Cost of living

Why Denver Public Schools is floating the idea of turning this old elementary into teacher housing

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver's Rosedale Elementary was closed by the district in 2005 to save money. Rosedale is located at 2330 South Sherman Street in Denver.

The old Rosedale Elementary school sits empty and aging atop a hill in south Denver. Since the school board shuttered it in 2005 to save money, its sparse playground has rusted, its xeriscape garden has turned to weeds and the steps leading to the school’s locked doors have cracked and become carpeted in creeping vines.

Last month, Denver Public Schools officials pitched an idea to the neighborhood to convert Rosedale into teacher housing. In a gentrifying city where the average home price is now more than half a million dollars, offering teachers a place to live could help stem the tide of highly qualified recruits who take jobs elsewhere because they’re scared off by the high cost of living, said Liz Mendez, the district’s director of operations support services.

But the Rosedale neighbors balked at DPS’s idea, arguing that the building should be a school again.

On Thursday, the school board is set to consider a resolution pledging to “actively explore” solutions to the affordable housing crunch, including using its own real estate. (Update: The resolution was approved at Thursday’s board meeting.) However, Mendez said the district is now reassessing using Rosedale for that purpose in light of the neighborhood concerns.

The school board got a first look at the resolution at a work session last week.

“We are not housing developers,” said board member Lisa Flores. “We are educators.”

And yet, she said, the district is also a billion-dollar public institution and must consider that, too.

“It’s important for us to look at what role we can play as an advocate for increased development of affordable housing, but also what assets do we have … to further foster that development.”

DPS, where about three-quarters of students are kids of color, has especially struggled to hire teachers who reflect its students. While the district doesn’t have a count of how many applicants turn down jobs because of sticker shock, officials say anecdotal evidence shows it’s happening.

The base salary for a first-year Denver teacher with a bachelor’s degree this year starts at $41,389, though teachers can earn incentives and bonuses on top of that.

A lack of affordable housing for teachers isn’t just a problem in Denver. School districts across Colorado and nationwide are searching for ways to ensure educators can afford to live in the community where they teach in the hopes of providing more stability in the classroom.

DPS officials made their case to Rosedale neighbors at a pair of August meetings sponsored by the neighborhood association. The meetings were crowded with what retiree and association president Bev Cox described as “untold numbers of strollers and crying babies.” Neighborhood demographics are shifting, she said, as senior citizens sell their homes to young families.

“If you walk the park anytime of the day or early evening, there are mothers or nannies” with children in tow, said Cox, who counts five young kids on her street alone.

District officials didn’t reveal a specific plan for repurposing Rosedale, but rather said DPS would solicit ideas from developers for how best to build teacher housing there.

Some neighbors had a different request: reopen a school on the site. Right now, many neighborhood kids attend Asbury Elementary a mile away. Others choice into McKinley-Thatcher Elementary, which is nearly two miles away.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of us. We’d love to have a school in Rosedale,’” Cox said.

But Mendez said reopening Rosedale “hasn’t made sense from building cost perspective or what could fit in there.” With just 12 classrooms and the capacity for 150 to 200 students, it would be DPS’s smallest elementary school, she said.

Because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, small schools struggle to hire staff to teach a robust selection of electives, Mendez said. That causes students to go elsewhere, which further shrinks the schools’ budgets and exacerbates the problem, she said.

Plus, an architect assessment done in 2015 found the school would need more than $8 million in repairs to bring it up to code, according to the presentation given at the meetings. The district has not provided even a ballpark estimate on how much it would cost to convert the building into teacher housing.

As for the new families moving to the neighborhood, DPS officials say they have a solution. The district is planning to build five to seven more classrooms onto McKinley-Thatcher. The classrooms could accommodate up to 150 students and building them would “require minimal investment from DPS,” according to the presentation. That’s because most of the cost could be covered by funds the district can receive as a result of the redevelopment of the former Gates Rubber Co. site near Broadway and Interstate 25.

While Cox said many neighbors fear DPS’s idea to convert Rosedale into teacher housing is a done deal, Mendez said the neighborhood reaction “has given us pause.”

“We’re pausing to reassess and make a decision based on input from the community,” she said.

The Denver teachers union also has concerns about the idea.

“Which teachers could stay there?” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “If you criticized the school district, would you be out? If you organized, if you took action they didn’t like, would you be out?”

The union’s board of directors hasn’t taken an official position, but Shamburg questioned how many teachers would be helped by a single housing complex. She agreed that the dearth of affordable housing for teachers is a problem but suggested a different solution.

“If we pay them better, they can afford their own housing,” Shamburg said.

She added that the school board’s resolution raises her suspicions about what else the district has in the works. She thinks it’s misspent energy. “How about the district spends more time figuring out its core mission, which is to educate kids?” she said.

The resolution says the board “affirms that the district’s top priority for use of property is for schools.” It also says research shows teacher quality is among the most important factors in improving student achievement and that housing prices are outpacing income growth in Denver. It mentions that DPS can learn from educator housing efforts in other expensive cities.

One of those efforts is exploring setting up shop here. Called Landed, the company was founded in San Francisco in 2015. It solicits investors and philanthropists to help teachers with half of a 20 percent down payment on a house near the community where they work.

Alex Lofton, the company’s co-founder and head of growth, said Denver is one of Landed’s highest-priority targets for expansion and the one where it’s closest to becoming reality. The company is currently meeting with foundations to secure funding, he said.

“We are just really stoked as an organization to be seriously close to partnering with folks there,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place with an incredible can-do attitude, especially within the education sphere, and being solutions-oriented. That’s been really refreshing.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the amount of financial assistance Landed provides to teachers.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

new use

These seven Denver schools are competing to use a building vacated by a shuttered elementary

The former Gilpin Montessori School. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Seven Denver schools have applied to locate their programs in the northeast Denver school building that until this spring housed Gilpin Montessori elementary school.

They include six charter schools and one district-run school. Four of the seven are already operating in other buildings. The other three programs are not yet open.

In a gentrifying city where real estate is at a premium and the number of existing school buildings is limited, securing a suitable location that affords enough room to grow is one of the biggest hurdles new schools face.

Every year, Denver Public Schools solicits applications from schools seeking to use its available buildings. The process for the former Gilpin building is separate; the school board is expected to vote in December on a program or programs to take up residence in fall 2018.

The seven applicants are:

Compassion Road Academy, a district-run alternative high school currently located near West 10th Avenue and Speer Boulevard that had 172 students last school year.

The Boys School, an all-boys charter middle school that opened this year with 87 sixth-graders in rented space in a northwest Denver church and plans to add more grades.

Denver Language School Middle School, a K-8 charter school that served 715 students — 101 in middle school — last year and is currently split between two campuses in east Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, a charter alternative high school that opened this year in west Denver. It is the charter’s second campus in the district.

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Middle School, a charter school that served 402 kindergarten through fifth-graders last year in the building that houses DPS headquarters. It is approved to serve grades 6, 7 and 8, as well, but has not yet opened a middle school program.

5280 High School, a charter high school approved but not yet open that plans to emphasize hands-on learning and would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school approved but not yet open.

The district is currently reviewing the applications to make sure they meet the initial criteria it set, said DPS spokeswoman Alex Renteria: The schools must be currently operating or previously approved secondary schools with enrollments of 600 students or fewer.

Community meetings scheduled for Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 will provide an opportunity for community members to meet the applicants and “provide feedback on their alignment with the community priorities,” according to a district presentation. Community priorities are one of the measures by which the applicants will be judged, the presentation says. The others are academic performance, facility need and enrollment demand, it says.

A facility placement committee will review the applications and make a recommendation to Superintendent Tom Boasberg the week of Dec. 11, Renteria said. Boasberg is expected to make his recommendation Dec. 18 to the school board, which will vote Dec. 21.

The committee will include five district staff members and four community members, including two from the neighborhood, Renteria said. Applications from community members to serve on the committee are due Tuesday, and members will be selected by Friday, she said.

The Gilpin building is available because the elementary school that previously occupied it closed at the end of last school year. Using a district policy to close schools with low test scores and lagging academic growth, the school board voted last December to permanently shutter Gilpin Montessori and restart two other elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee.

The district’s rationale for closing Gilpin rather than restarting it with a new elementary program was based on enrollment: With just 202 students last year, it was the district’s second-smallest elementary school — and DPS enrollment projections showed further declines in the number of elementary-school-aged children in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying.

A recent analysis by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab showed a similar trend: rising home prices and rents, and a building boom that resulted in thousands of new housing units from 2012 to 2016 but just 23 new students.

Gilpin Montessori parents and community members rallied to save the school and have lobbied the district to keep an elementary school there.

Three programs serving students with special needs are temporarily using the building this year.