Disadvantaged students more likely to be impacted by Jeffco school closures

GOLDEN – The brick school building with the turquoise trim is not far off Interstate 70, in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, a 50-unit mobile home park and aging strip malls.

Compared to the rest of Jeffco Public Schools, Pleasant View Elementary in Golden serves a high number of students who live in poverty. Families can pick up milk and eggs at a new on-site pantry, and parents who drop in swap recipe ideas with the school mom who runs it.

The school was built in 1950 and needs work, including new exterior doors and roof coverings. The parking lot is the original, and the building lacks a full sprinkler system.

If the Jeffco school board follows a district recommendation in a vote scheduled for Thursday, Pleasant View Elementary will be one of five district elementary schools closed after this school year, part of budget cuts triggered in part by the failure of district tax requests last fall.

The district’s plan would impact low-income students disproportionately, according to data reviewed by Chalkbeat. Of the more than 1,400 students enrolled at the five schools, about 62 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — a common measure of poverty. Only 32 percent of students district-wide fit that definition.

In 2014-15, the schools recommended for closure enrolled about 141 homeless students out of the 2,642 enrolled district-wide, or more than 5 percent of that student population.

“It’s going to be devastating on low-income families,” said Tom Gould, a community leader in Pleasant View’s neighborhood. “The impacts are more severe.”

Jeffco officials say they considered 10 factors in recommending which schools to close. That included the cost of maintaining the building, enrollment shifts and the ability of nearby schools to absorb the displaced students. They didn’t consider student demographics.

Diana Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district did not intentionally target schools for closure because they were low income, but that other factors were the cause.

“More established neighborhoods happen to have smaller schools that are closer together because that was the trend when they were built and thus were more likely candidates for proposed closures,” Wilson said. “I just think that’s how neighborhoods tend to be.”

Across the nation, it’s common for school closures to affect disadvantaged families, said Ben Kirshner, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied school closure policies nationally. School closures can have a harmful effect on these communities, which already face an array of other hardships, he said.

“It’s very dislocating for a school community to have a school be closed,” Kirshner said. “First of all, there’s quite a bit of research that schools really do often serve as a kind of anchor for a community, a physical place that represents bonds that tie people together.”

Several people said that is the case at Pleasant View Elementary.

Peggy Halderman is president of the Golden Backpack Program, which provides sacks of food at the end of the school week for students at Pleasant View Elementary and other area schools.

Sitting at a desk in the pantry that opened just this week, Halderman called the school the heart of the community.

“If I had to go and say I need informed enthusiastic staff and parents who are willing to step up and a set of volunteers that we can call on, there’s only one elementary school that’s got all the trappings,” Halderman said. “My experience has been that the community steps up in a way that I don’t see in a lot of neighborhoods.”

While Halderman looked on, the mother who works as pantry manager, Jessica Estes, helped a fellow mother, Amanda Holycross, pick out chicken egg rolls and grapefruit juice to take home.

The mothers swapped stories about their kids. Holycrosse remarked that her family rarely buys grapefruit juice because it’s expensive. Estes promised to share a crockpot recipe with her.

“It’s building an even stronger community,” Halderman said.

Of the four other schools slated for closure, three have low income student populations well above the district average — Peck, Pennington and Swanson elementaries.

Those school communities, like Pleasant View, also support students’ non-academic needs.

Of the five schools facing closure, Pennington is the smallest, with just over 200 students, and serves the highest poverty population; 85 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Built in 1961, the school is tucked away in a residential neighborhood, easy to miss.

The Wheat Ridge school is also in its first year of turnaround status, meaning it is undergoing changes to help lift poor academic performance.

Esmeralda Gaytan, mother of a kindergartner and sixth-grader at Pennington, said that every time she’s had a question about education or how to provide for her children, she feels comfortable walking into the school and knows she will get an answer.

At Peck Elementary School in Arvada, 58 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches. The school last fall celebrated its 50th anniversary with a 1960s flashback party. Peck has built such a devoted community, it has an alumni association.

The school also has received high marks from the state for closing achievement gaps.

Amber Bowes, a single mom of a girl at Peck, said her school feels like a family. Bowes said her daughter is the third generation in her family to attend Peck.

“I know the school is safe,” Bowes said. “It’s a good mix of people. It’s a caring and nurturing environment.”

At a community meeting this week, parents and alumni of Peck Elementary voiced concerns about their school’s closure and that the district didn’t consider the school’s high performance.

Amanda Stevens, a Jeffco school board member, said Friday she is interested in exploring different factors the district could consider when closing schools. But she also guaranteed that regardless of what school students go to next year, they will get the services they need.

“We’re committed to seeing all of those services and programs continued,” Stevens said. “I think it matters in every decision we make that we consider equity.”

Wilson, the district spokeswoman, said district leaders have talked about how to best keep communities together when considering where kids from closed schools would be sent. Merging two schools that are in the same city might make more sense than combining schools in different cities, or in communities divided by barriers such as highways.

“So you’re still trying to keep kids that should know each other together,” Wilson said. “It’s about trying to redraw the boundaries so that they still make sense.”

But Kirshner, of CU Boulder, said school closures put other burdens on low-income families, including transportation challenges getting to and from school and after-school activities.

“It’s just disruptive to the routines of families,” Kirshner said. “They’re just inconveniences that not everyone is having to experience.”

Trying to avoid inequitably placing too much burden on one student group isn’t easy or cheap, Kirshner said. The best solutions, he said, involve long-term planning to create integrated schools and plenty of community involvement.

In Jeffco, concerns also have been raised about whether the schools set to take the displaced kids can afford to provide the same resources to students as their current schools.

Three of the five schools slated for closure are designated as Title 1 schools, meaning they get extra federal dollars because more than 65 percent of their population qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.

“You have a couple hundred kids who go to Title 1 schools, and they have access to extra funds and enrichment, but what happens when that goes away?” Halderman said. “Their needs and demands remain the same regardless of where you put them.”

Wilson, the Jeffco spokeswoman, said those resources won’t go away. In Jeffco, all schools get a set amount of money per student who qualifies for subsidized lunch.

Schools that have the Title 1 designation also get an extra amount on top of the per-student amount. Schools can use the money for a variety of things including to pay for extra teachers, social workers, extra teacher training or to support families. Schools with the designation can also choose to offer breakfast for free to all students in the classroom.

At Pleasant View, help the school provides includes a parent academy, weekly parent coffee meetings and service-based learning, which mixes community service work with instruction.

Pleasant View principal Janace Fischer said in a statement through the district communications office that she believes other schools will continue to support her students’ needs.

“I can confidently say that if (Pleasant View) does close, that doesn’t mean that these programs and resources will go away,” Fischer said. “They may occur in a different format and with different people but I am confident that other Golden-area schools will actively continue and support much of the current programming that we offer.”

Some of the schools Jeffco is proposing that students go to if the board agrees to close the five schools are not designated as Title 1 schools, but could be next year depending on which new students would enroll there.

No matter the fate of Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, the new food pantry that has quickly become a community gathering place will not disappear, said Halderman, who started it. She said the program would find a place in another school.

“We’ll follow wherever the kids are,” Halderman said

Halderman knows she will find the support she needs. When she called a local moving company to relocate industrial refrigerators to the new pantry, the man who did the move cut the bill in half.

He was a Pleasant View graduate.


Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Yesenia Robles on February 3, 2017. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo by Eric via Flickr: Creative Commons