To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.
The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.
Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.
The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.
The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.
Here is what the committee is urging the district do:
- Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
- In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
- Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
- Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
- Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
- Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
- Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
- Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
- Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
- Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
- Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
- Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
- Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomic diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
- Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
- Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
- Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.
The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.
There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.
The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.
There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.
Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?
Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.
The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.