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Denver Public Schools expects to lose 6,600 students in 5 years, & nearly 1,000 students this year

DPS looks to decide which school to close due to low enrollment
DPS looks to decide which school to close due to low enrollment 03:38

Denver Public Schools is projected to lose nearly 1,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students in the upcoming school year compared to this past year, according to new data obtained by CBS News Colorado. DPS administrators also anticipate that by 2027, the district will lose 6,636 K-12 students that live in the city — a decline of 8.7%. 

There are a variety of reasons for the sharp decline, with different areas of the city facing unique challenges. Click here to read the district's full Strategic Regional Analysis, which breaks down enrollment issues in each area of the city. 

Some reasons are lower birth rates and gentrification, but some other reasons, parents believe, are safety issues and controversial policies from district leaders. 

A Denver Public Schools emblem and sign
A Denver Public Schools emblem and sign on the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus. Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A CBS News Colorado analysis of district data finds of all of the schools in the district, Palmer Elementary has the highest projected enrollment decline percentage for the upcoming school year compared to the 2022-2023 school year. 

DPS almost closed Palmer this year, but the district ultimately held off. 

"It was very challenging for the Palmer community," recalls Erin Engstrom, a mother of a rising fourth grader at Palmer. "We have had numerous meetings from the district that have kind of tried to explain the circumstances, and quite frankly, a lot of the answers that we've gotten have been very lacking."

Now, the school already in jeopardy is projected to face an enrollment decline of 26%, with more than 60 students expected to leave the school, according to a CBS News Colorado analysis of DPS data. Engstrom says the numbers aren't surprising. 

"I am disappointed, but absolutely not surprised. It tracks with what I've heard on the playground and amongst people who I interact with all the time," Engstrom said. "I think it does in some ways become a self-fulfilling prophecy as well, because not only are people who are potentially incoming to Palmer kind of dissuaded from making that decision to attend, but then, folks who are already there don't necessarily have a lot of confidence that it will be open... that their children will be able to complete their education there."

Erin Engstrom and her daughter, a rising fourth grader at Palmer Elementary Erin Engstrom

Engstrom has done her own research on the issue, and even found Palmer's neighborhood school-aged population has increased over recent years.

"I was in touch with the State demography office, and they gave me some population data for several different neighborhoods on the east side of Denver, including my own which is Hale, the boundaries are Colorado to Monaco, and 6th to Colfax, and from 2010 to 2020, the under 18 population actually grew 18% during that time," Engstrom said. "So, when DPS says that declining enrollment is attributable to the fact that there aren't enough kids to fill the school, that just doesn't hold any water for us."

Here are some other Denver schools facing big enrollment drops

In the northwest corner of the city, Beach Court Elementary is projected to face a 21% drop.

Downtown, DPS' flagship Emily Griffith High School expects to lose 71 students in the upcoming year — a loss of about 18% — and in northeast Denver, Montbello Middle School is projected to lose 67 students — also an 18% loss in student enrollment. 

Compass Academy is also expecting an 18% decrease, with a loss of 46 students. Bruce Randolph School is projected to lose 58 students — a decline of 8%. 

Perhaps the least surprising decline is at Denver's Online School, which is expected to lose more than 200 students, as students return to normal following a bitter pandemic. 

These are just a few examples. 

What should be done about these enrollment declines?

"Right now, we are in a position where we have policies that are deficient, quite frankly," Engstrom says. "That includes student-based budgeting, and an equitable choice system, and boundaries that have not been revisited since the mid-1990s, when forced busing was ending."

DPS says it plans to hold community engagement meetings to address the decline, but Engstrom feels the district needs to take more aggressive action. 

She points to two proposed executive limitations, ELs 18 and 19, written by school board member Scott Baldermann, which she says, "go a long way to help close some of the policy gaps."

"DPS has made it very easy, and for some people desirable, to opt out of the neighborhood school, and I wish there were more focus on strengthening the neighborhood school, and by extension the communities that house that neighborhood school," Engstrom said. 

The District Accountability Committee also has some ideas to address the decline. Click here to read the committee's full statement. 

DPS administrators were not available Thursday for an interview on the matter, but the district provided the following written statement:

"Denver Public Schools monitors, analyzes, and forecasts student enrollment across the city each year. As part of this analysis, DPS publicly presents the findings in the Strategic Regional Analysis, most recently on June 15, 2023. This work is published annually. Lower student enrollment is not unique to Denver Public Schools. All major Colorado metro school districts are experiencing a reduction in student population primarily driven by lower birth rates and fewer overall school-aged children. Lower birth rates are not unique to Colorado; this is also a national trend.

"Over the next five years, we estimate that our enrollment numbers in kindergarten through 12th grade will decrease by an additional 6k-7k students. This reduction in school-aged children is primarily in the Central, Northwest, and Southwest regions of the city. The enrollment levels forecasted in the next five years are not unprecedented. Denver Public Schools has enrolled this number of students in the past, and changes in enrollment, while challenging, are manageable. Additionally, DPS has committed to the Board of Education to hold extensive and long-term community engagement to ensure we provide equitable services and an excellent education to all of our students."

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