Preschoolers in Southwest Denver will be among the first recipients of a $466 million bond issue approved by voters earlier this month.
The first project is a $5 million early childhood education center designed to accommodate up to 250 children and located at Kepner Middle School. It would be the third early childhood center in the district, joining the Escalante-Briggs Academy in the Far Northeast and the Stephen Knight Center in the Southeast.
District leaders touted the much-needed early childhood seats that are expected to alleviate overcrowding at several nearby elementary schools, including Castro, Munroe and Charles M. Schenk, known as CMS. If all goes as planned, the ECE center will open next fall.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg and school board member Happy Haynes were joined Monday by Castro Elementary Principal Cheri Wrench and several Castro moms in the school’s front hallway to discuss the project.
“The opportunity for preschool is such an essential part of (students’) education and an essential part of allowing us to close the achievement gaps we see in our schools,” Boasberg said.
Board member cites “grave concerns” about project
However, not everyone on the board is backing the project. Board member Andrea Merida, who represents Southwest Denver and who publicly opposed the bond issue, said she still has “grave concerns” about the ECE project.
“The overwhelming feedback that I’m receiving is that the community is not supportive,” Merida said in an email. “They were never given the basic respect as taxpayers and residents of the area of a fully transparent, robust community process to determine whether the center is needed or even whether expanding capacity at existing schools is a better alternative.”
Merida said she is concerned about Kepner Middle School soccer fields being dug up along with the community gardens. In addition, the creation of one larger center will mean parents have to drive their kids further distances. She doesn’t understand why the district won’t consider offering a shuttle to families.
“Placing an additional burden on working-class parents, who have to ration their gas to get back and forth to work or use the public transportation system, in order to get children to yet another location for school, is inequitable, insensitive and smacks of privilege and class warfare,” she said.
DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong said the district is committed to a “transportation solution” for families at Munroe, which is eight blocks from the center. The other schools – Castro and CMS – are a couple blocks away.
Armstrong also said the new center won’t impact community gardens but it will take Kepner’s current soccer field. She said the district plans to turn the baseball/softball field on the north side of the school into a multi-purpose field to support soccer and will work to ensure Kepner students have access to baseball/softball fields at the Lalo Delgado campus across the street or at one of three parks within four to six blocks of the school.
Merida’s concerns were not shared by the moms who attended the press conference with Boasberg.
Cynthia Vasquez, 42, said her 8-year-old son Gabriel would have benefited greatly from a full-day kindergarten program. She said she could only get him into half-day kindergarten at Castro and because of that, it took him longer to catch up to his peers.
“It was difficult for him,” she said. “They knew things he didn’t know.”
Furthermore, she believes it’s critical in her community to hook kids into school so they don’t end up on the streets.
“It’s important kids learn to love school,” Vasquez said, nothing that her son and daughter “feel at home” at school. “It’s important children feel that way so they want to come to school.”
Easing overcrowding in nearby schools
Castro parent liaison Veronica Luna said the creation of the ECE center will ease overcrowding at Castro and make for an improved learning environment for everyone. Some kindergarten classes at Castro have 35 students in them.
Boasberg confirmed Castro is at 115 percent to 120 percent in terms of capacity. Wrench said the school had to turn away 50 students on its full-day kindergarten waiting list this year. In addition, each year the school serves at least 10 first-graders who have never attended any school. She said she hopes the new ECE center will erase these problems.
The new center should open up more seats for full-day kindergarten as well as full-day preschool in Southwest Denver. Research shows that students – especially those from low-income families or those learning English – who come to school with some preschool under their belt fare better, Boasberg said.
“We’ve been able to track our students over a great many years and what we do find is that students able to get a strong early education and who are able to read at a young age are far more likely to graduate from high school, far more likely to go to college,” Boasberg said.
Boasberg said the district’s goal – to provide full-day kindergarten seats to anyone who wants them – will have a “tremendous impact” on the city.
The new facility will be built on Kepner’s grounds and will replicate the Escalante-Biggs Academy in terms of the building design.
Boasberg and Haynes thanked voters for supporting the record-setting $466 million bond measure and $49 million operating tax increase and said the money is critical in light of recent state funding cuts for K-12 schools. Boasberg said DPS has lost $800 per student in the past three years.
“I’m still up in the clouds and so thankful to the citizens of Denver for recognizing how important this bond and mill levy is to the children of our district and to the job all our wonderful educators are trying to do,” Haynes said.