By the numbers

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools projected to drop — and other takeaways from new regional analysis

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Angel Huerta, a first-grader at Goldrick Elementary, gets into a book during a reading group at the Denver school.

After growing for nearly two decades, the student population in Denver Public Schools is forecast to drop almost 2 percent by 2021, according to a new analysis released by the district.

The main reasons, the analysis concludes, are lower post-recession birth rates and rising housing prices, which are pushing lower-income families out of the city.

But the decrease won’t be felt in every neighborhood, it says. Some parts of the city, like the booming near northeast Stapleton neighborhood, are expected to see increases. Meanwhile, more than half of the city’s 78 neighborhoods are predicted to experience drops in enrollment. Southwest Denver, home to many Latino families, will be among the hardest hit.

For at least three regions of the city, district planning officials recommend considering a controversial solution: consolidating schools, especially at the elementary level.

The enrollment predictions are the work of the Denver Council of Regional Governments and the Shift Research Lab, which is affiliated with the local children-focused Piton Foundation. (The Piton Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

This year is the first that Denver Public Schools commissioned an independent, five-year enrollment forecast as part of its annual “strategic regional analysis,” which also examines school capacity and performance in an attempt to identify trends and issues.

Given the rapid pace at which the city is changing, the district wanted an expert opinion, explained Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. The district also hoped having an independent third-party conduct the forecast would give skeptical community members more confidence in the numbers, he said.

The analysis was released publicly at a school board work session Thursday.

Here are 12 takeaways from the 105-page document:

1. At the moment, district enrollment is still growing. But it’s growing at a slower pace than it has over the past 10 years, during which time DPS has worked to recapture families who left the city’s public schools. Enrollment is up just 0.4 percent this year to a total of 92,686 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

2. By 2021, enrollment is forecast to be down to 91,201 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

3. Elementary schools will be the hardest hit. By 2021, elementary enrollment is forecast to decline by 7 percent. Middle school enrollment is expected to stay steady because it won’t yet be affected by lower birth rates. High school enrollment is predicted to increase as the students who contributed to the district’s growth over the past decade get older.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

4. The neighborhoods that are expected to experience the largest enrollment declines are Montbello in far northeast Denver; Elyria-Swansea, Cole, Five Points and Whittier in central Denver; Sunnyside in northwest Denver; and West Colfax, Villa Park, Athmar Park, Westwood and Ruby Hill in southwest Denver. The district has flagged the areas for further study.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

5. The southwest part of the city is forecast to lose the most students by 2021: nearly 2,000. Most of the decline is expected to happen at the elementary level. Planning officials are recommending that “excess capacity and enrollment declines should be closely monitored going forward, particularly at the elementary level, and consolidation should be considered if school budgets are unable to sustain viable programs.” Officials made similar recommendations for two other regions, as well: the gentrifying central and northwest parts of the city.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

6. The near northeast region is the reverse. Due in part to continued development in the middle- and upper-income Stapleton neighborhood, it’s expected to gain the most students by 2021: more than 2,300. The biggest gains are forecast at the high school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

7. Denver Public Schools loses students each year to neighboring school districts, but it receives students from them, too. In 2016, more than 5,000 students who live in Denver attended school in a suburban district. However, about 4,500 students from suburban districts attended school in Denver, resulting in a net loss of about 500 students for DPS.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

8. The overall student population in Denver Public Schools continues to get more affluent and more white. This year, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, is down 1 percent. The percentage of white students is up 1 percent. Both changes are in line with demographic trends occurring over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

9. Low-income students, non-white students and English language learners are less likely to attend schools the district deems high quality than wealthier, white, non-English-learners. But the gaps between the percentages of less privileged and more privileged students attending quality schools has shrunk over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

10. Denver has universal school choice, which means students can request a seat in any of the district’s traditional, innovation or charter schools. White students participate at a higher rate than non-white students. But English language learners and non-English learners participate at the same rate: 83 percent. This year, 4,400 students in the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade who participated in school choice and whose assigned schools are lower performing are attending a school the district considers high quality.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

11. Districtwide, 70 percent of elementary school students are attending high quality schools, or schools rated blue or green on the district’s color-coded scale, which is an increase from last year. That percentage is lower for the upper grades: 53 percent of middle school and 48 percent of high school students attend blue and green schools. The high school percentage has stayed relatively steady over the past few years, but the middle school percentage has declined.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

12. The district has set a goal that 80 percent of students residing in each region of the city will attend a blue or green school by 2020. While it has yet to meet that goal in any region, it has made some progress, especially at the elementary school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.