By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat
Two elementary schools in working-class north Denver neighborhoods that are feeling the sting of gentrification will share a $120,000 grant to fund a staff member at each school to address some of the challenges facing the changing communities.
Swansea Elementary, located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, will use its $60,000 share of the money to continue to fund its school psychologist. The school was in danger of having to reduce the position from full-time to part-time after rising neighborhood rents caused student enrollment to decline, costing the school state per-pupil funding, said principal Gilberto Munoz.
“Over the last three or four years, rents have really doubled, so it’s pushed people out,” he said Monday after the grant was announced to a crowd of parents and dignitaries packed into the Swansea Elementary gymnasium. “All throughout last year, we saw families leaving.”
Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the adjacent Globeville neighborhood, will use its $60,000 to hire a new family liaison to encourage parents to become involved at the school.
“This has been a desire and a need and a want on our wish list for quite some time,” said principal Rebecca Salomon.
Garden Place is also losing students as housing prices increase, which Salomon said has made it impossible to fund this type of position.
The positions are partly being funded by the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is tasked with overseeing six projects in that part of town, including the expansion of Interstate 70 and the redevelopment of the National Western Center stock show complex. The Mile High United Way is also providing funding as part of an investment in underserved communities.
Some north Denver residents have raised concerns about the projects, which are meant to rejuvenate a historically industrial part of Denver that has suffered ill effects from past civic projects — including the construction of I-25 and I-70, which bifurcated the neighborhoods.
The first of the new projects — improvements to gritty Brighton Boulevard, which runs through Elyria-Swansea — is scheduled to break ground Oct. 13, according to a city spokesman.
The school principals said families aren’t as worried about the projects themselves as they are about how the impending changes will affect their ability to stay in their homes.
Swansea Elementary lost 79 students in the past year as their families moved to more affordable neighborhoods such as Montbello in far northeast Denver or nearby suburbs like Aurora, Munoz said. One family has been given notice to vacate their home because the land it stands on is set to become part of the new and improved National Western Center, he said.
Anna Jones, executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, said the city can’t control how much private landlords charge their tenants — but it can help soften the financial blow to schools with shrinking student populations.
“The thinking was these positions would be able to fill in the gaps that are created through the rapid changes these neighborhoods are experiencing,” she said.
She said the city decided to invest in the schools because “schools are where that story begins.”
At the event, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the schools “the heart of the community.”
“This is a community that is undergoing a lot of change right now,” he said. “Some of that change is wonderful and promising, but some of that change is scary.”
Boasberg said the ultimate goal is to make sure the changes benefit everyone — and the $120,000 donation is a step toward ensuring that happens.
The funding is solely for this school year, according to a DPS spokeswoman.
The two schools serve an at-risk population. More than 90 percent of students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Garden Place, 46 percent of students were English language learners. At Swansea, 55 percent were.
Most students who attend the schools come from the neighborhoods, according to the district.
“Because of the pressures they’re facing in their own lives, they bring it to school,” said Munoz, explaining why he decided to use the money to fully fund Swansea’s psychologist.
“Some of the things they’re facing would challenge most adults. So teaching them how to manage that is essential — and having a professional that does that for you is really helpful.”