more houses = more kids

Why Denver Public Schools wants to build more schools in Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch

PHOTO: Brent Lewis/Denver Post
Izaiah Fofana, held up by his teacher, Lisa Monroe, learns about family members during class for 3- and 4-year-olds at Green Valley Elementary in 2014.

In far northeast Denver, where homebuilders continue to blanket the plains with earth-toned, two-story houses and school enrollment continues to grow, Green Valley Elementary is bordering on bursting. With 764 students, it’s the largest elementary school in the city.

And inside the one-story brick building, space is at a premium.

The copy room has been converted into part of a fourth-grade classroom for 30 students. The copiers were moved into the hallway, hidden behind a gray-colored temporary wall. Another temporary wall functions as a tiny makeshift classroom for kids who need extra help.

The librarian’s office is now home to the school psychologist, while a storage area has been taken over by three teachers who help English-language learners.

The art classroom was moved out of the building altogether into half of a trailer; the other half is occupied by six math tutors. There is no plumbing, so students wash out their paintbrushes in a portable sink that sucks water from one plastic bucket and drains it into another.

A temporary divider in the hallway of Green Valley Elementary serves as an intervention classroom.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A temporary divider in the hallway of Green Valley Elementary serves as an intervention classroom.

“We are using every square inch of the building and then some,” said principal Trina Jones.

In fact, a majority of schools in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch, Gateway and Montbello are at capacity, and some are overflowing. The same is true for the fast-growing, family-friendly east Denver neighborhood of Stapleton.

As such, Denver Public Schools staff recently estimated the district will need to add 1,950 elementary, middle and high school seats in the far northeast in the next three years. Another 1,500 seats will be needed in Stapleton, even as school enrollment levels off citywide.

The estimates come as DPS is gearing up to ask voters in November to approve a bond to pay for school construction projects. In a time of state budget pressures and tightening district funds, DPS officials hope bond money can be used to pay for building needs that might otherwise go unmet.

The first meeting of a community advisory committee that will help the district assess those needs and craft the bond request is scheduled for later this month.

Slowing enrollment growth

DPS is the largest school district in the state, with more than 91,000 students. That’s nearly 10,000 more students than five years ago, and enrollment is expected to keep growing.

But the pace will slow down, district planning staff said. While more families are choosing DPS schools, a drop in the birth rate during the recession coupled with rising home prices and an increasing number of single-family houses being converted into pricey townhomes that don’t yield as many children is expected to keep the district’s population growth minimal.

Some gentrifying neighborhoods have even seen enrollment decreases. Some of the biggest have been in northwest Denver, where the number of elementary students declined by 4.4 percent this school year. That number is expected to stay relatively flat over the next five years.

Even though there are nearly 5,000 residential units planned for the wildly popular area, the majority of them are high-end apartments and condominiums, DPS planning staff said.

A single-family home for sale in Green Valley Ranch.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A single-family home for sale in Green Valley Ranch.

According to the district’s calculations, apartments and condos yield an average of .07 DPS students per unit, while single-family houses yield an average of .43 students per house.

Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services, said DPS is not considering closing any schools in northwest Denver right now due to low enrollment.

“We have to continue to see how things go in the area,” he said. If the new construction ends up attracting young families with infants and toddlers, Eschbacher explained, “we should hold on.”

Stapleton: new houses, lots of kids

The affordable northeastern neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Gateway, and the pricier northeastern neighborhoods of Stapleton and Lowry, are among the last in Denver where new single-family houses are being built in great numbers.

A combined total of nearly 10,000 more housing units, many of them single-family, are expected to be constructed in those four neighborhoods in the coming years, according to DPS planning staff.

And some of those homes are projected to produce more DPS students than average. The district has found that the yield from houses in Green Valley Ranch and Stapleton, in particular, is much higher: .80 in Green Valley Ranch and a whopping .83 in Stapleton.

“Stapleton is growing like crazy,” Eschbacher said. The houses there routinely sell for more than a half-million dollars, but he said that unlike other wealthier neighborhoods, where a large percentage of the kids attend private schools, the majority of families choose DPS.

“It’s lifting the schools up,” Eschbacher said.

To meet demand, DPS has opened a new elementary school in Stapleton every other year since 2010. The district will open another, Inspire Elementary, in a temporary location this fall. Inspire will need a permanent home capable of holding 500 students in the fall of 2017. And the following fall, DPS planning staff project Stapleton will need yet another 500-student elementary school.

A sign in Stapleton marks the site of future housing development.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
A sign in Stapleton marks the site of future housing development.

Additional middle school capacity will be needed as well, Eschbacher said. But instead of building a new middle school right away, he said the district will first grow the size of the popular McAuliffe International School from more than 800 students this year to about 1,150.

At the high school level, an additional 500 seats will be needed in Stapleton by 2018, DPS planning staff predict. The plan, Eschbacher said, is to add capacity to Northfield High, a new comprehensive high school that opened on the Paul Sandoval Campus in Stapleton this fall.

Pressing needs in the far northeast

The needs are even more immediate in Green Valley Ranch and Gateway. DPS planning staff estimate an additional 500 elementary, 450 middle and 500 high school seats will be needed there by 2017. Another 500 elementary school seats may be needed in Montbello by 2018.

The district has already approved a new high school program for the far northeast: STRIVE Prep RISE, another link in a charter school chain that currently operates nine DPS schools. It has also identified a geographic location, on the newly named Regis F. Groff Campus in Green Valley Ranch, but it doesn’t yet have funding for the building, Eschbacher said.

Green Valley Elementary is one of many far northeast schools that are at capacity.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Green Valley Elementary is one of many far northeast schools that are at capacity.

Meanwhile, the district is soliciting ideas for a new elementary school and a new middle school to open in the far northeast in the fall of 2017 through its annual Call for New Quality Schools. McGlone Elementary, a turnaround school that’s shown impressive progress and wants to begin serving middle schoolers, is expected to be among the applicants.

Elsewhere in the city, DPS planning staff is monitoring enrollment growth. The district is especially keeping an eye on the Mayfair Park and West Wash Park neighborhoods, where elementary school additions may be needed by 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Other capacity needs identified recently by DPS planning staff stem from a dearth of programming rather than a fluctuation in student enrollment.

For instance, staff said there are no high schools in southeast Denver serving the estimated 486 neighborhood students who are at risk of dropping out or not graduating. Currently, those students have to travel downtown to attend a school that meets their needs.

On the other end of the age spectrum, DPS staff identified several neighborhoods with a shortage of available preschool seats, including far southeast Denver.

Denver voters last approved a DPS bond issue in 2012. A small portion of the $466 million in bond money went to space-crunched Green Valley Elementary to turn that former copy room into part of a classroom, as well as pay for other reconfigurations meant to squeeze in more students.

But not much more squeezing can be done. And with more kids on the horizon, principal Jones said she hopes the school will be able to expand to meet the demand. Green Valley currently has a waiting list for every grade except kindergarten.

“I do not like to turn down neighborhood kids,” she said.


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.