changing city

‘It is kind of crushing:’ Southwest Denver projected to lose nearly 2,000 students

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Idaly Clark, 10, eats a snack as her friend Flor Aguire,10, braids her hair during the after-school program at Munroe Elementary in southwest Denver.

When Eve Ulloa started working as the parent liaison at Denver’s Castro Elementary School nearly two decades ago, the building was bustling with more than 700 students. Today, the school in heavily Latino southwest Denver has about half that many.

The steep drop is partly due to the loss of Castro’s preschool classes, which were moved to a different school along with a few specialized programs for students with disabilities.

But there are bigger forces at work, too. And they’re the same ones that recently led demographers to predict that Denver Public Schools, once the fastest growing urban school district in the country, will begin to see its numbers shrink. Southwest Denver, home to more elementary school children than any other part of the city, is expected to be the hardest hit.

“It’s kind of stunning,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, who until a month ago represented the region on the school board. “We were projecting a slight decline, but it’s pretty dramatic.”

In Ulloa’s job at Castro bridging home and school, she sees why. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for students to have a sibling in every grade from kindergarten to fifth. Now, she said, the biggest families have at most four children. Parents are dissuaded from having more, she said, because of tight budgets or the fear they’ll be deported and have to leave their kids.

Ulloa has also seen an uptick in the number of families forced out of their homes by rising rent, as young adults without children flock to Denver and housing becomes an even hotter commodity. Instead of $700 a month, rentals in the area are going for at least twice that.

“In the last three months, I’ve had families come to me and say, ‘We’re getting evicted. We’ve tried. We’re behind,’” Ulloa said the week before winter break.

Families usually move in with friends or relatives, she said, sleeping on couches and basement floors while they save up for a new place. Oftentimes, they can’t find anything within their price range in gentrifying Denver and must look north to Commerce City or Thornton.

“You see the kids cry that they have to move,” Ulloa said. Many don’t want to leave Castro, located in the Westwood neighborhood. “A lot of them, this is their second home — and being told they have to move somewhere because their parents can’t afford it, it is heartbreaking.”

Denver Public Schools hired outside demographers from the Denver Council of Regional Governments and the Denver-based Shift Research Lab for the first time last year to conduct the district’s enrollment projections. (Shift Research Lab is affiliated with the Piton Foundation, which is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The district released the predictions last month.

By 2021, the student population, which stands at 92,686 today, is projected to shrink by nearly 2 percent. The primary reasons, demographers concluded, are lower post-recession birth rates and skyrocketing housing prices that are pushing poor families out of the city.

The elementary school population is expected to decline by an even bigger 7 percent, according to the analysis. And in southwest Denver, the number of elementary school children is forecast to drop a whopping 16 percent, from 9,455 this year to 7,933 in 2021. The region is projected to lose nearly 2,000 students overall in that time period.

Such dramatic decreases can have grave effects on schools, which are funded in Denver on a per-pupil basis. The fewer students a school has, the less money it has to pay for teachers, nurses, mental health counselors, and extracurricular programs.

A committee of community leaders tasked with recommending ways to address declining enrollment and combat segregation recently suggested the district create a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools.

The district has shied away from defining how few students is too few. But the committee noted that schools with enrollment below 300 “face particular challenges.” Very few schools in southwest Denver meet that threshold today, though a handful are close.

Skepticism about the district’s previous enrollment forecasts was one factor that led officials to hire outside demographers. But some leaders in southwest Denver still don’t have faith in the predictions. This year’s forecast was the first to project big declines in the region.

“I find it suspicious that our public school district is pointing at gentrification as a reason for folks not attending the local schools,” said city council member Paul Lopez, who grew up in west Denver and represents part of the region. He said it’s the district practice of closing and replacing low-performing schools that scares families away.

“I’d like to see what data they used,” Lopez said.

Jennifer Newcomer of Shift Research Lab shared some of it with Chalkbeat. Her numbers show births in southwest Denver have plummeted from a 20-year high of 2,500 in 2002. There were just 1,820 births in 2016, which was still the most in the city but not by much.

Residential property statistics from the Denver Assessor’s Office show that median housing values in the neighborhoods expected to experience the largest enrollment declines — such as Westwood, Athmar Park, and Ruby Hill — jumped 50 percent from 2014 to 2016. In 2014, the median value of a home in Ruby Hill was $161,550. Two years later, it was $246,300.

Gentrification is happening in southwest Denver, Lopez admitted, but more slowly than in other regions. He credits the slower pace to zoning rules that restrict where high-rises can be built, the fact that much of the housing stock is 1950s-era workforce housing instead of historic brick bungalows, and the strength of the community to organize against disruptive forces.

Unlike in other parts of the city, gentrification doesn’t look like slot homes and Whole Foods stores. Instead, aging homeowners are selling to young professionals, mobile home parks are being razed to make way for apartments, and landlords are raising rents.

Angela Cobián, who was elected in November to succeed Rodriguez in representing the region on the school board, has felt the effects herself. Cobián said last month she was planning to move into a friend’s basement after her lease was up Jan. 1 to save money.

“As a new elected official, I’m thinking about what can I do to push for long-term solutions,” she said. “My whole mantra as to why I decided to run, which I kept repeating, was I wanted my students to grow with my city and not be displaced. And then literally the first thing I learn as a school board member is the projected displacement of our students.”

“It is kind of crushing,” she said.

Jeannie Nelson, a mom of four and a regular volunteer at Schmitt Elementary in the Ruby Hill neighborhood, has seen it on her block, too. Families with young children are moving out and people without children, or with teenage children, are moving in. Her son’s best friend moved east to Aurora because his family’s landlord suddenly wanted $2,000 a month for a three-bedroom house with no basement and just one bathroom, she said.

Ruby Cardenas, a mom of three and another Schmitt volunteer, said she’s heard of other families moving out of the city and into rural farming communities in an attempt to distance themselves from the radar of federal immigration authorities.

Both women are worried about the impacts to Schmitt, where enrollment has dropped from 380 five years ago to 287 this year. There are other factors at play, too: Schmitt recently underwent big changes in an attempt to boost its student performance, which had been lagging, and more than half of neighborhood children choose to attend another school. But fewer kids in southwest Denver means the pool of potential students is drying up.

“We need families,” Nelson said.

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she asid. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.