Denver board votes to close three small schools one day after recommendation made public

Exterior image of Fairview Elementary shows a short stairway, mosaic tile, and colorful murals.
Fairview Elementary is one of three schools the Denver school board on Thursday voted to close. Fairview was expected to have just 118 students next year, though the Denver Housing Authority has said new construction would bring more families to the area. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

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The Denver school board voted Thursday to close two elementary schools — Fairview Elementary and Math and Science Leadership Academy — and a middle school, Denver Discovery School, at the end of this school year due to declining enrollment.

Some board members grew emotional during the vote. Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said he was voting “with a heavy heart.” Board member Scott Esserman called the closure of Denver Discovery School “an institutional failure.”

Several board members cried after the first of the three votes. The district’s attorney passed out tissues that they used to dab their eyes. President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán called a break.

Board member Carrie Olson said she struggled to prepare remarks for Thursday’s meeting “because it’s so hard to talk about a school closing.”

“These are really tough decisions and none of us are taking them lightly,” Olson said.

The vote was taken one day after Superintendent Alex Marrero’s formal recommendation was made public in a slide deck posted online. The board was meeting in an all-day retreat. While retreats are open to the public, typically the board does not vote at these meetings.

Marrero said school staff urged him to bring the recommendation to the board sooner than the board’s regular voting meeting on March 23.

Fairview students will be guaranteed enrollment and transportation to Cheltenham Elementary, less than 1½ miles away. Fairview staff will be guaranteed a job at Cheltenham. The two schools already share an executive principal who oversees both, Marrero said.

The Denver Housing Authority pushed back on the closure of Fairview, arguing that affordable housing set to be finished soon in the Sun Valley neighborhood could mean hundreds more students. But Liz Mendez, executive director of enrollment and campus planning for DPS, said the district’s projections are lower.

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All of the board votes were unanimous except for the vote to close Fairview. Anderson voted no. Marrero said the district could reopen and “reimagine” Fairview if the number of elementary-aged children in the neighborhood grows.

Only one parent from the closing schools was in the audience when the board voted. Najah Abu Serryeh, whose younger daughter is a first grader at Fairview, wiped away tears.

“It’s so unfair,” she said afterward. “Fairview is not just a school for us. It’s like a community.”

Fairview parent Dominic Diaz was watching the meeting virtually.

“I’m picking my daughter up in an hour and 20 minutes and I’m thinking about how I’m going to share this news with her, or even if I want to,” said Diaz, whose daughter is in preschool.

Denver City Council President Jamie Torres also criticized the decision in a letter she sent to the board and shared on Twitter. She said the district had caught the school in “its most severe state of transition” and that families who soon would be moving into the neighborhood had not been considered.

Math and Science Leadership Academy students will be automatically enrolled at Valverde Elementary right next door, but Marrero pledged the district would contact each family to ask if that’s what they want. Families could still choose other schools.

MSLA staff will be guaranteed a job at Valverde. Marrero said Valverde is eager to incorporate some of the math and science curriculum from MSLA next year.

Students at Denver Discovery School, which is one of several schools in a big boundary area that the district calls an enrollment zone, will not be automatically enrolled at another middle school. Rather, the district will help DDS families secure their children a spot at another middle school of their choice. The district also will help DDS staff find another job.

The three schools have what Marrero calls “critically low enrollment.” District projections show DDS will have just 62 students next year, MSLA will have 104, and Fairview will have 118.

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“The system cannot continue to function in this way,” Marrero told the school board. “That’s a hard reality. Something needs to happen.”

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.

The school board rejected a previous recommendation from Marrero in November to close DDS and MSLA. He had originally recommended closing 10 schools, including Fairview, but revised his recommendation after fierce pushback from the community and school board.

Board members on Thursday praised the way the district engaged with staff, families, and community members at Fairview, MSLA, and DDS. They said it differed sharply from the community engagement DPS did with the 10 schools this fall, which they found lacking.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly spell the last name of parent 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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