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Just before 7 a.m. Monday, the first day of school in Denver Public Schools, 7-year-old Sara sat on her family’s couch, velcroing brand-new sneakers so glittery that when she ran her hand over the outside, sparkles clung to her fingertips.
The sneakers were the same powder blue color as her favorite cartoon character, Stitch from the Disney movie “Lilo & Stitch,” who also adorned her T-shirt and backpack.
Sara woke up early, with minimal prodding from her mother. She is one of more than 87,000 students heading back at approximately 200 schools in DPS.
Sara was excited despite a big change. Her old school, Fairview Elementary, was one of three schools closed by DPS this past spring because of low enrollment — a persistent problem caused by lower birth rates and high housing prices that have pushed families out of the city.
DPS’ decision to close small schools sparked pushback from families, accusations of a rushed process, and clashes between district and city officials. After the decision was made, the district reassigned Fairview students to Cheltenham Elementary less than 1 ½ miles away.
“Mama, do you know where Cheltenham is?” Sara asked when they got in the car.
Her mother, Najah Abu Serryeh, put the school’s address into her phone’s GPS. It said they would arrive in 10 minutes. From the back seat, Sara was a mix of nerves and enthusiasm.
“I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited to go to school,” she said.
Then, the second-grader added: “I was scared that people will be mean to me.” Two of her friends had moved away over the summer, one to the city of Aurora and the other to California.
“But you have a good principal,” her mother said. “She will not let anybody be mean to you.”
Abu Serryeh had opposed the closure of Fairview, a big brick building in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood. She testified before the school board last November when Fairview was on a list of underenrolled schools facing closure. She told the board members that when her kids — Sara and her sister, who is now in middle school — heard about the possible closure, they cried.
“Fairview for them, it’s not just a school,” she told the board. “It’s like their second home.”
The Denver Housing Authority also opposed the closure of Fairview, arguing that its redevelopment of the subsidized housing in Sun Valley would bring hundreds more elementary-age students to the neighborhood and boost Fairview’s enrollment.
Despite those projections, the school board voted in March to close Fairview and two other schools: Math and Science Leadership Academy and Denver Discovery School. The vote took place with almost no warning — and Abu Serryeh was the only parent in the audience.
“It’s so unfair,” she told reporters afterward.
But after touring Cheltenham and meeting the principal in the spring, Abu Serryeh said she now feels differently. Combining students from the two schools means Cheltenham will have much higher enrollment — and the per-pupil dollars that come with it.
DPS had projected Fairview would have just 118 students this year if it had stayed open, while Cheltenham alone had 286 last year. Although Fairview students could choose to attend a school other than Cheltenham, it’s likely Cheltenham will have more than 300 students this year.
With more funding, Cheltenham will be able to offer programming that small Fairview could not.
“My daughter will have more opportunity and learning in Cheltenham, more than she was being offered in Fairview,” Abu Serryeh said in an interview. “She will have more classes like music, science, and dance. More than what she had at Fairview.”
And the sense that Fairview was like a second home? That may still exist at Cheltenham. Fairview teachers were guaranteed a job at Cheltenham if they wanted it.
When Sara and her mom pulled up Monday, the 7-year-old immediately recognized several staff members who were standing outside with walkie talkies, greeting families.
“Hiiiii!” one said, enveloping Sara in a big hug. “Happy first day of school!”
Even Sara’s second-grade teacher is a former Fairview educator. After walking to her new classroom, Sara let go of her mom’s hand, eager to start the school day. Her mom had to stop her to remind her to take a carton of cereal from the breakfast tray before Sara bounded to her seat.
“Byeeee,” her mother called after her.
Outside, a yellow school bus full of kids pulled to the curb. The district had promised Fairview families transportation to Cheltenham, but Sara wasn’t able to ride the bus Monday because her family moved out of Sun Valley when their home was demolished as part of the redevelopment. Abu Serryeh watched the students stream off the bus. One little girl caught her eye.
“This is the friend she asked about,” Abu Serryeh said — the one Sara thought had moved to California. “She will be so happy when she sees her friends.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.