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Wyatt Academy, one of Denver’s oldest charter schools, will likely close at the end of this school year, the latest casualty of declining enrollment and fewer per-pupil dollars. Wyatt has told families to find new schools for their children, but its board hasn’t yet taken a final vote to close.
The likely closure of Wyatt follows a pattern of single-site charter schools shutting their doors in Denver Public Schools, once one of the most charter-friendly districts in the nation.
But instead of simply going dark, Wyatt leaders say they’ve found a way to continue the 25-year-old elementary school’s legacy in northeast Denver. Wyatt’s board of directors has signed a unique legal agreement to partner with University Prep, a small homegrown charter network with two elementary schools in the same part of the city.
UPrep will get whatever money is left in Wyatt’s bank account. It will also get a first shot at hiring Wyatt’s staff and opportunities to pitch its schools to Wyatt families, who can choose to enroll or not. Wyatt gets a promise that some of its unique community programming, such as its free clothing boutique, food pantry, and laundromat, could continue at UPrep.
“Wyatt is more than just a school,” Amy Younggren, vice chair of the Wyatt board of directors and a former Wyatt teacher, said in an interview. “We have extensive family services available. Part of what was important to us was that those services also stay with and in the community.”
Not everyone is happy with the plan. Tim Lewis is a fifth grade teacher at Wyatt. He said staff was blindsided last week when they were called into an emergency meeting in a classroom after school and told Wyatt would close in the spring.
The school, he said, is thriving. Its student test scores have earned it the top state rating, signified by the color green. Just last year, DPS renewed Wyatt’s charter for another five years — the longest time period possible, reserved only for the highest-performing charter schools. Plus, he said, enrollment at Wyatt is slightly up this year.
Lewis said the news hit hard.
“Wyatt is a family,” he said. “We’re not just a school. I don’t have any kids of my own. But whenever anybody asks, I say I have 26 kids. It’s the students in my class.”
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Denver Public Schools’ attorney has also questioned the Wyatt-UPrep plan. In a letter last week to the Wyatt board, DPS General Counsel Aaron Thompson noted that Wyatt’s charter contract says its assets would transfer to DPS if the school were to close — not to another entity like UPrep.
“We request a meeting with Wyatt Academy as soon as practicable to collaborate on a closure procedure to best serve families and students and ensure all legal obligations are met,” Thompson wrote.
A copy of the letter was shared in a press release Wednesday by former Denver school board member Auon’tai Anderson, who is head of a new organization called The Center for Advancing Black Excellence in Education and is advocating to save Wyatt.
Younggren said Wyatt’s slight boost in enrollment this year is not enough to reverse years of declines due to decreasing birth rates and rising housing prices that push families out of the city.
A chart on Wyatt’s website shows the trajectory. Wyatt has about 200 students this year, which is the highest enrollment since 2018. Colorado schools are funded per-pupil, and 200 doesn’t bring in enough money to sustain robust programming, Younggren said.
As a comparison, Wyatt had about 650 students when it opened in 1998. It was one of two charter schools to open that year, and together they were just the third and fourth charter schools in the entire district. DPS now has nearly 60 charters.
In recent years, less funding has led Wyatt to cut art and science classes, interventionists who help students struggling with math and reading, paraprofessionals from every grade except kindergarten, its school nurse, its deans, and other positions, the website says.
Wyatt also can’t afford to pay its teachers as much as district-run schools can, which makes it hard to recruit and retain staff, Younggren said. “We’ve made painful cuts year after year that impact teacher satisfaction and student outcomes,” she said.
It’s a familiar story in DPS. In the past five years, at least 14 other Denver charter schools have closed due to declining enrollment. Many were single-site charters like Wyatt, meaning they were not part of a larger network that could help them weather financial downturns.
UPrep is a network, albeit a small one. In addition to its two campuses in Denver — University Prep Arapahoe Street and University Prep Steele Street — it’s planning to open a new elementary school in the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City this fall.
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Founder David Singer said UPrep was interested in the partnership with Wyatt because both serve the same community, which is largely low-income families of color, and have a similar mission. UPrep’s tagline is “College starts in kindergarten.”
“While it’s incredibly sad to see Wyatt’s likely closure on the horizon, we felt an obligation to lean in and help in any way we could to sustain Wyatt’s tremendous legacy of care, commitment, and love to families and students,” Singer said in an interview.
The partnership is different from a recent merger between two other Denver-based charter networks, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep. That agreement called for Rocky Mountain Prep to assume operation of STRIVE’s schools, most of which remained open.
Under the Wyatt-UPrep partnership, Wyatt will no longer be a school. The building it leases is historic; it was built in the 1880s and functioned as a DPS school until the 1980s. The building was left to decay until Wyatt, then called Wyatt-Edison, opened there in 1998. If Wyatt closes, Younggren said it’ll be up to the building owner to decide what happens next.
There’s still one more step before Wyatt’s closure is official. Its board of directors has to vote to surrender Wyatt’s charter. The board has not yet set a date to do so, Younggren said.
Because of that, teachers and parents are organizing to save Wyatt.
On Thursday, at the next meeting of the Wyatt board, Lewis said they plan to show up en masse and ask the board to give Wyatt one more year to recruit more students and boost its funding. If the board says no, the community will ask the board members to resign, he said.
“We’re going to fight hard, as hard as we can,” Lewis said. “I teach my students that you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right. This is what we think is right.”
Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.