01 October 2007

Denver School Closures

Middle schools are out. After the latest round of reforms the district will have 14 middle schools (down from 18), 16 K-8 schools (up from 12), and 2 6-12 schools (up from one) for middle school aged kids.

Four of the eighteen middle schools in Denver will be reconfigured. Three (Cole, Place and Horace Mann) will become K-8 schools, Kunsmiller Middle School will become an arts magnet school with grades 6-12. A K-6 school, Gilpin, will become a K-8 Montessori school. All of the existing 12 K-8 schools will remain unscathed. Cole and Horace Mann were on No Child Left Behind Act probation, and so the District will get those monkeys of NCLB compliance off its back. Gilpin, Horace Mann, Place and Kunsmiller were all at under 50% of capacity and lose kids in the school choice suffle.

Eight elementary schools (Del Pueblo, Hallett, Fallis, Mitchell, Remington, Smedley, Whiteman and Wyman) will close. Six will be absorbed, two apiece, into the new K-8 schools. One which was already closed prematurely for lack of enrollment (Del Pueblo) will be rolled into a nearby K-8 school. The last elementary school (Hallet) will see its students split between two nearby elementary schools. Del Pueblo, Hallett, Mitchell, Remington, Smedley and Whiteman were on No Child Left Behind Act probation. Del Pueblo, Hallett, Fallis, Mitchell, Remington, Smedley and Wyman were all at under 50% of capacity or close to it.

Other than the new arts magnet school, the high school situation will remain unchanged, with 11 existing high schools and one existing 6-12 school (Denver School of the Arts) remaining intact.

The plan doesn't contemplate teacher layoffs, although administrative and building support staff will presumably be cut.

The DPS plan looks like a sound one. The district loses a lot of children who aren't impressed with their options as they transition from 5th grade to middle schools. This should help that problem. The district had too many buildings and has mitigated that issue, saving $3.5 million a year in operating costs, and presumably also reaping additional funds from the sale of the buildings. According to the Rocky:
Although the district will be selling some surplus real estate, none of the schools recommended for closure tonight will be up for sale immediately. That will occur only after discussion with the community, Bennet said.

With the exception of one elementary school, students will continue to go to school with their classmates and friends from this year -- only one closed elementary school is having its student body split up. About 3,000 kids will be impacted, most of the remaining 63,000 students in the district won't notice a change.

Meanwhile, DPS has reached a deal with the classroom teachers association, avoiding a strike, and has added the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (for grades 6-10) to Arthur Henry Middle School and John F. Kennedy High School, thus beefing up advanced programs at one of the middle schools and one of the high schools.

Two new high schools and one or two new K-8 schools are planned for the Gateway/Green Valley Ranch area in Northeast Denver. It appears that Beyers School, formerly home of the Denver School of the Arts, will not be repopulated. The District is looking for charter schools including a night high school.

The changes are not as dramatic as could have been imagined, in part because a few schools have already closed more traumatically in recent years. But, the closures show enough commitment to serious change, that the incumbents in this year's school board elections will have something to campaign upon. A lot of parents in schools that were at risk of closing, like those of kids at West Wasington Park's Lincoln Elementary School, are breathing sighs of relief.

Closing eight elementary schools is not going to completely address an overcapacity of real estate of 31,000 student slots. Even with generous estimates of the capacity of the closed schools and of Beyer's school, and new preschool slots in the plan, it barely nicks into 20% of the excess capacity. But, district leaders cleared decided to try to make a meaningful cut go smoothly, rather than maximizing all possible consolidation into a single year. I suspect that in a few years we will weather another round of school closings, quite possible converting even more middle schools into K-8s. The official reason that there weren't more closures this year is ominous:

Some members of the A+ Denver community group, which was charged with recommending criteria for school closures and changes, had suggested the higher number. But the group's top recommendation is that any students displaced by closures must be sent to a better program or school. DPS leaders admit there aren't enough quality options, particularly at the middle school level, to close more buildings.

This year, the board took on the low hanging fruit, but there may be hard cuts down the road as the district continues to try to control its costs.

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