Migrant students boosting Denver Public Schools’ enrollment after years of declines

Three students sit side by side and read books. The photo shows just their legs and their sneakers.
Denver Public Schools is experiencing a boost in enrollment, especially at the elementary level. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

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Newly arrived migrant students are boosting Denver Public Schools’ enrollment this fall, especially at the elementary school level.

The spike follows a years-long decline in enrollment in DPS, which is still Colorado’s largest school district with about 89,000 students last year. The enrollment decreases have been so steep that Superintendent Alex Marrero recommended closing 10 schools at the end of last school year, though the school board agreed to close only three.  

While this boost in enrollment will mean more per-pupil state funding for DPS this year, and likely more funding targeted to help English language learners next year, district staff and school board members acknowledged the enrollment increase could be temporary.

“We don’t know how many of these students are going to stay for how long,” board member Scott Esserman said at a meeting of the board’s finance committee Monday. 

More than 1,470 new students from another country enrolled in DPS between July and September this year, according to a presentation by district staff at Monday’s meeting. That’s 76% more students from other countries than last year.

Elementary schools are receiving the most students, with 747 new elementary-age students coming from other countries to DPS this summer and fall. 

About a third of all the new students are from three countries: Venezuela, Mexico, and Colombia. That aligns with the increase in new migrants arriving by bus in Denver this fall, many from Venezuela. Over the past week, an average of nearly 300 migrants have arrived in the city each day, according to a press release from city officials Monday.

City officials are working to temporarily house newly arrived families, and DPS teachers have been scrambling to help when families’ assistance runs out. On Monday, Denver Human Services extended the time that migrant families can stay in city-provided shelter to 37 days, a week longer than before. That change takes effect Wednesday.

Some DPS schools, especially those with dedicated programming and classrooms for Spanish-speaking students, are receiving more newly arrived students than others. 

The schools that have received the most are Lena Archuleta Elementary, Ashley Elementary, Bryant Webster Dual Language School, McMeen Elementary, Place Bridge Academy, Denver Green School Southeast, Hamilton Middle School, George Washington High, Thomas Jefferson High, and Abraham Lincoln High, according to the presentation. 

Russell Ramsey, the district’s executive director of enrollment and campus planning, told the committee Monday that the boost in students has swelled some class sizes.

“As classes get close to the red alert of 35 or 36 (students), this is when we’re taking schools within the (enrollment) zone or schools nearby and trying to really assess where we have a place and space to make sure our classes are not getting too big,” Ramsey said.

Even though school budgets are based on enrollment projections made by DPS the previous spring, schools that are unexpectedly enrolling more students this fall are getting extra per-pupil funding through a budgeting process DPS calls its fall adjustment, district officials said. The official student count day for state funding was earlier this week.

School board member Scott Baldermann noted that migrant students may need extra support in school to deal with the trauma they’ve experienced or to learn a second language. District staff said state and federal funding targeted at helping English language learners is a year delayed, meaning that this year’s funding is based on last year’s student counts.

“I’m incredibly proud of the district for supporting the students new to the country,” Baldermann said. 

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

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