year in review

Changing city, changing suburbs: A look back at important demographic shifts in our schools

What has become a familiar view in Denver (Denver Post file).

All around us, Denver is changing.

Construction cranes tower not just over downtown but residential neighborhoods, like super-sized erector sets. Low-slung buildings along Welton and Tejon have been reduced to rubble, leaving holes in the ground soon to be filled by condos or apartments or another hip restaurant.

The city’s breakneck growth is remaking the face of not just Denver but the metro area and beyond — and in the process, profoundly changing the region’s public schools.

In a presentation to the school board, Denver Public Schools’ planning office laid out how rising housing prices are pushing lower-income families out of the city — leading to a slowdown in what had been a fast-growing student population. New construction is booming but much of it is aimed at millennials, most of whom don’t have school-aged kids, the district explained.

This story features five graphs that illustrate the shift — including a look at five-year trends showing the decline in minority students and students living in poverty, as well as troubling disparities that suggest a growing haves and have-nots problem in the state’s biggest district.

A couple of elementary schools in working-class north Denver did get a modest hand up to counter the effects of gentrification. Using grant money, Swansea Elementary is spending on a school psychologist while Garden Place Academy is investing in hiring a new family liaison.

Not all parts of the city are seeing fewer students, however. In response to growth, DPS is planning to use bond money to build new schools in Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch. One of those projects, adding a DSST charter school on the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver anchored by Northfield High School, stirred up all sorts of controversy this month.

East of Denver, Aurora has long been a more affordable destination for families. But that, too, is changing as gentrification spreads to Colorado’s third largest city. Look no further than the development around the Anschutz medical campus, or the artisan bread sold at Stanley Marketplace.

The changes, coming so fast, caught Aurora Public School officials off guard. Facing its largest enrollment decline in decades, the district was forced to slash $3 million from its budget. Tellingly, the declines were most pronounced in lower-income schools, costing the district both state per-pupil funding and less money earmarked to serve students living in poverty.

community input

A high-poverty Jeffco school is about to adopt a “community school” model. What does that mean?

Rhiannon Wenning leads a community forum at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

One of Jefferson County’s highest-need schools is about to undergo a transition, expanding efforts to not just teach kids but meet the many needs of families in the area.

As the academic year begins, Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater will begin the process of becoming a community school. That means the Jeffco Public school will act as a hub for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes, job training and medical care — to parents and families.

Community schools are an emerging trend in education, championed by teachers unions and others who believe tackling poverty, health and behavior challenges facing students and their families can help boost learning.

Although approaches to community schools differ nationwide, they share that holistic approach. One U.S. district heavily invested in the concept, New York City, has pumped millions of dollars into transforming more than 130 high-need schools into community schools over three years.

The community schools approach is also in harmony with the philosophy of new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass, who has prioritized addressing poverty and other student needs.

Jefferson teachers began leading the effort last summer, said Rhiannon Wenning, a Jefferson social studies teacher and the community school site coordinator. They hope to disrupt patterns such as the school-to-prison pipeline by better engaging parents and families in their child’s education.

Jefferson’s demographics make it a good fit for the community school model: The junior-senior high school serves students in the area from grades 7 to 12. Just over 90 percent of Jefferson students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and the school is 82 percent Latino.

Jefferson Principal Michael James said the school has had community partnerships and run family-focused programs for some time, but committing to a community school model will expand that effort.

It’s a reorganization for the better, for ensuring that we have good systems in place for our families,” James said. “It’s not a huge new thing. It’s really not.”

The biggest changes, Wenning said, come with operating the center and ascribing to the “six pillars” of community schools as defined by national organizations such as the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools. Local nonprofit Edgewater Collective is working to establish partnerships with local organizations and help staff the center.

Over the last four years we’ve been building a great group of community partners that really want to invest in our schools,” said Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective. “This is the logical next step to solidify the connection with our schools and bring partners into the school building.”

Wenning said those pillars, which include wraparound services, restorative discipline practices, community engagement and curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives fit neatly into some of Jeffco’s school expectations.

For Wenning, making sure students have support and find school materials engaging and relatable is the ideal result from the community school transition. Research into whether community schools move the needle academically, however, has shown uneven results.

“If I’m being a good teacher and a culturally relevant teacher, I’m gonna ensure (my curriculum) includes the history of my students,” Wenning said at a recent community forum.

James said the transition to community school will be gradual, as Jefferson is still seeking support to remain open beyond the school day and hoping for funding from national organizations that has not yet come to fruition. James said as of now, the school budget will have to swallow the cost of added resources.

Wenning said the principal had committed to funding her position as site coordinator part-time, and that she was pursuing other funding sources.

Even with funding uncertainties, Wenning has faith in the ultimate success of the model. She said she expects that after a few years, students and the surrounding community will see a drastic change.

“I want Jefferson to be a school Edgewater wants,” Wenning said in an interview. “If you don’t like something with your neighborhood school, then go into it and make it better… It’s the best use of not only taxpayer dollars, but it’s the best scenario for our kids.”

changing city

The thorny problem of segregated schools and Denver’s newest plan to address it

Denver schools are more racially segregated today than they were a decade ago, even with the district’s share of white students growing over that time.

That finding, from the KIDS COUNT report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign today, highlights a problem that has dogged officials in Denver and across the nation for decades and will soon draw the attention of a new Denver Public Schools committee charged with addressing school diversity in the gentrifying city.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Denver schools are more segregated today, citing some city schools such as Skinner Middle School that are better integrated today than 10 years ago. Still, he acknowledged that race- and income-based segregation is a major challenge for the district.

“We have very significant housing separation and segregation in this city as we see in so many communities across the country … so then you also see that in our schools,” he said.

Data provided by the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but not included in the 2017 KIDS COUNT report — shows a slight downward trend in Denver Public Schools “segregation index” since the measure’s high-water mark in 2014-15. Even so, that index today is higher than it’s been in the district for most of the last 13 years and higher than in any other Colorado district.

Despite a surge in the city’s population, enrollment growth is slowing in DPS and low-income families are being pushed out. This year, about three-quarters of students districtwide are students of color and two-thirds are low-income — both lower figures than five years ago.

In Colorado, segregated schools aren’t unique to Denver. Suburban and rural districts, including St. Vrain Valley, Eagle County and Greeley, also have highly segregated schools, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Highly segregated schools, where poor children of color are often concentrated, typically lack the financial resources and more experienced teachers that can be found in less segregated schools. The report also cites recent landmark research from Stanford University that shows segregation is a significant predictor of achievement gaps — differences in achievement levels associated with students’ race or socioeconomic status.

Boasberg said the district’s new “Citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods” committee, which will have about 30 members and kick off in June, will discuss possible changes to the district’s school boundary, enrollment and choice systems “to drive greater integration in our schools.”

He acknowledged that race, class and segregation can be highly sensitive topics.

“Will there be concerns on all sides? Yes,” he said. “Will there be any one set of proposals that will make everyone happy? No.”

Still, he noted that he hears both parents and students say they want to see Denver’s diversity reflected in their schools.

Plus, he said, “There’s lots of research that says integrated schools are win-win for all kids, for all economic backgrounds and races.”

Lisa Flores, a school board member who represents the rapidly gentrifying northwest Denver, said she hopes the committee will focus not just on crafting policy but also examining the public perceptions that accompany ideas like desegregation and integration.

“We have in many ways evolved as a community and in many ways face some of the cultural challenges that we faced 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “I’m hoping for some short-term wins and I’m aware that this is long haul work.”

The district has made some efforts to increase integration, including the use of enrollment zones. Students living in such zones are guaranteed enrollment at one of several schools within the zone’s boundaries but not necessarily the one closest to their home. The idea is to pull students from a larger, more diverse area, thereby lessening the effects of highly segregated neighborhoods. So far, the zones have had mixed success. 

Seven of the district’s 11 enrollment zones focus on middle schools and two on high schools. Two others, one encompassing the upscale Stapleton neighborhood, and a smaller one in far southeast Denver, target elementary schools.

Still, segregation at the elementary level can be stark. For example, the KIDS COUNT report highlights two schools with vastly different demographics: Valverde and Steele elementaries.

At Valverde, which has the lowest of five quality ratings, 95 percent of students are children of color and 96 percent qualify for free or discounted meals, a proxy for poverty. Two miles away in the pricey Washington Park neighborhood is Steele, which has the second highest quality rating. There, just 17 percent of students are children of color and 6 percent qualify for free or discounted meals.

But evening out such imbalances is a tricky proposition given the fraught history of integration efforts. In Denver, court-ordered busing in the 1970s sparked massive white flight to neighboring suburbs and more recently, enrollment zones have stirred worry among some parents. Contentious battles over integration are in full swing elsewhere, too, including in New York City where wealthy white parents have relentlessly fought school boundary changes that would lead to integration.

Despite the potential for acrimony, Flores draws optimism from her own experience as a Denver student during the era of court-ordered busing.

Her white, affluent classmates “were children of progressive parents who wanted to walk the talk around integration,” she said. “You will still find those parents today that share the value of socioeconomic and racial integration and want their children to experience that type of learning environment.”