Denver Gazette: New thinking for shrinking schools | opinion

What has to go up has to come down – even when enrolling in school. No public school district has the same number of students from year to year, nor does any neighborhood that supplies students to that district remain the same. A cul-de-sac of kids on bikes seems to instantly become a cul-de-sac of grizzled heads walking dogs and waiting for their grandkids to visit at the weekend.

It’s worth reconsidering as Colorado school districts are once again making headlines with controversial talk of closing some schools permanently amid declining enrollments.

The state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, recently announced it was considering closing 10 schools — reduced to five by the district administration last week after the board refused. Jefferson County’s second largest district school in the western metropolis of Denver is closing 16 elementary schools after a unanimous board vote.

Colorado Springs School District 11 and Pueblo 60 School District have also lost students to suburban districts, with D-11 enrollment falling by more than 4,000 students over the past four years. School closures were not proposed, but staffing positions were at stake.

It’s inevitable. Colorado’s urban school districts in particular have lost families to outlying areas as inner cities have become less welcoming places to raise children for a variety of reasons. In the inner-city cores of Colorado cities, the most vulnerable children from low-income households are often left behind.

The result is schools that simply serve too few children to be viable. As government funding per student falls along with declining enrollment, the costs of staffing, managing, and running a school building—heating, electricity, cleaning, maintenance—remain much the same.

A private sector organization would take the obvious step of repurposing the facility for more efficient use – or shutting it down and putting it up for sale. It’s not that easy for public schools.

Parents are understandably concerned at the prospect of losing their children’s schools. Factors such as transportation and familiarity – a sense of community – foster attachment to a neighborhood school.

The setback for school boards and school administrators can be severe. Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero “prioritized” just five schools for the upcoming closure after several board members disapproved of his previous recommendation that 10 be closed. The full board is scheduled to vote on his revised proposal this week.

School districts – administrators, teachers, elected bodies and the parents who elected them – should rethink the whole issue. And school choice—charter schools and other specialized programs that meet children’s diverse needs—must play a central role.

Choice has been used across the state for years to improve academic performance. Districts should also pre-select to check for declining enrollment.

School districts cannot afford to keep schools open if they have too few children; Fairview Elementary School in West Denver, for example, has only 128 students. This leaves a district short of all students who could use the wasted funds for more teachers and other resources.

Likewise, for the sake of their children’s education, parents cannot afford to tie their children to a neighborhood school at any cost, based solely on its location.

Understaffed schools could compete for more students by offering programs that other schools don’t offer. Charter and innovation schools like the one in Denver are examples, but only the beginning. Let all schools be creative. An elementary school music program that lets kids record their own hip-hop? A reading program where students can self-publish their fiction?

For schools that have become too small, it is time to think big.

Editors of the Denver Gazette