Denver superintendent expected to recommend closing 3 small schools

Denver Discovery School
Denver Discovery School is one of three small schools that Superintendent Alex Marrero is expected to recommend closing at the end of the school year. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Three small Denver schools could close at the end of this school year if the school board follows a recommendation that Superintendent Alex Marrero is expected to present Thursday.

Two elementary schools — Fairview Elementary and Math and Science Leadership Academy — and a middle school, Denver Discovery School, would close, according to the recommendation, which was posted in the agenda for a Thursday school board retreat. 

Fairview students would be guaranteed enrollment and transportation to Cheltenham Elementary, less than 1½  miles away. Fairview staff would be guaranteed a job at Cheltenham. 

Math and Science Leadership Academy students would be guaranteed enrollment at Valverde Elementary right next door. MSLA staff would be guaranteed a job at Valverde.

Denver Discovery School students would not get a guaranteed spot at another middle school. Rather, the district would help families secure their children a spot at a middle school of their choice. The district also would help DDS staff find another job in the district.

A slide presentation containing the recommendation doesn’t say when the school board is expected to vote. But Marrero previously said it could be as early as this month. The board’s next voting meeting is scheduled for March 23.

Marrero is recommending the three schools for closure due to what he calls “critically low enrollment.” District projections show that DDS will have just 62 students next year, MSLA will have 104, and Fairview will have 118, according to Marrero’s recommendation.

The Denver Housing Authority pushed back on a previous recommendation to close Fairview, arguing that subsidized housing set to be finished soon in the Sun Valley neighborhood could mean hundreds more students for the school. The potential for reopening Fairview if enrollment goes up was noted in the slide presentation. The idea came up at a meeting between the Fairview community and district staff, the presentation says.

The district funds its schools per student. Schools with low enrollment struggle to afford enough staff, which often leads to combined classrooms and fewer electives like art and music.

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools is declining, with the sharpest drops at the elementary level. DPS reports having 6,485 fewer elementary students than it did in 2014 and projects it will lose another 3,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade over the next five years.

School closures are a controversial solution. The school board rejected a previous recommendation from Marrero in November to close DDS and MSLA, the two smallest schools. Marrero had originally recommended closing 10 schools, including Fairview, but revised his recommendation after fierce pushback from students, parents, teachers, and the school board.

Marrero first floated the recommendation to close Fairview, MSLA, and DDS at a school board meeting late last month. He promised to approach the process differently than in the fall by meeting with the affected communities before making a formal recommendation to the board. Several board members criticized him for a lack of community engagement last time.

Those meetings appear to have happened quickly. The slide presentation says four options were discussed in meetings with parents and teachers at Fairview, MSLA, and DDS. 

The options were: keep the school as is, begin closing it by not enrolling new students in the lowest grades, close the school at the end of the year and send students and staff to a nearby school all together, and close the school at the end of the year but give students priority to choose any other school they’d like to attend.

Marrero is expected to recommend the last two options. 

“Staff and families asked for DPS to make a decision quickly, stating that waiting ‘leaves us in a bind as we need to plan for next year,’” the slide presentation of staff and families at DDS.

Twelve other Denver schools with what Marrero calls “concerning enrollment” — meaning fewer than 215 students — could be closed at the end of next school year, the slide presentation says. 

They are: Ashley Elementary, Beach Court Elementary, Cole Arts and Sciences Academy, Colfax Elementary, Columbian Elementary, Eagleton Elementary, Hallett Academy, International Academy of Denver at Harrington, Kaiser Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Schmitt Elementary, and Whittier K-8. Projected enrollment ranges from 131 students excluding preschoolers at IAD at Harrington to 209 students at Cole Arts and Sciences Academy.

But the slide presentation notes that these 12 schools have other options, including staying open, revising their boundaries or feeder patterns, not enrolling students in the lowest grades to slowly phase out the school, or other ideas generated by the community. 

A detailed timeline calls for an external facilitator to meet with the 12 school communities in April and May to discuss enrollment trends and school budget forecasts and develop a list that includes both district- and community-generated options for addressing low enrollment.

The viability of the options would be assessed in June and July, looking at cost estimates, the impact on surrounding schools, programming needs, and other factors, the presentation says.

The district would gather community input on the options it deems viable in August. The superintendent would make a recommendation to the school board in September, and the board would vote in October. Any changes for the 12 schools would go into effect in the 2024-25 school year.

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

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