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Charter school centering Black students misses enrollment target, won’t open in Denver this fall

Two young children in beautiful window light and art projects.

Children participate in an event to learn more about the 5280 Freedom School charter school, which aimed to center Black students.

Courtesy 5280 Freedom School.

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A charter elementary school centering Black students won’t open as planned in Denver this fall. 5280 Freedom School did not enroll enough students for next school year, and the Denver school board isn’t considering giving the charter school more time.

The refusal is a departure from past practice and emblematic of the increasingly tough outlook for charter schools in Denver, which was once among the friendliest districts for the publicly funded, privately run schools. But declining enrollment and shifting politics have changed that — even for a school aiming to fulfill one of the school board’s priorities: improving education for Black students.

“It’s unfortunate because the longer we wait, there are still Black students entering schools … and not learning, not getting the quality instruction they need,” said Branta Lockett, founder of 5280 Freedom School. “That’s what’s most devastating to me.”

The school board initially denied the application of 5280 Freedom School last June along with the applications for two other charter schools that wanted to open in Denver Public Schools. 

The district feared 5280 Freedom School would fail to enroll enough students, with Superintendent Alex Marrero noting that “school models of this limited size are not in the best interests of pupils, the district, or the community.”

More than a dozen charter schools have closed in recent years, often because of low enrollment. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and schools with low enrollment struggle to afford enough staff to offer robust programming. District-run schools are closing, too. The school board recently voted to close three small district-run schools at the end of the school year.

5280 Freedom School appealed its denial to the State Board of Education, which ordered the Denver school board to reconsider. State Board members said it was unfair to assume that 5280 Freedom School would face the same enrollment challenges as other Denver charters.

In September, the Denver school board complied with the State Board’s order and approved 5280 Freedom School to open this fall. But the approval came with conditions, including that the charter fill all of its open seats in its first year. 5280 Freedom School pledged to open with 52 students in kindergarten and first grade, and gradually build the school from there.

But the school wasn’t able to enroll 52 students. Lockett said only 38 students — 27 kindergarteners and 11 first graders — enrolled in 5280 Freedom School during the school choice window this spring, when families submit their choices for next school year.

The school’s agreement with DPS said failure to enroll 52 students “would result in a breach of contract and would prevent the school from opening.”

In March, 5280 Freedom School sent DPS a letter proposing two other options, according to a copy obtained by Chalkbeat. The school proposed opening this fall with kindergarten only or delaying its opening until 2024, giving it more time to recruit students. 

“5280 is providing this letter as a demonstration of its interest in working proactively with DPS to address any concerns as early as possible,” the letter said.

But school board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said in a statement this week that the board “is not currently considering” 5280 Freedom School’s request.

That was news to Lockett, who said Tuesday that neither the board nor DPS ever answered 5280 Freedom’s School’s letter. “They’re not obligated to respond to us,” Lockett said. “But if you believe in equity, if you believe in students first, if you believe in supporting Black families and communities, the least you could do is respond.”

Past school boards have given other nascent charter schools more time to recruit students. In 2018, the board allowed a charter school called The CUBE to delay its opening after it missed its enrollment target. The board did the same for the American Indian Academy of Denver in 2019. However, both schools continued to struggle with enrollment. The CUBE closed in 2021, and the American Indian Academy of Denver will close at the end of this school year.

5280 Freedom School is now considering reapplying to DPS next year or opening as a private school, Lockett said. It already runs a successful summer program that teaches children about Black history, African drumming, poetry, nutrition, and more.

“It has been a difficult journey,” Lockett said. But she said not everything has been a loss. “There were a lot of obstacles placed in front of us that we were able to overcome time and time again,” she said. “The only one we didn’t meet was enrollment.”

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

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