentrated poverty with more schools needing extra resources to address the challenges students face. At the same time, districts are receiving fewer federal dollars meant to help schools provide those services to students from low-income families. Districts can either spread out funds more widely, or narrow the focus to fewer schools and leave some students behind.

Large districts like Aurora, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek are among those grappling with how to serve more schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty.

“It’s a tough place to be in,” said Linda Reyes-Quinonez, Title I director for Jeffco Public Schools, who oversees about $8.7 million in these federal dollars for Colorado’s second-largest district. “Definitely the demographics in Jeffco have changed over the years.”

Through the Title I program, the federal government gives school districts money to help address the effects of poverty.

Schools often pay for family liaisons, social workers, paraprofessionals, more teachers, or coaches for teachers, all to help address achievement gaps, mobility, and higher mental health needs that often come with a higher concentration of poverty in a community.

But the flow of Title I money isn’t matching up with district needs, partly because the federal government calculates poverty based on census counts of all children living in an area, not on how many students actually show up at schools. And children can enroll in private schools or cross boundary lines for school. Many schools are seeing declining enrollment as families move out, but in some cases, the students who remain are more likely to come from low-income families. Also, Congress in some years has cut funding for Title I.

The Denver school district has escaped the Title I funding squeeze because fewer of its schools qualify for Title I money. But many surrounding school districts face hard choices.

While the federal government calculates how much money each district gets, it’s up to each district to set a bar for which schools will receive the money — often based on subsidized lunch counts. In Aurora, the district is planning to reduce the number of schools that qualify for Title I money next fall, to focus on fewer schools.

Currently, the district directs Title I funds to schools with at least 70% of students who qualify for free lunch. This year, 31 schools in Aurora are receiving some Title I money. Nine additional schools would have met that 70% mark for next year, but instead the district plans to bump up the threshold to 75%. That would still add two schools to the list.

Local board members reluctantly suggested they would support such a move, but lamented the difficult choice.

Aurora board member Debbie Gerkin called it a terrible decision to have to make.

“This impacts instruction for kids,” Gerkin said. “When you’re losing a teacher, that’s a tremendous loss. I’m having trouble honestly wrapping my head around what would be the best course of action for students.”

In Aurora, the demographic changes are more drastic than elsewhere in the metro area. Districtwide, student enrollment was essentially flat from last year, but the district lost 4,263 students who aren’t eligible for subsidized lunch at the same time that it gained 4,459 students who do qualify.

In 2014, approximately one-third of Aurora students were in schools that had concentrations of 70% or more students who qualify for free lunch. Now, almost one-half of district students attend schools with such high need.

One of the schools that would have qualified for extra funds next year if the threshold didn’t change is Aurora Central High School, one of the district’s lowest-performing schools. This year, the school enrolled just 27 more students than last, but there were significant changes in the approximately 2,000-student population.

The number of students who qualify for free lunch went up by almost 300. The number of students not eligible for subsidized lunch was cut nearly in half from 667 to 390.

Aurora district officials in response are changing how they spend their local budget. For next fall, the district is proposing to give more per-student money to all schools, and to increase the extra dollars it gives for “at-risk students.”

The district would increase the school allocation for each student who qualifies for subsidized lunch from $821 to $1,261, and would start including students who qualify for reduced-price lunch.

“We’re significantly prioritizing in a way that we can control allocating at least $400 million to schools in a different way to better prioritize at-risk kids,” said Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer.

He said the district has more control over local funds. Using them will offset some of the loss of federal Title I dollars, and school principals will not notice much difference, district officials said. They did not allow any of the affected principals to speak with Chalkbeat.

In Jeffco, the district provides a full-time family engagement liaison to each Title I school. Next year each of those positions will be cut back to four days per week, unless schools choose to use money from other parts of their budget to maintain the full-time help.

In the Jeffco district the change has been gradual. In 10 years, the number of schools with a high concentration of poverty has grown from 22 to 32. Next year, the district will add one more school to its list of those receiving Title I funds.

Reyes said she is bracing for more cuts in the near future. She said the district may also have to consider focusing on fewer schools.

At Eiber Elementary, tucked away in central Lakewood, Principal Stacy Bedell said that the resources she adds to her school with Title I money help address student needs.

The school has far fewer students meeting expectations in math or literacy than the district or state average, but Eiber students have higher growth scores — reflecting progress from year to year — than the district and state averages.

Although the school is surrounded by half-million-dollar suburban homes, the school also serves children from affordable housing complexes nearby. This year, 87% of the school’s students qualify for subsidized lunch. Even with a drop in enrollment, the school’s percentage of students qualifying for subsidized lunch stayed steady.

For years now, the school has qualified for additional dollars because of that high concentration of poverty, but Bedell said her Title I budget has decreased over time.

Before, she said it helped pay for free full-day kindergarten, before the district or state funded it. She also used it to hire reading and math specialists. This year she’s down to one reading interventionist, and none for math.

“We’re starting to feel the stretch,” Bedell said. “Some kids aren’t making the kind of movement we know they could.”

And Bedell said she is already looking at how she will find a way to pay for her family engagement liaison, Cynthia Saunders, to stay on full time in the next school year.

Saunders helps keep parents engaged, and also helps them when they need resources for housing, food or clothing.

“Engagement looks different than it did 20 years ago,” Bedell said. “Our workforce is not 8 to 5. We don’t get the same kind of turnout like when we have a family event, but people will come if we need something.”

Part of that is Saunders’ doing. When the school needs volunteers to help serve breakfast or to organize donated clothing in the school’s closet, or a teacher needs help in the classroom, Saunders picks up the phone, and always finds parents to come in, Bedell said.

All of the “extra” staff that she pays for with Title I money are important, Bedell said. Just as much as she needs Saunders, she needs the mental health clinician she pays for through the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, and the social workers and specialists who help teachers work with small groups of students.

“I could use two full-time mental health people all the time, every day,” Bedell said. “I could probably use two additional ones. And some days it’s overwhelming even for teachers that I could use mental health people for them, too.”

In the Cherry Creek School District, the threshold for awarding Title I dollars has gone up to 46% — lower than in many districts, but up from 40% about five years ago. This year the district is serving 13 schools with Title I money, including one that just qualified this year.

“We have more schools that are reaching the threshold where they probably should be served but we’re facing difficult choices,” said Mike Giles, assistant superintendent of performance improvement.

District officials say they notice a higher need even in schools with 40% to 46% of students who qualify for subsidized lunch. Often schools there use Title I money to hire instructional coaches, who are helping close achievement gaps between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers. The district is also helping one school use Title I money to put on an annual cultural fair to better engage with families.

The Title I schools also see higher needs for social and emotional help, including for a higher number of students impacted by trauma, officials said.

“The bigger question is why,” said Brien Hodges, director of Title I and Connect for Success Grant for the Cherry Creek district. “Why is the federal government continuing to cut this funding when the need continues to grow?”

In contrast, in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, the number of schools with higher needs has also been increasing, but the district was able this year to move the bar in the opposite direction from other districts — to help more schools. In part, it’s because Adams 12’s federal funding has shrunk less than other districts’.

“We felt like the title funds should be serving the broadest number of students,” said Tracy Dorland, deputy superintendent for Adams 12. “The principals who have started receiving funds have told us it’s been extremely helpful.”

Tracie Stauffer, principal of Leroy Elementary in Northglenn, is one of those.

“At Leroy we have a lot of kids with trauma; it could be what one would consider minor to major trauma where school is not their No. 1 priority,” Stauffer said. Students there often are starting elementary school with little exposure to academics or reading, she said.

“There’s a big gap for us to fill,” Stauffer said. “We have to have clever people to make sure we can engage them.”

Leroy, like many of the new Title I schools around the metro area, has had a decrease in enrollment. This year, the school has 393 students, down from 414 last year. But the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch is now at 286, up from 264 last year, while the students who are not eligible are at 107, down from 150 last year.

Now that the school is labeled Title I because of the change the district made, Stauffer has been able to add more staff resources, including an assistant principal who has helped roll out restorative practices, which try to guide students to reflect and change their bad behavior.

“We had a lot of behavior problems,” Stauffer said. “It was mostly students who couldn’t handle these big emotions.”

Disciplinary referrals are already down, she said.

The school now also has more instructional coaches who can help improve teachers’ practices, and a family engagement liaison who helped put together Thanksgiving meal baskets for about 30 families.

“It helps to build that trust,” Stauffer said. “Because of that, we had several families reach out that have been in crisis. They know they have a person now.”