Denver parents, students, teachers plead with the board not to close schools

A woman with long dark hair wipes her left eye with her left hand. Her eyes are closed and she looks like she’s trying not to cry.
Marissa Suranowitz wipes away a tear as she listens to her son Liam, a second grader at Columbian Elementary School, ask the Denver school board not to close his school. (Kathryn Scott / Special to The Denver Post)

Liam Suranowitz, a second grader with two missing front teeth, told the Denver school board Monday that he’s scared they’ll close his school.

“I really like my school and I want to keep it open because it’s like family to us,” Liam said, swinging a small sneaker-clad foot as he spoke. ”I feel loved and safe.”

Liam was one of more than 150 students, parents, teachers, and principals who signed up to address the school board in an hours-long public comment session. Many pleaded with the board not to close their schools and to find another solution to declining enrollment.

Liam Suranowitz, 7, a second grader at Columbian Elementary School, shows his hand written letter to the Denver school board. (Kathryn Scott / Special to The Denver Post)

Maricela Delarosa said her daughter, a student at International Academy of Denver at Harrington, asked her to give the board a message.

“She told me, ‘Please tell them I don’t want them to close the school,” Delarosa said.

A third grader talked about being so sad that he couldn’t go to his kung fu class. A teacher told a story about a student asking her that if he found gold on their field trip to the mountains, would it help save their school? Parents talked about how, in addition to academics, the schools provide their children with warm coats and holiday gifts.

“My kids, they started crying,” said Najah Abu Serryeh, whose children go to Fairview Elementary. “Fairview for them, it’s not just a school. It’s like their second home.”

Denver school board members — four of whom have been through school closures themselves as students, teachers, and parents — listened through hours of testimony but betrayed little emotion.

The board is set to vote Thursday on whether to close five schools: Fairview Elementary, Schmitt Elementary, International Academy of Denver at Harrington, Math and Science Leadership Academy, and Denver Discovery School, which is the only middle school on the list. The students from those schools would be reassigned to others nearby.

Each of the five schools has fewer than 150 students this year excluding preschoolers, according to district data. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and schools with low enrollment struggle to pay for teachers and other staff, which sometimes leads schools to cut programs or combine two grades into a single classroom.

Superintendent Alex Marrero has said providing all 90,000 students in Denver Public Schools with a well-rounded education would be “almost impossible” without closing some of the district’s smallest schools. 

The list of five schools is a trimmed-down version of Marrero’s original recommendation to close 10 schools. Marrero revised his recommendation last Thursday after three of the seven board members said they would vote no, and families at the 10 schools voiced opposition at meetings held at each school and a forum hosted by two board members.

Monday’s public comment was the first and only opportunity for families, students, and community members to give feedback to the full board in the three weeks between when Marrero announced his original recommendation and the scheduled vote.

The speakers included students, parents, and educators from the five schools recommended for closure, as well as the five schools that Marrero cut from the list: Columbian Elementary, Colfax Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Eagleton Elementary, and Whittier ECE-8.

“While Palmer is no longer slated to be closed,” said Mark Broner, a parent of students at that school, “I don’t trust that it’s going to remain that way for long.”

More than 150 people signed up to speak about the Denver school board’s pending school closure decision. (Kathryn Scott / Special to The Denver Post)

Parents also asked the board to rescind a 2021 board resolution directing the superintendent to review under-enrolled schools and come up with options for closing some schools. Three board members have requested that rescinding the resolution be put on Thursday’s agenda.

Nine of the 10 schools originally recommended for closure — including the five still on the chopping block — primarily serve Black and Latino students from low-income families. 

“You are throwing all the minority kids into one island to pile up and see who sinks and who swims,” said Darcy Cornish, whose children are the third generation in her family to go to Columbian. “This is the fight that Black and brown kids have been fighting for centuries.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that public comment took place on Monday. An earlier version listed the incorrect date. It has also been updated to correctly spell the last name of Najah Abu Serryeh.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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