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Jeffco votes to close another small school while looking ahead to long-term plans

Empty school hallway

Jeffco Public Schools will close Fitzmorris Elementary in Arvada at the end of the current school year.

David Zalubowski / AP

Jeffco’s school district will close another Arvada elementary school at the end of this school year after learning the school likely would have less than 100 students next fall. 

Fitzmorris Elementary currently has about 114 students. After choice enrollment in the district closed, district leaders estimated the school would have just 88 students next school year. 

The school board voted 4 to 1 Thursday to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to close the school.

Jeffco also closed Allendale Elementary last year. That school’s boundaries were adjacent to the Fitzmorris boundary areas. The district was criticized for closing Allendale without first engaging the community or asking the school board to vote on the decision. The district was also criticized for its timeline, which possibly violates district policy, giving parents only months to plan before the closure.

Tracy Dorland, who started as superintendent shortly after that decision, told the school board Thursday she tried to make this process different, but the short time frame couldn’t be avoided. 

“We are smarter today than we were yesterday and we’re going to be smarter tomorrow than we are today,” Dorland said. “I have done what I can on the timeline that I’ve had to take lessons learned about what didn’t work … and try to make it better and more honorable of the Fitzmorris community.”

Jeffco, currently the second largest school district in the state, has had declining enrollment for years. Among the causes: An aging population, declining birth rates, and rising housing costs that have driven some families away. But even though school closure discussions have been ongoing, the district has yet to create a comprehensive plan to address how to support or choose closure for the increasing number of small schools.

District leaders are concerned that the quality of education at small schools has been declining as schools receive less funding for fewer students. At Fitzmorris, it had reached a point, Dorland said, that the opportunities for students were no longer going to be adequate.

Per pupil expenses at Fitzmorris are nearly 30% higher than at an average Jeffco elementary school, and with the loss of an additional 23% of its enrollment, the district expects the cost would have increased even further.

However, the money isn’t the real problem, Dorland said, but rather the quality of the education. 

“We want to provide students a high-quality program and for the amount of investment that we’re making, the program is struggling and that’s the bottom line,” Dorland said. “We want to offer students a robust learning experience and we’re really struggling to do that at Fitzmorris.”

For example, the school cannot afford to have one teacher per grade level, Dorland said. The school has just five second graders this year so teachers work with students who are in multiple grade levels and take on extra roles. The school has tried to find community organizations that could help offer enrichment or afterschool activities the school can’t afford, but attracting an interested partner has been difficult with so few students, she said.

Fitzmorris families have been speaking to the school board for months seeking help for their school, and asking to be a part of the conversations around its fate. In February, the board held a special study session when Fitzmorris school leaders and parents were invited to present about their challenges, and what they still thought was going well.

By Thursday, when the board was scheduled to vote on the recommendations, just two parents spoke to the board. Both were resigned to the idea that the school would close, but thanked the district for the communication, and asked for a quick decision and for help keeping together the program for students with autism. 

“We’re just too small anymore to give our kids an enriching environment,” said Michelle Miley, a parent of a third grader in the school’s autism program. “Although I love Fitzmorris and will miss the connections that my son has made…we need a determination as quick as possible to allow us time to adjust and prepare our kids.”

In her recommendation, Dorland said just 48 of the 224 elementary students who live in the school’s boundary attend Fitzmorris. The school has attracted students from other areas, but still loses more students than it gains. 

Most students next year will go to Lawrence Elementary nearby, while the autism center program will move to Stott Elementary.

Some board members said hearing from the principals at the schools receiving the Fitzmorris students helped them to accept the recommendation.

Board members and Dorland also said Thursday that they hope the district will be able to have a finalized plan before another school needs to be closed due to low enrollment. The district has started conversations about a plan it’s calling Regional Opportunities for Thriving Schools, and has begun discussions about how to define “thriving schools.” The plan would consider regional solutions instead of waiting for individual schools to have such low enrollment they must close independent of other factors.

“The ability for us to collaborate and share resources across these areas — it’s going to be awesome at some point,” said board member Danielle Varda. “I am sorry we haven’t been able to do that with Fitzmorris as part of that broader project.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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