Denver’s school closure criteria committee now seeking applicants

Ten students sit or stand at single desks, space out, in a classroom while three adults stand in different parts of the classroom, two with their arms up. Baskets holding backpacks sit next to the desks.
Declining enrollment is one of Denver Public Schools’ most pressing issues. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

In anticipation of a 6% enrollment decrease over the next five years, the Denver school district is moving forward with a process to close or consolidate small schools. Superintendent Alex Marrero announced a new timeline that calls for community members to start applying now for a committee that will come up with criteria for closing schools with low enrollment in 2024.

Per the timeline, the committee would announce the criteria in the fall, and the school board would vote on school closures next winter. The schools wouldn’t shutter until the spring of 2024.

But Marrero warned that some underenrolled schools could be forced to close before then, outside of the official process. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and schools with low enrollment struggle to pay enough staff to keep their doors open.

“In this 1½-year wait as we do this process, there are some [schools] who are on life support right now that potentially would not even make it to that timeline,” Marrero said.

Declining enrollment is arguably Denver Public Schools’ most pressing issue, and one that other local districts are grappling with as well. Data released this week shows fewer students are enrolled in Colorado public schools now than before the pandemic. In Denver, the declines are due to a combination of lower birth rates and high housing costs that push families out of the city, though parents’ pandemic-era schooling choices have played a small role too.

Denver is still the state’s largest district, with about 90,300 students in preschool through 12th grade. But that’s down from 93,800 students in 2019, and the district predicts the declines will continue. By the 2025-26 school year, Denver estimates it will have just 85,200 students.

In June, the school board passed a resolution that directed the district to work with parents, educators, and neighbors to come up with a plan for closing or consolidating elementary schools with fewer than 300 students. The district identified 19 schools to take part, but Marrero paused the work in September, saying the district needed to focus on pandemic recovery.

In November, Marrero jettisoned the list of 19 schools and switched the district’s approach. Instead of convening regional groups to make recommendations on closing specific schools, the district would form a single committee to establish common criteria for closure that could be applied to any underenrolled school. Earlier this month, the district’s independent charter schools — which enroll 23% of Denver students — agreed to participate as well.

The district launched a webpage and opened the application process Friday for what it’s calling the Declining Enrollment Advisory Committee. Students, family members, teachers, principals, community advocacy group members, and alumni from all types of schools are invited to apply.

Marrero said the district is committed to ensuring the committee is racially representative of Denver Public Schools, where three-quarters of students are students of color, and that there are members from all regions of the city. Elementary schools in the southwest, northwest, and central parts of the city have been particularly hard hit by declining enrollment.

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Much of the discussion so far has been about elementary schools, but Marrero said Thursday that the new criteria would apply to middle schools as well. Smaller cohorts of elementary students have begun transitioning into middle school, district data shows.

Board members said Thursday that it’s important the committee extend beyond “the usual suspects,” meaning the parents and community groups that already pay close attention to district policy, speak frequently at board meetings, and have inroads with decision-makers. 

They requested the district find ways to distribute the committee application to families without internet access and those who speak less common languages such as Nepali and Arabic.

“I’ve served on these committees,” said board member Michelle Quattlebaum, a parent and alumna elected to the board in November. “I know what they look like, and I know who the loudest voices are, and I just want to make sure that we are actually targeting who needs to be in the room, who should be there, and not just who wants to be in control.”

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