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 [email protected], leaving a message at 303-446-4937 or adding your thoughts in the comments below.

poverty

There are more students from low-income families in many Denver area districts

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Among traditionally high-poverty school districts in metro Denver, most are seeing more students from low-income families and a few are experiencing a decline, according to new data.

Many of those same school districts have substantial numbers of homeless students, too. That picture also has shifted, with most of those high-poverty Denver area districts posting declines in homeless students. Officials caution, however, that what might seem like a promising trend might be a result of other factors that sell short the extent of the problem.

Enrollment data for the current school year was released by the state on Tuesday. The data, compared to previous year’s data, shows that most metro area school districts that serve high numbers of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch — including Adams 14, Westminster, and Englewood — have seen a jump since 2014 in the percentage of those students.

At the top of that list is the Sheridan School District, southwest of Denver, where in 2014, 84.7 percent of students qualified for government-subsidized lunches. In 2017, 90 percent of Sheridan students qualify. And overall, the small district has shrunk — it’s now down to about 1,400 students — as families squeezed by a rise in housing prices moved out, officials said.

“What we’re hearing through our families is that some landlords are escalating rents monthly by a hundred dollars, which is a challenge,” said Michael Clough, the district superintendent.

One district, Denver Public Schools, reported a significant drop in the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. The school districts in Aurora and Mapleton have experienced flat or slight decreases from 2014 to 2017.

Metro area school districts with highest numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 84.77% 90%
Adams 14 72.20% 86%
Westminster 76.36% 80%
Aurora 69.42% 69%
Denver 69.77% 67%
Englewood 62.56% 66%
Mapleton 60.13% 60%
Adams 12 37.81% 40%
Brighton 27J 38.45% 37%
Jeffco 31% 31%

Statewide the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch decreased compared to last year, although the number of homeless students has increased.

Many districts in the metro area have seen a drop in the number of students reported as homeless, including in Aurora, Adams 14 and Westminster.

Officials in Adams 14, where the percent of homeless students dropped to 4.08 percent from 7.4 percent in 2014, said they worry that families are less willing to identify as being homeless, especially with concerns about immigration crackdowns.

“It’s been more of a search to try to find those families,” said Ruben Chacon, Adams 14’s director of climate and culture. “Our liaison goes to the couple of affordable housing complexes and knocks on doors to try to find kids we haven’t located.”

Chacon said that he tracked district students who were identified as homeless last year, and found that many have transferred out of the district. The Adams 14 boundaries don’t include much new housing, and as families exhaust their temporary situations, they leave, he said.

“There really isn’t a large affordable housing option available for new entries,” Chacon said. “We have a lot of long term residents and a lot of people who moved here as the housing market became more expensive in Denver, but if you look at the inside of our boundaries now we pretty much have zero housing growth.”

The Sheridan schools, on the other hand, are seeing a continued rise in the number of homeless students. Almost one in four Sheridan students are experiencing homelessness, an increase from 2014.

“We find it to be unbelievably stressful on families and on children, and our teachers as well,” Clough said. Because of the small size of the district, he said, officials are able to connect with homeless families and point them to various resources, including health services and a food bank, meaning many families might choose to stay nearby for the help instead of fleeing.

One district that hasn’t traditionally served high numbers of students from low-income households, Jeffco Public Schools, is now one of just three metro-area districts seeing a rise in homeless students. At the start of the current school year, 2.35 percent of Jeffco students identified as homeless.

Rebecca Dunn, coordinator of Community and Family Connections in the Jeffco district, said she believes a big part of the increased numbers is that the district is doing a better job tracking and identifying students who are experiencing homelessness.

“Our online registration system now has a very clear area where families can mark if they are experiencing homelessness and then what type,” Dunn said. “So we’re able to get that information much quicker. We also have just improved our outreach to schools so they know what to look for and are able to do that in a really sensitive manner.”

Percent of students who are reported as homeless in metro area school districts:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 21.55% 23.04%
Westminster 7.62% 6.56%
Englewood 5.13% 4.75%
Adams 14 7.42% 4.08%
Adams 12 2.98% 3.71%
Aurora 5.87% 2.72%
Jeffco 2.12% 2.35%
Mapleton 2.03% 1.67%
Denver 1.40% 1.11%
Brighton 27J 1.57% 1.03%

Below is a map highlighting the percent of a school district’s student population that qualifies for free or reduced price lunch in 2017. The darker-colored districts have a higher share of this group of students. Click on any district to see their percent.

Note: Data is not available for districts in red.

community input

A high-poverty Jeffco school is about to adopt a “community school” model. What does that mean?

Rhiannon Wenning leads a community forum at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

One of Jefferson County’s highest-need schools is about to undergo a transition, expanding efforts to not just teach kids but meet the many needs of families in the area.

As the academic year begins, Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater will begin the process of becoming a community school. That means the Jeffco Public school will act as a hub for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes, job training and medical care — to parents and families.

Community schools are an emerging trend in education, championed by teachers unions and others who believe tackling poverty, health and behavior challenges facing students and their families can help boost learning.

Although approaches to community schools differ nationwide, they share that holistic approach. One U.S. district heavily invested in the concept, New York City, has pumped millions of dollars into transforming more than 130 high-need schools into community schools over three years.

The community schools approach is also in harmony with the philosophy of new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass, who has prioritized addressing poverty and other student needs.

Jefferson teachers began leading the effort last summer, said Rhiannon Wenning, a Jefferson social studies teacher and the community school site coordinator. They hope to disrupt patterns such as the school-to-prison pipeline by better engaging parents and families in their child’s education.

Jefferson’s demographics make it a good fit for the community school model: The junior-senior high school serves students in the area from grades 7 to 12. Just over 90 percent of Jefferson students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and the school is 82 percent Latino.

Jefferson Principal Michael James said the school has had community partnerships and run family-focused programs for some time, but committing to a community school model will expand that effort.

It’s a reorganization for the better, for ensuring that we have good systems in place for our families,” James said. “It’s not a huge new thing. It’s really not.”

The biggest changes, Wenning said, come with operating the center and ascribing to the “six pillars” of community schools as defined by national organizations such as the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools. Local nonprofit Edgewater Collective is working to establish partnerships with local organizations and help staff the center.

Over the last four years we’ve been building a great group of community partners that really want to invest in our schools,” said Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective. “This is the logical next step to solidify the connection with our schools and bring partners into the school building.”

Wenning said those pillars, which include wraparound services, restorative discipline practices, community engagement and curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives fit neatly into some of Jeffco’s school expectations.

For Wenning, making sure students have support and find school materials engaging and relatable is the ideal result from the community school transition. Research into whether community schools move the needle academically, however, has shown uneven results.

“If I’m being a good teacher and a culturally relevant teacher, I’m gonna ensure (my curriculum) includes the history of my students,” Wenning said at a recent community forum.

James said the transition to community school will be gradual, as Jefferson is still seeking support to remain open beyond the school day and hoping for funding from national organizations that has not yet come to fruition. James said as of now, the school budget will have to swallow the cost of added resources.

Wenning said the principal had committed to funding her position as site coordinator part-time, and that she was pursuing other funding sources.

Even with funding uncertainties, Wenning has faith in the ultimate success of the model. She said she expects that after a few years, students and the surrounding community will see a drastic change.

“I want Jefferson to be a school Edgewater wants,” Wenning said in an interview. “If you don’t like something with your neighborhood school, then go into it and make it better… It’s the best use of not only taxpayer dollars, but it’s the best scenario for our kids.”