Denver’s second-largest charter school network has decided to merge two of its high schools, effectively closing one of them. The reason? Declining student enrollment, which is a districtwide issue affecting not only charter schools but district-run schools, too.
The STRIVE Prep board of directors voted unanimously Monday night to close STRIVE Prep — Excel, a high school that serves about 260 students this year. Excel is located inside North High School, a traditional school in northwest Denver that had space to spare when Excel moved in.
Excel will close at the end of this school year. Next year, it will merge with STRIVE Prep — Smart, a high school of nearly 500 students located about 5 miles south of Excel.
“We believe it’s in the best interest of kids to make this move,” said STRIVE Prep founder and CEO Chris Gibbons. “The small school size at Excel has an impact on the course offerings and on our ability to provide a high-quality program.”
Merging the schools will allow Smart to offer more elective classes and extracurricular activities that are difficult to staff at a small school like Excel, he said.
In a statement included in STRIVE Prep’s letter to families, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova applauded the move.
“We commend STRIVE Prep for the thought and collaboration they’ve put into making this decision on behalf of all high school students in west Denver,” she said. “It’s an approach we can learn from and build on as we continue our community outreach and collaboration on how to best serve our students as the city’s population and neighborhoods continue to change.”
STRIVE’s decision is significant because it could be a harbinger of things to come. After years of rapid growth, demographers predict enrollment in Denver Public Schools will soon begin to shrink.
By 2023, enrollment is expected to decrease by 5%, from about 92,500 students this year to about 88,750, according to data provided to the school board this week.
Shrinking enrollment likely means more schools will be closed or consolidated. The district considers any school with fewer than 215 students to be financially unviable.
Independently run charter schools have their own thresholds, but in a state where schools are funded per-pupil, small schools often struggle to come up with the money to hire enough staff.
The Denver school board has signaled that tough conversations about school consolidation are coming. A community task force recommended that the district create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools.”
“This, in my mind, is not a conversation about charter schools,” Gibbons said. “It’s a conversation about all schools across the city.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run by boards of directors. STRIVE Prep opened its first charter school, then known as West Denver Prep, in 2006. The homegrown network has 11 schools in southwest, northwest, and far northeast Denver: one elementary, seven middle, and three high schools, including Excel.
The Denver school board has approved STRIVE to open two more elementary schools by 2023. STRIVE previously had five schools that were approved but not yet open. However, the network agreed earlier this year to surrender the approvals for three of them. Other Denver charter school operators did the same in a recognition of the expected declining enrollment.
The placement of Excel at North High School has been controversial. When the district “co-located” Excel there in 2013, North had fewer than 1,000 students. Today, it has more than 1,200. Community groups have called on the district to give North its entire building back.
The idea also came up in the recent school board election, with some candidates advocating to curtail or end the practice of co-location, which has proven unpopular.
But Gibbons said the pushback against co-location did not play a role in STRIVE’s decision. Neither did Excel’s academic performance, which has lagged behind other STRIVE high schools. Excel this year earned the lowest rating — red — on the district’s color-coded school rating scale. Smart earned an orange rating, which is the second-lowest.
Gibbons said STRIVE intends to ask the Denver school board to expand the enrollment cap at Smart to 600 students so it will be able to accommodate at least 100 students from Excel, should they choose to attend there. The demographics at the two schools are similar; nearly all students at both schools are Hispanic and most qualify for subsidized meals.
STRIVE also plans to meet with every Excel family to help them navigate the school choice process, even if they decide to go somewhere other than Smart next year, Gibbons said.
Denver school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the southwest Denver neighborhood where Smart is located, praised STRIVE for “putting students at the center.”
“When I was talking to Chris [Gibbons] throughout the process, his whole line of analysis for merging both of the schools has been all under the guise of what is best for students,” she said.