The flock of construction cranes downtown and in Cherry Creek, rising rents and new businesses across the city are often cited as signs that Denver is booming. More people are moving to the city. Denver looks different now than it did 20, 10, or even five years ago.
Want more evidence of change? Look at who’s attending Denver Public Schools.
In a sharp reversal from the recent past, the number of DPS students from higher-income families is growing faster than the number from lower-income families.
The percentage of students from low-income families has been shrinking incrementally for three years now. And DPS and state officials are projecting that the new trend is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Neighborhoods like Stapleton and River North are gentrifying, and more middle-class families are staying in the public school system. There’s also evidence that more families are moving out of poverty as the Great Recession recedes.
But some of the forces at work are more surprising: State and local officials point to the longer-term changes in who attends public schools wrought by the shrinking economy, the steady improvement in the district’s reputation and academic track record, and even a state-funded contraceptive program.
A confluence of trends
DPS is growing more quickly than any other school district in the state. In 2000, the district enrolled 70,955 students; this year, it had 90,150. For most of that time, both the number and percentage of the district’s students who lived near or at the poverty line—$23,850 per year for a family of four in 2014—were increasing at a steady pace.
School systems often use families’ eligibility for federally-subsidized meals as a means of tracking poverty. Families with an income that is 130 percent of the poverty rate are eligible for free lunch. Those whose income is 185 percent that rate are eligible for reduced-price lunch.
In 2000, 61 percent of Denver students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. By 2011, that had increased to 73.6 percent.
But the 2011-12 school year marked a turning point. Since then, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has been dropping, to 72.2 percent in 2012-13, 72.1 percent in 13-14, and 69.7 percent this year.
The percent of students eligible for free lunch dropped more quickly, from 66 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2013 and 62 percent in 2014.
Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, the real number of students eligible for free-and reduced-price lunch combined increased slightly, by some 150 students. The number of students eligible for free lunch declined for the first time in years.
Citywide, the total number of people in poverty increased from 2008 to 2010, said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s State Demographer. “But overall, things are definitely improving since 2010.”
That lines up with statewide trends: The poverty rate in Colorado schools overall decreased from 41.9 percent last school year to 41.6 percent in 2014-15.
But both state and city are bucking national trends. According to a report released earlier this month by the Southern Education Foundation, the number of low-income students in the country’s public schools has increased in recent years, to 51 percent in 2013.
Garner said that while the total population under 18 in Denver dropped between 2008 and 2013, more residents now are sending their children to the Denver school district.
“Our capture rate of middle-class families is going up,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. Before, he said, more families were transferring to nearby suburban districts or opting into private schools. “Especially in middle school, the quality and reputation of our schools has gone way up.”
The trend has not been evenly spread throughout the city, however. Gentrification in certain neighborhoods has had a major effect, Boasberg said.
Still, Boasberg said that he hoped that the declining poverty rate would allow for increased socioeconomic diversity in Denver schools. “I think the more diverse we are as a district, that helps us in our efforts to have greater diversity in our individual schools.”
State and district officials said that the simultaneous reduction in free-lunch eligible families and increase in reduced-lunch eligible families indicate that some families are moving out of poverty as the economy recovers from the Great Recession.
But Garner said the recession led to a web of other changes. For one, more than 10,000 of the city’s foreign-born residents left the city between 2008 and 2013 as the economy bottomed out. She said there were also fewer low-income Hispanic residents in 2013 than in 2008.
Garner said that the gloomy economy may also have helped spur more affluent citizens to send their children to the public schools. “Some people who could previously afford private schools were now choosing to send their children to public schools.”
“That will push down the share of people in poverty or the share who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, because you’re adding people on the higher end,” Garner said.
Another wrinkle: The state demographer said there has been a decline in the number of children aged 0-5, partly due to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a state program that funded contraceptive devices for women. That program is credited with lowering Colorado’s birthrate by 40 percent over five years.
Garner said the steepest drops in birthrate were among women under 20, who, she said, are more likely to live in poverty. Children in that age group are not yet in school, but could be part of projections that lower-income regions will see fewer students in school.
Budget, academic implications
The changing demographic may eventually be reflected in academic performance in some of the city’s schools: Often, students from higher income brackets score better on standardized tests.
The change will also have funding implications for Denver schools. School districts receive state and federal funds to support low-income students.
Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, told the DPS board last week that the district is projecting a decrease in the revenue it gets from Title I—a pot of federal money targeted at high-needs schools—as both Colorado and Denver have a smaller percentage of at-risk students than in the past.
Ferrandino said the district would make cuts to central office programs to avoid affecting school budgets.
“The reason why the state and federal governments tie funding to free and reduced-price lunch is that there are often higher needs for those kids,” Ferrandino said.
“Relatively, from a budgetary perspective, it means less money coming in,” he said. “But from an overall societal perspective, it’s good news.”