‘More kids, more joy:’ What happened when two small Denver elementary schools merged

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In art class on a recent Friday, Cheltenham Elementary students made puppets out of paper bags. In instrumental music, they plinked out patterns — “ta, ti-ti, ta-ta” — on wooden xylophones. In dance class, they took turns doing a step-touch to a version of the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive.”

The west Denver school has a whopping six elective classes, often called “specials,” this school year, up from two last year. Cheltenham also has 10 mental health and behavioral specialists, two assistant principals, two reading interventionists, two math interventionists, and a full-time gifted and talented teacher.

For a school with 425 students, it’s an abundance of staff.

Principal Felicia Manzanares has another word for it.

“It’s a dream,” she said. “But you only get that for one year.”

The one-year-only staffing bump is because Cheltenham was on the receiving end of a controversial school consolidation. In the face of declining enrollment, the Denver school board voted last spring to close tiny Fairview Elementary and reassign its students to Cheltenham.

A one-time agreement between DPS and the Denver teachers union is partly responsible for the huge staffing boost at Cheltenham — and once the agreement expires after this school year, Manzanares will have to make cuts.

More Denver school consolidations could be coming. Although an influx of migrant students from Venezuela and other countries has boosted Denver Public Schools’ enrollment this year, it’s not clear if those students will stay in DPS. If they leave, Colorado’s largest school district could once again be facing the prospect of declining enrollment and school closures.

The consolidation of Fairview and Cheltenham provides a window into what the future could hold. In some ways, because of the one-year staffing agreement, it’s a rose-colored window.

But Mazanares said this dream year has eased the consolidation. It has also shown her, as a longtime principal in schools where most students have high needs, what’s possible. At Cheltenham this year, 93% of students are students of color, 82% are from low-income families, 20% receive special education, and 18% are English language learners.

“This is the best case scenario for how you run a school that’s highly impacted: You flood it with resources,” Manzanares said. “Have I caught all kids up? No. But I have been able to make seismic change in their identity and in [students seeing] themselves as a scholar.”

Longtime Cheltenham music teacher Holly Charles has a simpler way of quantifying the changes brought on by the consolidation.

“More kids, more joy,” she said.

A young student wearing a red shirt colors at a table with a wall of bookshelves in the background.
First grader Farhan Noor, 7, works on an illustration during library class at Cheltenham Elementary. (RJ Sangosti / Denver Post)

Declining enrollment led to shrinking resources

Before this year, Denver Public Schools was fast losing elementary students.

Years of decreasing birth rates resulted in smaller families, and rising housing prices pushed many of those families out of the city. Enrollment at a slew of Denver elementary schools, including Cheltenham, was dwindling. Several schools, including Fairview, had reached what Superintendent Alex Marrero called “critically low enrollment.”

Denver schools are funded per student, and low enrollment means less money for staff and programming. Before the consolidation, resources at both Fairview and Cheltenham were shrinking. With just 125 students last year, Fairview had only one class per grade level, depriving teachers of collaboration with teammates who teach the same grade.

Manzanares, who was the executive principal over both schools last year, said Fairview lacked support for students on both ends of the academic spectrum. About 85% of its students were reading below grade level. Although some students had incredible strengths, none were identified as gifted and talented. And many had mental health needs that were going unaddressed.

“I was struck by how underserved it seemed,” Manzanares said of Fairview when she became executive principal. “There was a lot of very visible trauma. Kids who were not regulated. It was very common to have a child in the hallway crying, dysregulated, screaming.”

With just under 300 students, Cheltenham was struggling, too. The school was down to two specials: music and P.E. With no art teacher, Manzanares was stepping in to teach art once per week. Cheltenham’s bilingual program for Spanish-speaking students who are learning English had shrunk so much that it was hard to provide quality instruction.

Both Cheltenham and Fairview had been at risk of closure by DPS for years. As district leaders played a will-they, won’t-they game with politically unpopular school closures, Manzanares said she and other principals of small schools decided to get ahead of the decisions. They began talking with their teachers about the possibility of consolidation.

But turnover on the Fairview staff made the conversation harder. So did the displacement of families in the Sun Valley neighborhood where the school is located and where the Denver Housing Authority has been tearing down older subsidized housing units to build new ones. Both factors meant the Fairview community was more caught off guard when the district recommended closure.

At district meetings, some parents and community members pushed back.

“It’s so unfair,” parent Najah Abu Serryeh said after the March meeting when the school board voted to close Fairview. “Fairview is not just a school for us. It’s like a community.”

That Manzanares stood up and supported the closure did not go over well.

“I was very visible at board meetings advocating for it,” she said. “That also created this distrust, like who is this person wanting to close our community school? To some people that felt villainous.”

But she said she remembered thinking, “I need you to trust you’re not seeing what I’m seeing.”

A classroom full of young students hold toys and dance on grey carpet.
First graders take part in dance class at Cheltenham Elementary. (RJ Sangosti / Denver Post)

Parents’ fears have dissipated

When the consolidation happened, Cheltenham got doubly lucky in terms of resources. In addition to more students and more per-student dollars, the school benefitted from the one-time agreement between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association that guaranteed jobs at the welcoming schools for staff from the closing schools for this year only.

Not only did the union agreement provide job security for Fairview teachers, it resulted in a wealth of programming for students and families. Students have two types of music classes this year — instrumental and choral — as well as art, dance, P.E., and a library class.

There are multiple classrooms at every grade and a certified bilingual teacher for each. The gifted and talented teacher has already identified two former Fairview students for the program.

And because of a robust mental health team of four school psychologists, one therapist, two behavioral specialists, a restorative justice coordinator, a social emotional learning coordinator, and a dean of culture, Manzanares said, “students are regulated. Students are growing.

“By and large, I’m serving happier kids.”

The staffing boost has also made the transition easier for families who were wary about the merger. That includes Cheltenham parents who were worried that adding more students would make the school crowded and take support away from their own children.

But parents said the opposite has happened.

“They got more activities and programs for them, and I think she’s met some new friends,” parent Josephine Bernal said of her daughter Alyona, who’s in second grade. “She’s just been blossoming. I love the new staff. They merged like they’d been family the whole time.”

Most of the Fairview staff and 105 of the 125 students came to Cheltenham, Manzanares said. First grade teacher Amanda Mendez was one of the teachers who made the move.

“The families that came to Cheltenham, a lot would ask, ‘Are you going to go? Are you going to be there?’” Mendez said. “They were comforted by the idea that there would be familiar faces.”

Mendez was hard-pressed to name anything about the consolidation that has been challenging, aside from moving her belongings. Instead, she ticked off a long list of upsides.

One of the biggest, she said, is that with multiple first-grade classes, the teachers can mix-and-match students by academic level. During writing time, one first-grade teacher works with students who are above grade level while another works with students who are behind.

Family liaison Yuri Frias also came over from Fairview. There, she said parents barely ever came into the school to get groceries from the food pantry or help paying their heating bills, even though many needed it. Now at Cheltenham, Frias said she’s serving more Fairview families than ever, even if they have to travel an extra mile and a half to get there.

“I think the reason is the consolidation,” Frias said. “It gave them an empowerment to ask for help.” At first, she said, families felt like the consolidation was taking something away from them. But Frias said that quickly turned into “then what do you have to offer us?”

Not everything has gone smoothly. There have been logistical issues with the school buses that bring students from the Sun Valley neighborhood to Cheltenham. And some of the older students who spent most of their elementary years at Fairview want their school back.

When Laila Ali, boxer Muhammed Ali’s daughter, visited Cheltenham recently to speak to students about the power of their voice, Manzanares said some fourth graders said they wanted to protest the closure of Fairview and advocate for reopening the school.

A wall of paper art collages by young students.
Students' artwork hangs in the hallway at Cheltenham Elementary. (RJ Sangosti / Denver Post)

School events bring the communities together

On a recent Thursday night, Cheltenham held one of its three yearly “exhibition nights.” For an hour and a half after school, families wandered through the classrooms where students had displayed their work. Each grade’s projects had a theme: kindergarten was weather, third grade was famous scientists, fifth grade was space exploration.

In the auditorium, second graders who’d been studying volcanoes acted out the storybook “When the Giant Stirred.” Parents recorded on their cell phones and soothed fussing babies as the second graders held up laminated drawings of butterflies, turtles, and fish.

At the point in the story when the volcano erupts, the students dashed over to a folding table set with painted clay volcanoes and bottles of baking soda and vinegar.

“Three, two, one, pour!” they said in unison.

Second grade teacher Gracen Porreca said events like the exhibition night have brought the two school communities together. Whatever us-versus-them mentality may have existed at the beginning of the year has largely faded, he said. Looking out at the parents in the auditorium, he said you wouldn’t know which were from Fairview and which were from Cheltenham.

“It wasn’t like one side was sitting on one side and the other side was sitting on the other,” Porreca said. “They were all in there together and they were all engaged with what was happening on stage with their kiddos.”

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.