a new city - for better and worse

Why we’re taking a closer look at how gentrification is changing schools — and how you can help

This is happening all over Denver (Denver Post file).

Last year, a vocal group of parents were aghast that Denver Public Schools officials couldn’t see the glaring need for a new comprehensive middle school in northwest Denver.

Look at all the new families moving into the rapidly transforming neighborhood, they implored. Look at the bulldozed lots, the construction cranes, the streets with not a parking spot to be had.

They were blind to the mathematics of gentrification. All those sleek modern condos with rooftop patios had been built on dirt where the children of working families had once lived. Gone were families in small, once-affordable homes, replaced by wealthy single people and empty-nesters.

Less than a year later, in an “I told you so” moment, DPS trumpeted the fact that the neighborhood’s existing comprehensive middle school, Skinner, had room to spare. So much room that on the first round of the school choice process, 18 students from outside of Denver got seats.

Few topics loom larger in metro Denver public education than gentrification. The ripple effects of the city’s breakneck development and skyrocketing costs are many — from neighborhoods and schools in Denver being transformed to school districts in Adams County and elsewhere coping with an influx of high-poverty students whose families were priced out of the gleaming new city.

In a piece published Friday in the Colorado Independent, journalist Tina Griego took stock of gentrifying Denver and noted that public schools have always been the “canary in the coal mine.” She quotes DPS planning and enrollment chief Brian Eschbacher — the guy who was right about northwest Denver enrollment projections — about the impact of the city’s transformation:

The changes impact both students – those forced to move and the friends they leave behind – and the school system, which is seeing a drop in the number of its lower-income students. For every percentage point drop in the number of students eligible for free-or reduced-price lunch, Eschbacher says, the district loses $1 million to $1.5 million in federal funding. The number of such students has dropped four percentage points in the last two years and is projected to decrease another 8 to 10 percent in the next four years, through 2020, he says.

This is coming on top of a projected decline in general enrollment simply because as housing prices increase, the number of families with public-school age children falls. “If you take a $100,000 home and scrape it to build $400,000 condos, it’s less likely that we will get students,” Eschbacher says. “Our student population grew so, so fast and now we have dramatically slowed our growth. It’s shocking to have it happen so quick.”

The policy debates about gentrification can be illuminating. Changing communities result in tough discussions about equitable school funding and whether traditional school boundaries contribute to segregation.

The human stories can be heartbreaking. Denver students have written poetry, produced videos and led walking tours expressing how gentrification has uprooted their lives.

These are stories Chalkbeat is dedicated to telling.

To that end, we are focusing additional energy and resources this school year on gentrification’s many impacts.

This means writing about how Denver residents are trying to reconcile the past with the present and future. It means following the most vulnerable students to classrooms in Commerce City and Federal Heights and Westminster, places that don’t get the attention they deserve. It means continuing our commitment to covering Aurora’s attempts to improve its long-struggling schools.

To tell these stories, we need your help. We want to hear from students, parents, educators and others about how the changing face of the metro area is impacting public education.

We want to meet families whose lives have been uprooted. We want to talk to educators whose classrooms look different. We want to identify the areas vulnerable to gentrification, and districts that have taken steps to adapt because of changes they’re experiencing or foresee.

Please contribute to the conversation by contacting us at co.tips@chalkbeat.org, leaving a message at 303-446-4937 or adding your thoughts in the comments below.

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline, and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14, and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”