Schools targeted for closure in Denver, Jeffco have disproportionately high numbers of students of color
The majority of the 26 schools that Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools have recommended closing enroll a higher percentage of students of color than their respective districts enroll overall, according to an analysis of state data by The Denver Post.
Colorado’s two largest school districts have proposed shutting down schools as a way to tackle declining enrollment, which district leaders say is expected to continue for the foreseeable future and already is impacting the instruction students receive at small schools.
The first vote on the potential closures will take place Thursday night when Jeffco Public Schools’s Board of Education meets. Denver’s Board of Education is scheduled to vote on that district’s recommended closures on Nov. 17.
But the districts’ plans have drawn criticism from parents and school board directors who question how administrators decided which schools to shutter, with some calling the proposals classist and racist because the closures, if approved, would predominately affect students of color and those from low-income families.
“It does feel like they are pleasing schools that have higher incomes,” said parent Esmeralda Franco, whose daughter is part of the deaf and hard-of-hearing program at New Classical Academy at Vivian Elementary. It is one of the 16 Jeffco schools that would close if the school board approves that district’s plan.
“But it’s OK to close the schools with low income because they don’t have a say in it,” she added.
In Denver, 75% of the children enrolled in the district during the 2021-22 academic year were students of color. By comparison, the percentage of children of color enrolled at nine of the 10 schools DPS has proposed closing ranged from 85% to 98%, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
In neighboring Jeffco Public Schools, 34% of the children enrolled districtwide were students of color in 2021-22. At 12 of the 16 schools recommended for closure, that percentage was higher, ranging from 38% to 88%, the data shows.
The Post reviewed figures from the 2021-22 academic year because they represent the most recent data from the education department. The state counts how many students are enrolled in every district each October and that number is used to determine how much funding schools receive. Enrollment data for the 2022-23 academic year won’t be released until January.
The data shows that the potential closures also are affecting students from low-income families. At 17 of the 26 schools that might close, more than half of the students qualified for free-or-reduced lunches during the last academic year.
A Jeffco Public Schools official said the district “share(s)” parents’ concerns regarding the school closures affecting its most vulnerable students — but that is why the district believes it should go through with the consolidation.
“Those resources are spread too thin,” said Tara Peña, chief of the family, school and community partnerships at Jeffco Public Schools.
“Our students of color and our students of poverty deserve the very best that we can give them,” she added. “That is why (the school closure) recommendation is so important.”
Wednesday evening, the Latino Education Coalition said it was asking DPS for a one-year moratorium on school closures because there has been no transparency regarding the Declining Enrollment Advisory Committee, which helped set the criteria used to decide which schools should close.
The problems with the committee include a lack of language translation for Spanish-speaking members and a lack of alternative solutions to school closures, said Milo Marquez, chair of the coalition, in a statement.
“Latino students and families are disproportionately affected in the schools being recommended for consolidation,” he said.
DPS said in a statement that it used the criteria developed by the advisory committee to create the list of 10 schools.
“The District followed the guidelines that were established and applied the equity guardrails that were created by the (committee),” the statement from DPS said. “While difficult, this work has been completed to ensure that all of our students are able to receive an equitable educational experience, as well as whole-child support, in every DPS school.”
Nationally, schools with higher ratios of students of color are more likely to permanently close — even though enrollment and academic achievement are the main predictors of such a scenario, according to a study released earlier this year by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice.
And while academics and finances are the strongest predictors of a school closure, they also are the result of historic inequities in education, the study noted.
Parents in more affluent and white neighborhoods “clamor” to keep their children’s schools open and are more likely to hold “sway” with district officials, said Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“It’s pretty clear schools will close,” she said.
Why the districts want to close schools
Schools across the U.S., notably in urban cities, are experiencing declining enrollment, Schultz said. DPS and Jeffco both have said fewer students are enrolling in their schools, which they attribute to falling birth rates and shifting populations.
Elementary schools have been hit hardest. For example, DPS has lost more than 6,400 elementary-aged students across the district since 2014.
Jeffco Public Schools has had one of the largest enrollment declines in Colorado, losing more than 5,000 students between 2019 and 2022. More than half of the district’s elementary schools have fewer than 250 students and/or use less than 60% of their building capacity, according to the district.
DPS officials have said gentrification has contributed to the changes in enrollment as high housing costs are pushing families out of the city, especially those from historically Latino and Black neighborhoods.
“What makes this more challenging is that the decline in enrollment is clustered in a few neighborhoods that are most impacted by the city’s changing housing prices,” Superintendent Alex Marrero told the school board earlier this month.
Officials with both DPS and Jeffco have said they expect enrollment to fall further in the coming years. Although, in Denver, the city’s housing authority believes at least one neighborhood where the district is looking to close a school will see an increase in children because of redevelopment projects.
Parents, community members and others said they are not surprised that the school closure plans would mostly affect students of color.
“Gentrification is overwhelmingly impacting these communities that are displacing these families that would have the youngsters that would enroll,” said Vanessa Quintana, who was a freshman when DPS briefly closed Manual High School in 2006.
She questioned why the superintendent and school board aren’t speaking out more about city housing policies, given how much they are impacting the district.
“They’re blaming… gentrification as a cause when they didn’t seem too worried about it when it was happening,” said Kathy Escamilla, professor emeritus in the division of equity, bilingualism, and biliteracy at the School of Education at CU Boulder. “This seems to be landing disproportionately on Latino kids and families.”
Districts say small schools have fewer resources
Because small schools have fewer students, they also receive less funding. This means they aren’t able to offer as many electives, such as art and foreign language classes, according to both DPS and Jeffco Public Schools. They aren’t able to hire as many paraprofessionals, who help teachers in classrooms, and may not be able to provide after-school care like larger schools.
At most of the schools, the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” in reading, math and writing was lower compared to how students performed across both districts, according to the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test scores released earlier this year.
Children from different grades are learning together in a single class and Spanish-language instruction is being merged with classes taught in English, according to DPS.
“We are not equitably resourcing our schools and our students and our families deserve better,” Peña, with Jeffco Public Schools, added.
If the Denver and Jeffco school boards approve the closure plans, then both districts will shutter schools next year. One school — Bergen Meadow Elementary in Jeffco Public Schools — would close before the 2024-25 academic year.
The school closure plan in Denver is facing opposition from some board members. At least two directors have said they are not supportive of the plan, although it’s unclear if enough board members will vote against the proposal to kill it.
Earlier this week, board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said he and two other directors have placed an item on the agenda for next week’s meeting that would have members vote on whether to revoke a 2021 resolution that directs the superintendent to develop a plan to address low enrollment in elementary schools.
If the school board rescinds that resolution, then directors would draft a new policy on how to handle small schools “with the community,” Anderson said. If they don’t revoke the resolution but vote down the current plan, then the superintendent is required to come back to the board with a new closure plan.
During their meeting earlier this month, board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán cautioned her colleagues to think about whether they could move quickly with a new policy if they vote against the school closure plan.
Her concern, Gaytán said, was about the lack of adequate resources for multilingual students.
Schools don’t have enough money to hire licensed teachers for the district’s Transitional Native Language Instruction program for Spanish-speaking students, she said. Through the program, children are taught primarily in Spanish in their early grades, with English gradually added to their instruction.
DPS has said by closing schools and sending those students to larger schools, the TNLI program would have more resources.
Multilingual students are “not getting the appropriate services in learning right now.” Gaytán said. “And they will not get it this school year.”
“They have more money, obviously”
Franco’s daughter, Sophia, is in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program at New Classical Academy at Vivian. The 5-year-old has a movement disorder and uses sign language to communicate.
If the school board approves the closures, then Sophia, a kindergartener, will change schools next year.
Franco is worried that her daughter will struggle with the transition and about how well the students at the school — Maple Grove Elementary School — will accept her daughter. Sophia has been called names by other children before because she can’t walk long distances and easily falls, Franco said.
The students at New Classical Academy at Vivian are more diverse and more accepting of students with disabilities, she said. Students in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program intermingle regularly with their peers who don’t have disabilities and every child at the school is taught sign language, said Franco, who is Hispanic.
“The school board… they just see numbers,” she said. “They don’t see how much this school has motivated those kids to feel they belong.”
The Jeffco district is reaching out to families that have children with disabilities to understand their circumstances and what students need, spokeswoman Kimberly Eloe said.
Franco recently toured Maple Grove Elementary. The campus, she said, was beautiful and there were more resources — the school’s Parent Teacher Association raised enough money to hire four paraprofessionals.
“They have more money, obviously,” she said.
But the classrooms use high tables with stools — which Franco was told helps students concentrate better. Sophia, Franco said, cannot sit on a stool without falling. And there was no ramp to get to the playground, making it inaccessible for Sophia, who uses a wheelchair.
“I understand the reasoning” behind the school closures, Franco said. “Just imagine if Vivian had more resources. They offer so much for their kids with the budget they have.”
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