DPS board votes to close three schools, including Sun Valley’s Fairview Elementary
Board members also unanimously voted to close and consolidate Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy.
Updated at 4 p.m.
In a 6-1 vote Thursday, Denver School Board members moved to close and consolidate Fairview Elementary School. Board members also unanimously voted to close and consolidate Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy. All schools will close at the end of the current academic school year.
When it came to Fairview, several board members voiced concerns about DPS’ predictions of enrollment versus Denver Housing Authority’s predictions on how many students would be returning to the neighborhood due to their redevelopment project.
For Discovery, which is a middle school, students won’t be merging with another school but will instead have a choice of where they attend. Staff will also get to choose which school they’d like to work at. MSLA and Fairview will merge with Valverde and Cheltenham, respectively. Union staff from both schools will also be a part of the merger.
Board Vice President Auon’tai M. Anderson voted no on the recommendation to close Fairview, stating more needs to be done to see where students actually return to the neighborhood.
“I believe that we must take a cautious approach when it comes to closing schools that serve significant vulnerable populations,” Anderson said. “I believe that we need to gather additional information and ensure that we are making the right decision for our students and ensure that our numbers align with DHA.”
Superintendent Alex Marrero reiterated that nothing will happen to Fairview building. At least not yet.
In the future, and if the families do come, Fairview may be reopened and “reimagined.” That reimagining part could include building a new state of the art school. Marrero also suggested that the building could be used as an education center with supportive housing at the top.
Dominic A. Diaz, a Fairview parent and at-large council member candidate said he was “heartbroken and disappointed with the board’s decision. His daughter attends Fairview’s early education program and has “thrived,” he said.
“Considering Sun Valley’s history of disinvestment and how now we have an influx of investment, this just seems like a step in the wrong direction and its perpetuating harm to a community that has borne the brunt of inequity in this city,” Diaz said. “We have Fairview right now. It serves its purpose. Granted, I don’t think anyone in the community is saying it’s perfect. Obviously there’s a need for improvement but let us have that opportunity…Students… their community matters to them. Having a sense of belonging. We love Sun Valley.”
Diaz, to Marrero’s point, also said housing is not necessary.
“That’s not what we need. We have that already. We need a school for our kids,” Diaz said.
Kris Rollerson, the Executive Director of the Sun Valley Youth Center, added, “We don’t need DPS to build us housing, we need an education system where our kids can benefit from ECE all the way to 12th grade.”
When it came to MSLA and Discovery’s closing, board members were equally emotional.
“We did not do what we should’ve done some 10 years ago when [Discover] was opened,” said Secretary Michelle Quattlebaum. “We must be transparent in where we failed and not only where we succeeded…I do not like closing schools. I’ve been through it. It’s emotional as I said numerous times.”
Treasurer Scott Esserman added that Discovery’s closing was “an institutional failure.”
Residents and stakeholders in Sun Valley believe DPS is once again incorrectly estimating the number of students they will service in Fairview.
Currently, DPS is projecting that Fairview will have 118 students next year, with seven kindergarteners selecting Fairview as their first choice school. DPS considers a school with 300 students or fewer to have low enrollment.
At a recent community engagement meeting at Fairview, Dr. Marrero said last year seven kindergarteners also choiced into Fairview, but eventually, the class had 22 students.
“What we’ve learned is historically, Fairview is not a choice school. Parents around the neighborhood expect it to be here and they show up on the first day of school,” said Marrero.
At minimum, DPS budgets each school for 215 students regardless if they have less than that. Since Fairview already receives that funding, they’d need more than the 215 minimum to stay open and not overwhelm staff.
DPS is again expecting 23 kindergarteners next year but they won’t know the exact number until the first day of school and DPS isn’t going to wait for that day to happen. And ultimately, 23 students isn’t enough.
The discussion surrounding the shuttering of under-enrolled schools began in June 2021 when the previous Denver School Board passed the Small Schools Resolution.
In late February, Marrero unveiled plans to once again consider closing and consolidating schools with low-enrollment due to sustainability concerns with budgeting and ensuring students have a well-rounded education.
That resolution required that a plan to reduce the number of schools in the district experiencing low enrollment be devised. The initial plan was announced in September 2021 and listed 19 schools in predominantly minority communities.
The plan was immediately tabled after community members voiced concern over the locations of the schools and DPS’s engagement process.
In October, DPS tried again with a list of 10 schools. That was later cut down to five but then minutes before board members were ready to vote, the list was cut down to two: Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy. The recommendation was ultimately voted down with the notion that this discussion would return.
DPS has experienced high levels of low enrollment since 2015 and that decline equals a potential annual loss of about $36 million to schools as school budgets are based on a per-pupil model.
In the past six years, the district has lost about 5,000 elementary-aged children, or 16 schools’ worth of kids, Chalkbeat previously reported. But Chalkbeat also found that the district opened too many schools because it incorrectly forecasted how many students it would need to service.
However, Sun Valley is in the middle of a massive neighborhood redevelopment and locals believe the number of children in need of a school will rise again.
Sun Valley was home to the Sun Valley homes, income-restricted housing run by the Denver Housing Authority. There once was a population of about 1,500 but now Sun Valley is filled with detour signs, construction plots and new buildings as DHA redevelops the income-restricted housing.
DHA is replacing 333 units and adding more than 950 new homes to house more than 2,500 residents. An additional 734 units are also expected from partnerships with private developers.
So far, DHA has completed four housing projects: Gateway North, Gateway South and most recently, Thrive and GreenHaus. Both Gateways have leased up their combined 187 units. Six townhomes were also completed with that project. Thrive and GreenHaus will house a combined 264 units with one to five bedrooms. DHA said once Thrive and GreenHaus are filled, about 242 to 484 residents will be 18 and younger with 97 to 194 being elementary school kids.
“Sun Valley families, their future stability, and the important educational role of Fairview Elementary have been at the center of DHA’s redevelopment approach for the past decade,” said DHA spokesperson Allison Trembly. “Fifty percent of DHA’s total residents are below the age of 18 and 40% of them are elementary age.”
Diaz also questioned why DPS wasn’t taking Sun Valley redevelopment into consideration, especially with the data provided.
However, at the community meeting Marrero suggested these projections are hypothetical and Fairview can’t be sustained on hypotheticals.
He also acknowledged that Fairview has been at the center of DHA’s project but when asked if DPS has considered any economic impact it may be causing with the closure, Marrero said that simply isn’t a DPS issue.
“What we’ve heard, respectfully, is a promise in terms of enrollment but nothing concrete and a whole lot of passion. As much as I want to acknowledge the passion, passion is not a strategy,” Marrero said. “If I can be a little bit blunt. I want to acknowledge there are other interests in terms of investments perhaps or other organizations that rely on this school being here… But that doesn’t hold water to the education experience that I’m responsible for. It would have been more impactful for me, instead of hearing figures and numbers, to say what can we do better that [so students] have this, this and this as opposed to this.”
Esserman questioned during the board meeting where the projected families were coming from. DHA previously said that they were building units ranging from studios to five bedrooms and those larger apartments would be for families only. Esserman added that if the families do come, he hopes DPS will reopen the school.
President Xóchitl Gaytán said in the future she wants DPS to further look into how it interacts with DHA. Gaytán expressed concern with the way DHA and City Council members are redeveloping Sun Valley, especially with the creation of an urban redevelopment area. The designation allows DHA to receive tax increment financing from properties they own to pay for new roads, a park and new housing.
Gaytán said investment like that “exacerbates gentrification.”
Diaz said that notion is completely false. Councilmember Jamie Torres said the comment was misapplied. She said if Sun Valley were filled with private development that house low-income residents, they wouldn’t be able to return in the way they are with the DHA homes, which would be true gentrification.
“To call creating a mixed-income community gentrification is a misapplication of the word,” Torres said. “This is a neighborhood that’s geographically isolated and it’s shocking to everyone that the sole school that serves it would be closed…Folks are excited to return to Sun Valley after a couple of years of displacement and they probably don’t even know exactly how this will affect them yet.”
Torres and Diaz agreed that there’s more work and engagement to be done in Sun Valley. Diaz especially said he hopes DPS follows through with their promises of revisiting Fairview once families return.
“Part of DPS’ core values is collaboration and I don’t feel like they’ve lived up to their promise on that one,” Diaz said. “I don’t feel like they approached DHA with a collaborative spirit. I think DHA approached them in good faith with hard data and it seems DPS continues to operate in a silo.”
Torres added, “I feel there’s a bit of repair that needs to happen and hope to hear how that will take place…between all the partners in the community.”
During the previous vote, several board members and parents said the process was rushed and they expressed concern over DPS’ engagement with community members.
DPS officials said this time around, engagement included “several conversations and surveys.” But Fairview community members felt that this round of engagement was “performative” and that ultimately a decision has been already made.
That’s a sentiment Sun Valley community members have felt for a very long time.
Once being dubbed the poorest neighborhood in the city to now being a desolate area while they wait for construction to be complete and for neighbors to move in. Rollerson previously said the potential closing of Fairview is just “one more thing” the community has to face and they are “tired.”
But Dr. Anthony Smith, Deputy Superintendent of Schools said residents need to look past their love for Fairview and focus on the students’ education.
“Two things can be true, we can love our community and not be given the education that kids deserve,” said Smith. “We’re at a dire point. I think we probably should have addressed this a few years ago when kids were getting limited electives. When their well-rounded education was impacted… We have to really face those harsh realities.”
But facing those realities doesn’t mean the community should feel “gaslighted.” Ashley Juhala, a teacher at Fairview, agreed that something needs to be done about Fairview’s low-enrollment but DPS should acknowledge what the Sun Valley community has already experienced and work on being more of a community partner.
“Options are not options if they’re not authentic options,” said Juhala “We’ve seen DPS name the fact that they’re bad at community engagement and then every time they come back to the table, it looks exactly the same…I would love to reframe the conversation around making this decision about whether Denver Public Schools is going to invest in the community or not.”