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.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.