Tight-knit and tightly budgeted: Inside one of Denver’s smallest schools

When he walks down the hallway at Fairview Elementary, fifth-grader Jeremiah Martinez said he knows “mostly everybody,” including the teachers.

“The more I know them, the easier it is to do everything,” he said. “It’s better because you’re not going to be as shy, and you’re not going to be mumbling or acting different.

“You’re going to act like you regularly are.”

With about 220 students, Fairview is one of the smallest public schools in Denver. That’s one of the things that makes it special, according to the people who spend their days there. But having so few students also comes with big financial challenges.

Because Denver schools are funded per-pupil, fewer students means less money to pay for staff and supplies. That forces school leaders to make tough decisions and the school district to step in to provide extra cash. This year, Denver Public Schools spent $2.1 million to shore up the budgets of small schools.

The district could soon find itself having to pay even more. Demographers are predicting that declining birth rates and rising housing prices will cause enrollment in the 92,600-student district to drop nearly 2 percent by 2021.

A committee of community leaders tasked with suggesting ways to address falling enrollment recently recommended the district create “a transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools.”

The district has not yet done so, or said which schools might be subject to consolidation. But the committee noted that schools with 300 students or fewer “face particular challenges.”

“When they get under 300, schools have to think about trade-offs,” said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, who herself was once the principal of a small school.

Thirteen elementary schools, three K-8 schools, two middle schools, and two high schools meet that bar this year (not counting alternative schools, or schools in the process of phasing in or out), according to Denver enrollment numbers on file with the state education department.

Eight district-run schools were predicted to have fewer than 215 students, and the district spent just over $1 million to bring their funding up to the same level as schools with 215 students. It does that to ensure schools can afford to have one teacher per grade, one principal, one secretary, and the minimum amount of supplies and student mental health support, Cordova said.

The district spent about another $1 million on nine other district-run schools that have more than 215 students but fewer than 300. Schools must request that funding, known as “budget assistance,” which is doled out based on factors like school size and performance.

Cordova said district officials feel obligated to make sure small schools have enough funding to offer quality programs. At the same time, there are a lot of competing needs, and money spent supporting small schools isn’t available for other programs.

Fairview got $155,000 in budget assistance this year. Although the experience of each small school is different, the challenges faced by Fairview are illustrative.

The school sits in the middle of Sun Valley, the city’s poorest neighborhood. Isolated from the rest of Denver by roadways and rivers, Sun Valley is populated by industry, the Denver Broncos stadium, and more than 400 government-subsidized apartments.

This year, 226 students in preschool through fifth grade attend school in the stately blond-brick building, recently painted by muralists as part of a project to bring beauty to poor neighborhoods. Many live in the public housing across the street, and 99 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most are black and Hispanic, and many come from immigrant families.

Enrollment is down from five years ago, when Fairview had 281 students. As the school has lost per-pupil funding, Principal Antoinette Hudson has prioritized protecting teaching jobs to keep class sizes small. The school has avoided deep staffing cuts because she was able to sock away some of the extra funding Fairview received when it was one of the lowest-rated schools in the city.

But her savings can’t completely insulate Fairview from the effects of low enrollment. This year, it has just one third grade class instead of two. District enrollment officials predicted there wouldn’t be enough students for two classes, so Hudson made the difficult decision to consolidate. In a small school, a handful of students can make a big difference.

That difference was obvious on a recent school tour. With fewer than 20 students, most classrooms were hushed. But third grade was noisy. That class has 28 students, and some of them were sprawled on the floor with tablets, others sat at desks cutting out vocabulary words with round-tip scissors, and a group of five huddled at a crescent-shaped table reading a book with teacher Kaitlyn Edstrom.

After listening to each of them read a page, Edstrom did a lap around the room, multitasking as she walked. In less than a minute, she helped a student define a word, sharpened a pencil for another, and reminded the whole class how much time they had before the next activity.

Because Edstrom is the only third-grade teacher, she must teach all subjects to her students. That’s different than in most grades at Fairview, where, for instance, one second-grade teacher specializes in math, the other specializes in reading, and they switch between classrooms. The practice is called “platooning,” and Hudson introduced it shortly after she became principal in 2013 to allow teachers to deepen their knowledge of the content they teach.

But Edstrom said the hardest thing about having the largest class in the school is that she doesn’t get to spend as much quality time working one-on-one with students who are struggling.

That time is critical in a high-poverty school, teachers said: Small class sizes allow them to ask questions and build relationships with students living in challenging conditions.

“Kids just want to feel cared about,” said special education teacher Ashley Juhala. “If you’ll listen to something as mundane as, ‘My cousins came over,’ and you care about that and you want to know, that takes those power struggles, those defensive walls, they come down. Because you’re a person to them now; you’re not an authority figure. You’re family.”

Students said the teachers at Fairview make them feel safe.

“If you tell them something that’s not good that’s happening, then you can trust that they’ll help you with it,” said third-grader Peter Deferse.

The school’s nurturing culture is part of what has helped boost student test scores over the past couple years, teachers said. That academic progress has vaulted Fairview from the district’s lowest color-coded school rating, “red,” to its second highest, “green.”

But such dramatic improvement also has a cost. Because the school is high-performing, it is being weaned off the extra funding the district provides low performers to help them improve. This is the same funding that helped Hudson keep a larger teaching staff. Fairview has already lost a district-funded community engagement specialist, and it’s set to lose two grant-funded administrators: a dean of instruction and a dean of culture and equity.

And more change is coming. The low-income public housing where many students live, Sun Valley Homes, is being redeveloped into mixed-income housing, complete with parks and retail space. Although the new development will have more units than the current one, and though the families living there will be given the option to stay, Hudson and her staff expect some will be displaced. They fear the school’s enrollment could take a hit.

With declines forecast nearly citywide, other elementary schools could be in a similar situation, though for different reasons. Deputy Superintendent Cordova said she suspects some schools that now have three classes per grade will shrink to having two, which can still be financially viable.

“When we see schools going from two to one, that’s where we want to be thoughtful,” she said.

Schools tend to cross that threshold when they dip below 200 students, she said. Fairview is close to the edge. Teachers said they wouldn’t want to see it consolidated with another school, especially since students feel cared for and are showing academic growth.

Hudson said she wouldn’t, either. But the financially savvy principal understands why it would make sense to merge small schools.

She just hopes Fairview isn’t one of them.