School closures have tremendous impacts on students, educators, and communities, making establishing widely agreed criteria to determine the fate of the school a pressing concern. Community members are increasingly aware of the prospects of school closure in Denver but many remain unaware of how the actual procedural elements of school closing play out. Deciding whether a school experiencing difficulties should stay open or be closed is a complex task. School closures have become more common in light of enrollment shifts and increasing costs; however, whether to close a public school echoes with questions about the purpose and future of public education. Over the last several decades, districts like DPS have attempted to establish reasonable criteria to determine what justifies a school closure. In the early 2000’s, the district offered poor academic performance as a primary justification for closure. More recently, low enrollment has been the primary reason for a school closing. A former DPS employee added this, “after working for Denver Public Schools I’m thinking of the reasons, at least in Denver, why schools get closed. One of the ones I was thinking of was under-enrollment, where the school is not being used to its full capacity. And the other reason that gets thrown around a lot is that the students are underperforming. In that case, the education level that is given to students is not up to the standard. I think at the end of the day they can have many many many reasons but I don’t think there’s enough of a reason to close it.”
Regardless of the shifts in the district’s behavior over the last several decades, community members were deeply invested in making sure these decisions were controlled by those who are well-informed and impacted by the decision. As one alum put it, “they need to consider everybody’s voices and look at the quality of the education and when you have those conversations with the stakeholders that will come to light as well… talking to people who are actually living it as opposed to those who are looking from the outside in to make that decision.” Having those most closely associated with a school able to voice their appraisals of a school can provide a nuanced description of the health and viability of a school. It seems that school enrollment and academic performance may not provide a robust enough assessment of a school to justify its closure given the significant impacts of a school closing on a neighborhood.
However, several parents, educators, and DPS alumni were of the opinion that school enrollment was a more understandable reason to close a school, more so than poor academic performance. Indicators of academic performance may tell you that students in some schools are performing less proficiently in comparison to their peers but that in and of itself doesn’t mean the school shouldn’t be open. An alum challenged this comparison approach: “the way they did that back in the days of the 2000’s, I’m not necessarily so much for that because it seems like using standardized testing is how they defined success and as we all know we can take those tests but that doesn’t actually equate to showing how smart or intelligent children are. I don’t think that was a great way to go about it.”
Despite broad discontent with using academic performance as the key criterion to determine whether or not a school should be closed, using low school enrollment by itself frequently has been challenged as an inadequate metric by community members–concerns that leaning too heavily on enrollment rates may lead to misleading conclusions about which schools should stay open. For instance, a school may attract a tremendous amount of students for reasons which aren’t related to the effectiveness of the school but for more circumstantial reasons like location. One alum noted, “they might have higher enrollment rates and get more money but are they making sure they are giving a quality education to these children?” Another community member expressed a similar sentiment saying, “I don’t care about your enrollment, tell me about your attendance, tell me about how many of those kids are actually not just showing up but…out of a class of 300 how many of them went off to school, and how many of them actually had success?”
Importantly, however, the relationship between enrollment and school funding may suggest that low enrollment can lead to a school becoming unable to serve students and staff well. It seems that there is a widespread understanding that schools face real difficulties without an adequate amount of bodies in the building. One parent put it this way, “What if you have a school but the attendance is so low and it’s so understaffed that you’re not able to offer the kids the resources they need, for example I know this school didn’t have a psychologist or a counselor full time.” Although there was ample concern for using enrollment as the criteria, there was some consideration of using the size of the school to determine the scope of the impact in relation to a closure. For instance, one community member pointed out that closing schools with lower enrollments may localize the consequences of school closure as fewer people would be impacted by the decision. Some community members, however, remain concerned that using enrollment as a litmus test is forcing schools to close on purely financial grounds which seems unfair. One middle school student asserted that a school should never close for financial reasons and even offered fundraisers as a preferable alternative to closing the school.
Even with the struggles schools face due to low enrollment, many community members thought that schools should rarely close, if ever. For these community members, it seems that schools should only close as a last resort. One alum put it this way, “for me school closure should happen when everything has been tried and it just does not work at all. That’s when we would consider school closure, but there are smaller steps that can be taken strategically to fix these situations. I think there’s always a way to go about it before we get to such a huge decision.” Another person echoed that sentiment noting that for them school closure only becomes an option when there’s been “failure on top of failure.” In order for school closure to be justified, there must be such an overwhelming set of problems that they cannot be addressed while the school continues its day-to-day functions.
Some argued that the instability resulting from school closure is a good enough reason to always have schools remain open while addressing major problems. As one mentor put it, “If anything they [schools] should be reformed. If they need help for underserved kids, if they need additional money, that’s what we need to do. We don’t need to uproot and then change all of these things when kids are growing up and they need stability. We need to give them [kids] what they need so they can stay in one place.” It can be difficult however, for those interested in keeping schools open to counter efforts to close them down if they don’t know how the procedural processes of closure unfold. As one alum put it, “If we want to talk in a way where we know now we’re really organizing, how was Montbello closed? How did that process play out? How was Manual closed? How did that process play out? How was Abraham Lincoln integrated into a bunch of schools? I think we need to polish up on what those things were and how they happened.”
Many community members’ perspectives on schools remaining open or closed are informed by concerns outside of low enrollments and academic performance. Some saw ample reason to close schools that were predictably causing harm to students and faculty. One alum put it like this, “I think if a school is completely violence-ridden it’s no longer a safe zone for the kids or the parents or the teachers then closure may be taken into consideration… but I’m still in the mindset that there are smaller steps that can be taken because a school closure is such a huge thing, it affects everybody.” However, physical harm wasn’t the only type of harmful experience that may justify a school closure for some community members. One community member for instance asked if a school predictably funneling students into the school-to-prison pipeline would be an adequate reason to question whether or not it should continue to operate. As they put it, “what happens after they’re out of school is what should determine if schools are open or not… like the school-to-prison pipeline. Like if one school is more likely to have kids go into that pipeline than any other path should that school really be open because it’s not really helping the future of these kids because that’s why you go to school to invest in your future but if the schools aren’t really investing in you at all, what are you supposed to do? You’re only a kid.”
Community members seemed to suggest that as a school’s problems stack up, the status of the school should be more in question. One community member asserted that fundamentally schools are supposed to be beneficial to the students, and if that is not the case, then what is the purpose of having a school at all? A former middle school teacher for example thought her school should be closed because it was inept at the basic tasks related to educating and caring for students. Some students even thought their school should be closed because their lunches were unpalatable and not nutritious. Some middle school students pointed out the actual degradation of the physical infrastructure of the building as a reason to close it or at least a reason to be concerned. A parent echoed a similar sentiment, suggesting that school closures can be quite scary but we should be skeptical of being overly cautious of significant change in the face of a problematic status quo. As they put it, “do I have hope that if schools get closed will they structure and tailor the new school to what students actually need? I doubt that.”
According to many community members, those that are not in schools day-to-day should gather some hands-on experience as they attempt to assess the viability of a school. As one parent put it, “I think it’s important to at least have people, I know its a vote type situation, so the people who are a part of that to come and like invest time in the school or with the kids to understand their side of things and see what’s happening inside of schools besides just looking at the rusty dusty building from the outside.” It appears that the perspectives of students and parents are important in the decision-making process and that there should be decision-making power vested in those who work at the school and attend the school. Integrating community voices into decisions about school closure may help ensure that the criteria used to make these decisions reflect community members’ assessment of what makes a school eligible for closure.