Denver school board considering 600-student limit at larger elementary schools

Young boys in blue shirts and khaki pants or short play basketball on an outdoor court.
Students play basketball at recess at Maxwell Elementary School in Denver. Maxwell is one of four Denver elementary schools with more than 600 students this school year. (Seth McConnell / The Denver Post)

Amid ongoing enrollment decline, the Denver school board is considering capping the size of elementary schools at 600 students and requiring the superintendent to “analyze and adjust” school attendance boundaries at least every four years.

The proposed policy would also direct the superintendent to avoid creating attendance boundaries “that socioeconomically segregate schools” by creating inequities in funding, resources, programs, electives, or parent fundraising

And it would direct the superintendent to ensure students can safely walk to school. Given the shortage of bus drivers, the proposed policy says schools should be close enough to students “to minimize the need for district-provided transportation.”

The board was set to discuss the proposal for the first time Monday. But at the end of a long meeting, it voted to postpone the discussion to a future meeting.

Four Denver elementary schools have more than 600 students this year in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to state enrollment data: Westerly Creek (680 students), Park Hill (676 students), Green Valley (660 students), and Maxwell (631 students). All are in northeast Denver.

While Denver students are guaranteed a seat at the school in whose attendance boundary they live, the school choice system allows them to enroll in any school that has room. 

Capping enrollment at popular elementary schools could bolster enrollment at smaller schools that have been losing students. Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said Monday that he plans to add enrollment caps for middle and high schools to the proposal as well.

The proposal comes on the heels of a heated two-year process to close under-enrolled schools. After many starts and stops, the school board voted on March 9 to close three small schools at the end of this school year: Fairview Elementary, Math and Science Leadership Academy, and Denver Discovery School.

Board members are also considering a new policy on school closure, which they refer to as “consolidation or unification.” It says Superintendent Alex Marrero should “take reasonable steps” to not use standardized test scores or school ratings as a condition for closure. 

The policy also says Marrero should avoid consolidating elementary schools that are farther than two miles away from each other. And it says he should avoid using enrollment minimums, such as 215 students or fewer, “as bright line criteria for consolidation.” A community committee recommended last year that Denver close schools with 215 or fewer students.

The policy references declining kindergarten enrollment and says “a stigma now exists for ‘small schools,’ which can accelerate the school’s enrollment decline.”

It’s not clear when the school board will vote on either policy. The board calls the policies executive limitations because they provide guardrails for the superintendent.

District enrollment projections showed Denver Discovery School would have had just 62 students next year, Math and Science Leadership Academy would have had 104, and Fairview Elementary would have had 118. All three had been publicly named as at risk for closure before families made their school choices for the next school year.

Denver schools are funded per pupil, and schools with low enrollment struggle to afford enough staff. That often means the schools have fewer electives like art and music, and must combine students from multiple grades in the same classroom.

Even as the board wants to avoid setting minimum enrollment floors, the proposed enrollment policy says the superintendent must “maintain financially sustainable enrollment for elementary schools.” The policy defines that as having approximately either:

  • 300 students with two classes of 25 students per grade,
  • 450 students with three classes of 25 students per grade, or
  • 600 students with four classes of 25 students per grade.

“Enrollment shall not exceed 600 students for elementary schools,” the proposed policy says.

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

Neighborhoods like Green Valley Ranch in northeast Denver are growing even as families move out of neighborhoods in other parts of the city. That has led to uneven enrollment patterns at district schools. (Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post)
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