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.

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.

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.