changing city

Gentrification is impacting north Denver schools. This is how $120,000 could help.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Swansea Elementary students play violins before the grant was announced.

Two elementary schools in working-class north Denver neighborhoods that are feeling the sting of gentrification will share a $120,000 grant to fund a staff member at each school to address some of the challenges facing the changing communities.

Swansea Elementary, located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, will use its $60,000 share of the money to continue to fund its school psychologist. The school was in danger of having to reduce the position from full-time to part-time after rising neighborhood rents caused student enrollment to decline, costing the school state per-pupil funding, said principal Gilberto Munoz.

“Over the last three or four years, rents have really doubled, so it’s pushed people out,” he said Monday after the grant was announced to a crowd of parents and dignitaries packed into the Swansea Elementary gymnasium. “All throughout last year, we saw families leaving.”

Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the adjacent Globeville neighborhood, will use its $60,000 to hire a new family liaison to encourage parents to become involved at the school.

“This has been a desire and a need and a want on our wish list for quite some time,” said principal Rebecca Salomon.

Garden Place is also losing students as housing prices increase, which Salomon said has made it impossible to fund this type of position.

The positions are partly being funded by the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is tasked with overseeing six projects in that part of town, including the expansion of Interstate 70 and the redevelopment of the National Western Center stock show complex. The Mile High United Way is also providing funding as part of an investment in underserved communities.

Some north Denver residents have raised concerns about the projects, which are meant to rejuvenate a historically industrial part of Denver that has suffered ill effects from past civic projects — including the construction of I-25 and I-70, which bifurcated the neighborhoods.

The first of the new projects — improvements to gritty Brighton Boulevard, which runs through Elyria-Swansea — is scheduled to break ground Oct. 13, according to a city spokesman.

The school principals said families aren’t as worried about the projects themselves as they are about how the impending changes will affect their ability to stay in their homes.

Swansea Elementary lost 79 students in the past year as their families moved to more affordable neighborhoods such as Montbello in far northeast Denver or nearby suburbs like Aurora, Munoz said. One family has been given notice to vacate their home because the land it stands on is set to become part of the new and improved National Western Center, he said.

Anna Jones, executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, said the city can’t control how much private landlords charge their tenants — but it can help soften the financial blow to schools with shrinking student populations.

“The thinking was these positions would be able to fill in the gaps that are created through the rapid changes these neighborhoods are experiencing,” she said.

She said the city decided to invest in the schools because “schools are where that story begins.”

At the event, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the schools “the heart of the community.”

“This is a community that is undergoing a lot of change right now,” he said. “Some of that change is wonderful and promising, but some of that change is scary.”

Boasberg said the ultimate goal is to make sure the changes benefit everyone — and the $120,000 donation is a step toward ensuring that happens.

The funding is solely for this school year, according to a DPS spokeswoman.

The two schools serve an at-risk population. More than 90 percent of students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Garden Place, 46 percent of students were English language learners. At Swansea, 55 percent were.

Most students who attend the schools come from the neighborhoods, according to the district.

“Because of the pressures they’re facing in their own lives, they bring it to school,” said Munoz, explaining why he decided to use the money to fully fund Swansea’s psychologist.

“Some of the things they’re facing would challenge most adults. So teaching them how to manage that is essential — and having a professional that does that for you is really helpful.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.