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Declining enrollment may lead to more elementary school closures

Jeffco Public Schools has room for 96,000 students, but only 69,000 are currently enrolled. Fewer students could lead to elementary closures.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colorado — There may be more elementary school closings coming for Jeffco Public Schools (JPS).

Fitzmorris Elementary closed after the end of this school year due to declining enrollment. The district is making a larger consolidation plan this summer to address the issue, which could mean more schools shutting down. 

"Living literally next door to the school, it really upended everything," said Anthony West, former PTA president of Allendale Elementary School.

Allendale closed last year and now walking to school is no longer an option for the West family. 

“My girls had been back in-person schooling for about a week or two when they learned they were going to lose their entire school," said West. "The initial reaction was just hard. We had no time. We had to scramble to figure out where we could go the next year."

He said the closure was devastating. 

"It was small, but it felt very homey," said West. "Everybody knew everybody."

JPS is dealing with declining enrollment, due to lower birth rates, unaffordable housing and shifting demographics. 

"We have, at this point, some very under-enrolled schools which have led to experiences that are not great for kids," said Lisa Relou, chief of strategy and communications at JPS. 

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She said in order to improve those experiences, they're making a plan to consolidate or close schools to address shrinking student populations. 

"You see things like having to make hard decisions between having a specialized band teacher and a math teacher," said Relou.“In one grade level, for example, there were like five students and there was a student who was having attendance issues and didn’t want to come to school. It was a situation where there was actually one female child in the classroom and that child didn’t feel that she had any friends, so she didn’t want to come to school.” 

Or sometimes there are only enough students for one classroom per grade level, leaving teachers without a team to collaborate with, among other issues. 

"Unfortunately, what happens in order for us to sustain the small schools, we have to siphon off money from our larger schools. So, we do our best to supplement the experience as much as we can," said Relou. "It’s really challenging and we are really just trying to keep our students and staff at the center of it.” 

She said this kind of work is the hardest to do in a school district because no one wants to see their neighborhood school close. 

“It’s not as cut and dry as one would think. For example, there are some schools in Jeffco that were built to serve a small student population. There may be 250 kids and over 100% capacity. Then, there are other schools in Jeffco that are under 200 students and then maybe using 35-40% of their building and so they were constructed to serve many more students than they are," said Relou. “We just really are taking the time to make sure we look at each school’s situation.”

She said by the end of August, the superintendent will make recommendations on which elementary schools will be consolidated or closed going into the 2023-2024 school year. 

"It sucks closing the small schools but also, in a sense, getting to a bigger school with more opportunities can be a fresh start," said West. "As far as families go, you kind of roll with it and do the best you can for your kids."

Relou said the school district plans to release a report on all 85 of their elementary schools at the end of the month. 

After deciding which schools to close, she said they'll work closely with families to help them with their enrollment choices.

“With Fitzmorris, for example, we were able to move all the students who wanted to from Fitzmorris into Lawrence, which is a school very close by. So, there may be instances where we are able to offer students and families the opportunity to move with peers to a new school," said Relou. “We will be talking to families about what they want and definitely taking that into consideration as well.”

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