Jeffco’s Public Schools are losing students.
The district has space for 96,000 students in traditional schools and enrollment is currently at 69,000 in those schools, according to Board President Stephanie Schooley. Although there’s no singular reason for the decline, census data shows a decrease of nearly 30,000 school aged children in the district between the years 2000 and 2020 — even though the county’s general population increased by nearly 56,000 residents in the same period.
The population of Jeffco children under the age of 5 has decreased, with 2020 recording the lowest number of births in 15 years.
So, in an ongoing attempt to deal with the reality of shrinking enrollment, board members heard a status update during their May 5 meeting on something they call Regional Opportunities for Thriving Schools. It’s an “18-month initiative designed to respond to the Board’s request for a comprehensive plan to ensure thriving schools with enrollment to support extraordinary student experiences across the district.”
In short, it’s a plan that will almost certainly include school closures and consolidations.
Staff intends to submit a written report to the Board on 49 elementary schools with a student population under 250 or building utilization of under 60% by May 31, giving the Board time to make closure decisions in the fall. That report will look at things like operating costs, adequacy of facility for program implementation, building capacity, projected enrollment, desirability of site, etc. The report will be reviewed during the Board’s June work session and in late October or early November, the Board will take action on the Superintendent’s recommendations.
Chief of Strategy and Communications Lisa Relou led the Regional Opportunities presentation.
She said Colorado is not alone in declining public school numbers, pointing to a recent Chalkbeat article citing population shifts and the growth of charter schools as culprits behind school closures in cities from Oakland to Philadelphia and several points in-between.
So, what’s the plan?
Relou told the board the District’s recommendation for Phase I of the program "Thriving Experiences for Elementary Students" was to focus on a November 2022 consolidation plan that will confront future emergency spring closure decisions for small elementary schools. She said the plan will also move the district toward a future where all elementary schools are thriving with foundational components and lay the groundwork for Phase II which will focus on bringing regional cohesion to grades PK-12, with a vision toward the future.
Enrollment data from the 2021-22 school year showed that Jeffco Schools are currently serving 25,600 students in 85 traditional elementary schools, but have the capacity to serve 39,900 students. Relou said the 49 under-enrolled elementary schools have nearly 11,000 empty seats combined.
To make matters more difficult, those under-enrolled elementary schools can be found in six different articulation areas in the district.
Jeffco Superintendent Tracy Dorland explained that the 250 student threshold is important because with class sizes of 20-25 students, it takes 250-300 students to ensure each school would have two classes per grade level.
Currently, there are six elementary schools in the district that have enrollment of under 200 students. EnrollJeffco data suggests those schools will have less than 200 students for the upcoming 2022-23 school year as well.
Articulation areas with the most excess capacity include Alameda, Arvada and Standley Lake, with Wheat Ridge, Columbine and Evergreen rounding out the top six.
Some of the goals of the plan are to move students away from split grade levels, one teacher per grade level and part-time Art, Music and Physical Education (AMP) teachers. The District also wants to deal with issues like part-time or no support from a Digital Teacher Librarian, part-time Social Emotional Learning (SEL) staff and staff serving in multiple roles.
Dorland said staff in many schools are currently over-worked, under-resourced and exhausted. But the District not efficiently deploying resources is causing staff in those schools to take on way too many responsibilities, leading to an untenable situation.