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Denver school board wants better communication with parents as district weighs school closure

Denver school board members sit at a dais in a gymnasium. The audience sits in folding chairs with their backs to the camera. A big screen shows a stopwatch counting down.

Denver school board members listen to parents testify against a previous recommendation to close schools in November 2022.

Kathryn Scott / Special to The Denver Post

Denver school board members said Thursday night that they expect better communication with parents and educators as district officials consider next steps — including possible closure — for 15 schools with low enrollment

At the same time, board members who previously voted against school closures said they now believe some schools have such low enrollment that the situation is unsustainable. 

Superintendent Alex Marrero presented an update on enrollment and possible steps toward closure at Thursday’s board meeting. He identified three schools with especially low enrollment that could close as soon as the end of the school year: Denver Discovery School, Math and Science Leadership Academy, and Fairview Elementary.

Marrero emphasized that he has not yet made a formal recommendation to close those schools or any others, and that he’s open to new ideas from the community. He said he is approaching the process differently than he did in the fall, when he made a recommendation to close 10 small schools and then directed school leaders to hold community meetings to hear from affected families. 

The board rejected a narrowed down version of that recommendation in November, saying the process was rushed and didn’t give families enough of a chance to weigh in.

This time, Marrero is proposing meeting with the affected school communities before making a recommendation — a change that school board members said they appreciated. 

“Yes, these three schools can be recommended for closure, and these 12 schools can be recommended for closure next year, but that’s not what I’m bringing forward today,” Marrero said in an interview after the board meeting Thursday night. “I want everybody to be prepared that that could be the case, but we’re also looking for creative solutions.”

Marrero said the process could move quickly for the three schools with “critically low enrollment.” He said district staff could begin engaging with families and teachers at Denver Discovery School, MSLA, and Fairview Elementary immediately, and he could bring a formal recommendation to the board next month.

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, who was sharply critical of the school closure recommendation process this fall, said he feels differently now about the three smallest schools. 

“I believe that we are at a point with the three schools that we need to take action immediately,” Anderson said. “I’m seeing a number of 62 kids at a middle school and it’s not feasible. And I think we have to have some tough decisions.”

Denver Discovery School is projected to have just 62 students next year, while MSLA is projected to have 104 excluding preschoolers. Fairview Elementary is projected to have 118. Denver schools are funded per student, and schools with low enrollment struggle to afford enough staff.

Anderson acknowledged that families may have avoided schools previously flagged for closure in the just-closed school choice window, leading to even lower enrollment at those schools. 

“I do wonder if some parents were scared off from enrolling their kids because they saw these schools on a list before,” he said, referring to Marrero’s previous recommendations.

The process would move more slowly for 12 schools Marrero identified as having “concerning enrollment,” meaning they are projected to have fewer than 215 students next year. 

A proposed timeline calls for district staff to meet with the 12 school communities from March to August, and for Marrero to present a formal recommendation to the school board in September. Any closures or other changes, which the proposal says could include revising school boundaries or co-locating one small school with another, wouldn’t happen until fall 2024. 

The 12 schools are Ashley Elementary, Beach Court Elementary, Cole Arts and Sciences Academy, Colfax Elementary, Columbian Elementary, Eagleton Elementary, Hallett Academy, International Academy of Denver at Harrington, Kaiser Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Schmitt Elementary, and Whittier K-8. Projected enrollment ranges from 131 students excluding preschoolers at IAD at Harrington to 209 students at Cole Arts and Sciences Academy.

Board members offered suggestions Thursday for what they’d like the meetings with the school communities to look like. Anderson said Marrero should lead the meetings himself. 

Families should be assured their children will get priority to enroll at other schools if their school closes, Anderson said, and staff should be assured they’ll get other jobs in the district. He also suggested the meetings be held both in-person and virtually so more families could participate.

Board member Carrie Olson said one of the most uncomfortable parts of the meetings this fall was when parents would ask questions that principals didn’t know the answer to. She requested that “people who can answer questions” be in the room at all community meetings.

“Clear communication with answers at meetings is going to be vital and imperative,” she said.

The board is considering a new policy that directs the superintendent on how to approach school closures. It acknowledges that district enrollment is declining and says the board “believes it is necessary to consolidate and unify schools to maintain the financial viability of the district and to maximize the resources, staff, and programs offered to students.”

Consolidation and unification are how Denver officials describe school closures.

The policy outlines a long list of information that the district should provide to families and educators at schools recommended for closure, including the “positive implications of proceeding” and the “negative implications of not proceeding.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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