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DPS considers new plan to solve declining school enrollment

DPS is faced with low enrollment at 15 schools – the superintendent proposed a plan to the school board on Thursday.

DENVER — Denver is once again starting conversations about the problem of declining enrollment, and how to try and solve it.

Thursday night, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS), Alex Marrero, shared new data with the board and a new plan to move forward with options.

While no schools were formally recommended for closure, the district said that option is likely for some of the smallest schools where enrollment challenges are most dire.

In a presentation shared Thursday night, Marrero and his staff walked school board members through the latest enrollment data for 15 of the district's small schools. All 15 have fewer than 215 students. Most of these schools were identified in previous low enrollment conversations.

Three schools are described as having "critically low enrollment," all with fewer than 120 students enrolled. Those include: Denver Discovery, The Math and Science Leadership Academy and Fairview Elementary.

Now that it is school choice season, DPS has a better idea of how many students plan to enroll in those schools next year. Marrero said the numbers are even lower than they expected: less than 10 students in the incoming grade for each of those three schools.

"Clearly we cannot function with those numbers," he said.

"What we will do is engage immediately with those communities to come up with solutions. And solutions can be another unification effort... or it can be something more creative. Like no [more] kindergarten [at that school], no sixth grade, and that will be a slower way of the school ultimately closing."

"But that has not been decided, I want to be clear," Marrero emphasized. "But those are the schools we will immediately engage in."

Immediately, Marrero told the board, means discussions starting in the next few weeks for these three smallest schools – with decisions being made in the coming months ahead of next school year (2023-2024). Recommendations for 12 other schools, categorized as having "concerning enrollment," would be discussed for action in the 2024-2025 school year.

Rather than simply recommend school closures, as Marrero did last fall when the district last discussed deciding enrollment, in this proposal Marrero is recommending community engagement around multiple options. 

Last fall, the school board voted against closing any schools. Several board members criticized Marrero, claiming district leadership did not include community engagement in the decision-making process.

The board seemed more receptive Thursday night than they did in the fall, but warned district leaders there is a lot of distrust between the community and DPS on this issue.

"Our vote to not move forward last time was the opportunity to create this [process now]," said At-Large Member, Scott Esserman. "I want to see us move forward and succeed in the initial opportunity to build some of that trust."

"We are at a crossroads with these three [critically low enrollment] schools," added Board Vice President, Auon'tai Anderson ."I'm at a different position than I was a few months ago with these three. I would love to have a longer conversation on the others. I don’t see where we can turnaround. I think there's a tough decision we have to make, and make it sooner rather than dragging on uncertainty for these three communities."

The school board is also creating a new Executive Limitation (EL) – a set of guidelines for the superintendent to follow - related to school consolidation and unification decisions. That EL has not yet been finalized.

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