Denver Public Schools enrollment drop: Latino students squeezed out by gentrification

One morning in June, Brenda Rivas’ two children scampered through the towering playground at Paco Sanchez Park in northwest Denver.

It was only the second time the mother and her boys had visited the sprawling structure of slides, swings, and things to climb, and which looks like it was crafted for The Jetsons cartoon with its odd mix of retro and out-of-this-world design. But Rivas, 31, could see them coming more often, especially as she wants her children to experience the Denver she grew up in.

That’s why she also takes the kids to Sloan’s Lake, which Rivas used to bike to with her father when she was growing up even though there’s another park closer to their home. It’s why she drives at least 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, to take them to Colfax Elementary School.

“I want them to have the same experience of coming to the neighborhood school,” Rivas said.

The playground wasn’t there when she was younger. It didn’t open until 2020, years after soaring rent prices drove Rivas to move across town to northeast Denver.

“Our area is growing because we’re getting all this housing stuff, but it’s too expensive for our families,” she said.

Families like Rivas are leaving their neighborhoods, sometimes even Denver entirely, because they can no longer afford to live there, and it’s not only spurring fewer children to enroll in Denver Public Schools but changing who are in the classrooms.

Like K-12 schools across Colorado and the U.S., DPS is facing declining enrollment. The district lost more than 3,600 students between fall 2019 and fall 2021, bringing its total enrollment to 90,202 students, according to a report by DPS.

Enrollment at Colorado’s largest school district peaked in 2019 before the pandemic abruptly forced students into online classes. While children have since returned to their classrooms, enrollment in K-12 schools has yet to rebound, according to the district’s annual report.

Instead, enrollment is expected to continue to fall for at least another four years. And as fewer students attend DPS schools, the district is finding that its classrooms are growing whiter as the percentage of Latino students drops.

Latino students made up 52% of the district’s student population in 2021, down from 58% in 2012. By comparison, the percentage of white students increased from 20% to 25% during the same time period, according to the DPS report.

Enrollment among Black students, who make up about 14% of the district’s student population, remained steady between 2012 and 2021.

There’s not a single reason for the plunge in enrollment. The pandemic, which sent families into turmoil as parents lost jobs, died, or moved, has contributed to the crisis. But researchers and the district also attributed declining enrollment and the shifting population of students in the classrooms to other factors as well, namely falling birth rates and gentrification.

“As neighborhoods change and the lack of affordable housing continues, families have to make a decision whether they can afford to stay in their neighborhood or move,” said Superintendent Alex Marrero in a statement.

Latino children make up more than half of DPS students, but the number of births among Latino residents has fallen for the past 15 years and the district is expecting they will make up a smaller portion of students in the coming years, according to the DPS report.

And as rents and home costs have soared, Latino families that have lived in neighborhoods for generations are being squeezed out. New families are moving in but because of school choice, they don’t have to send their children to neighborhood schools, leaving institutions that have historically served students of color to feel the brunt of the enrollment declines, according to researchers, advocates and parents.

“If there wasn’t school choice and they didn’t have those options, I don’t believe (families) would be moving to Denver-area zip codes as quickly right now,” said Milo Marquez, chair of the Latino Education Coalition, adding, “What are we going to do when there’s no more people of color living in Denver?”

In response to declining enrollment – which affects how much money a school receives –, DPS is looking at consolidating. The district has already said it is eliminating jobs in its central office and is also looking at potentially merging and closing elementary and middle schools.

The prospect of school closures has parents, like Rivas, worried that their child’s school could be on the chopping block. Advocates and researchers are concerned that any potential closure will disproportionately affect students of color and immigrant families who rely on schools not just for education, but for meals, dental care and as a place to build their community.

“Schools become a hub in neighborhoods for families,” said Marisa Westbrook, a PhD student at the University of Colorado Denver who is studying how neighborhood changes affect the mental health of Latino families in southwest Denver.

“(I)t’s like super gentrification”

Rivas moved to Denver from Mexico more than a decade ago when she was 12. Rent was only about $550 a month then, she recalled, and she had great teachers who supported her as she learned English.

Rivas, who graduated from North High School, loved DPS as a student because in the classroom there were teachers who looked like her and spoke her native language, Spanish. She wanted her children to have the same experience, enrolling them into Colfax Elementary, where she just finished her first year as the school’s family liaison and as a special education paraprofessional.

“Denver, it’s beautiful,” Rivas said. “This place has treated me very well.”

Rivas and her family decided to move from northwest Denver about five years ago, when Rivas’ oldest child, Jaime, who is now 9, was in preschool. The family was paying between $800 and $900 a month for rent, and the landlord told them it was going to increase to about $1,400 or $1,500 a month.

So, Rivas and her family moved to a new neighborhood in northeast Denver, where they found a larger home with cheaper rent.

“It wasn’t that bad at that time, but we saw it coming,” Rivas said.

Northwest Denver – particularly the West Colfax, Sun Valley and Villa Park neighborhoods – was one of the first areas to experience rapid increases in housing costs and, subsequent, enrollment declines, according to DPS.

When Manuel Aragon’s oldest child started attending Colfax Elementary in 2009 there were so many students that the school had to expand classrooms by using trailers. But over the years, Aragon has noticed there are fewer students at DPS. He has four children attending schools in the district.

“One of the things we could see with each of our kids was kind of a steady decline in the number of students at the school,” he said, adding, “You could start to see that coincided with gentrification occurring in north Denver.”

Schools in northwest Denver have also experienced a drop in the percentage of Latino children enrolling as they only made up 56% of the student population in 2021 compared to 73% almost a decade ago. The percentage of white students at northwest Denver schools has increased from 15% to 28%, according to the report.

“Gentrification isn’t just about hipster cafes, it’s about a lot of bigger things,” said Jeremy Németh, professor of urban and regional planning at CU Denver, adding, “The speed and the scale – it’s like super gentrification or gentrification on steroids.”

And, he said, gentrification is occurring almost exactly in neighborhoods that were “redlined” decades ago. Redlining is a discriminatory practice that discouraged investment in areas where lower-income residents and people of color lived.

While new housing is being built, families without children are moving into townhomes and apartments, said Tania Hogan, executive director of the Bueno Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Coloradans are also having fewer children for various reasons, including finances, climate change and the accessibility of long-term contraceptives.

All of the factors leading to declining enrollment are most apparent in schools in southwest Denver, which “saw the greatest youth population reductions” between 2010 and 2020, according to the DPS report.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen”

One day in May, students at Colfax Elementary competed in a Spanish spelling bee as their families watched. Another day, they raced on bouncy balls during field day. And during the school’s carnival, students jumped in a bouncy house, and ate cotton candy and Little Man’s Ice cream with their families. Denver Health, Rivas said, even had an immunization clinic on-site for anyone who wanted a COVID-19 shot.

“I felt the love of being together as a community and happier,” Rivas said, adding that employees had feared the school’s connection with families weakened during the pandemic.

It is for this sense of community that Rivas is willing to drive so far to take her children to the school. Still, she is worried that the district could close the school and is concerned about the stress her children would face if they have to find new friends at another school.

Rivas was at North High when Manual High School temporarily closed in 2006 and saw how difficult it was for those students to change schools.

Colfax Elementary is one of 19 schools DPS listed for potential closure last year based on enrollment declines. The district scrapped that list, and instead, formed an advisory committee that has recommended DPS consider closing or consolidating schools based on certain criteria. It did not identify which schools could be impacted, reported Chalkbeat Colorado.

Families understand the district is in a “hard situation,” but many don’t feel like they are being heard when it comes to conversations about school closures or mergers, Aragon, the parent said.

The concern is that “a large number of DPS employees will make a decision that doesn’t take into account the voices of folks that will directly be impacted,” Aragon said.

No schools are expected to close until the end of the 2023-24 school year.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Rivas said.

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