Nicole Rodela wanted her child to go to the school with the 100-year-old cottonwoods, surrounded by green and a gentle and steady creek.
“We would drive by and be like, ‘man, those kids are lucky’ … that property is magical.”
Rodela is talking about Campbell Elementary north of Interstate 70 in Arvada, which she calls “an urban gem.” Rodela lives in the Westminster school district boundaries 25 minutes away. But Colorado law allowed her to choose a school in another district.
The family applied to Campbell in Jefferson County and her daughter, now in first grade, was accepted. The family jumped at the chance, “because after we walked through the doors the first time, it felt like we were supposed to be there.”
But Thursday night, 10 days into a new school year, Rodela found out Campbell is on the list of 16 elementary schools recommended for closure next year. District officials announced the sweeping recommendations at a special school board meeting. The closures will displace nearly 2,600 students and affect more than 400 staff members.
By Friday morning Rodela arrived at the school, cradling an armful of flowers — one yellow rose for each teacher, and a rainbow bouquet for the principal, “to spread some hope on a dreary day.”
“I tried, I really, really tried to save Campbell.”
‘A constant pain point’
Declining birth rates are fueling declining school enrollment across the country. The issue has plagued Jefferson County since 2001, when the county’s school-age population peaked at 107,106. In 2020, it was 92,245. The district — facing a nearly $30 million deficit — could no longer finance dozens of schools that were at half capacity, school officials said.
“The impact of declining enrollment has been a constant pain point,” Superintendent Tracy Dorland told the board Thursday night. “And this is not because of individuals in those buildings, it is because of the lack of resources that these schools have to provide the programming that we want for all of our students.”
She said small schools struggle with educators teaching two grades, classified staff doing more jobs than they were hired for, and sometimes no after-school care or full-time P.E. or art teachers.
“We have eight schools enrolling under 200 students. We have 45 elementary schools that are using 60 percent or less of their capacity, and it's causing incredible pressure on our entire system to have the resources and fund our schools in a way that provides the robust programming we want for kids.”
The proposed closures, if approved by the board in November, would save the district between $8.5 million and $12 million.
‘It wasn't looking good for us based off of black and white numbers.’
Just as Nicole Rodela got back home from a summer vacation this year, “the FCB report dropped.” That’s the district’s facilities and building report, which details a school’s capacity, enrollment, staff and building condition, among other factors. The school board had ordered an in-depth analysis of each elementary school and charged the district with developing a set of criteria used to recommend closure.
The criteria for possible closure are either a school that enrolls fewer than 220 students or is using 45 percent or less of the building’s capacity and there is another elementary school less than 3.5 miles away that can serve displaced students.
Campbell has about 195 students — it has space for 364. Sixty-two percent of the building's space is used. Small schools cost the district more. Campbell’s per-student cost is $17,993, while the district average is $16,177.
“We just did our homework, looked at every entry and knew that Campbell was going to fall below their red line at some point,” said Rodela. “We knew that it wasn't looking good for us based off of black and white numbers.”
But Rodela rolled up her sleeves and got to work as secretary of the school’s PTA. She informed as many parents as she could to save her little school. She started a petition. The hardest part was telling her daughter, Ayanna.
“She overheard me talking weeks ago and at 6 years old, (she) grabbed my face and asked for me to tell her what was really happening to her school. And I couldn't lie to her. I told her and she processed it. She said that she wanted to cry, but she'd be strong …” said Rodela, tears in her eyes.
‘It's far more than a little class, it's a straight-up community.’
After dropping their kids off at school Friday morning, many parents said they worried about a network of schools being ripped away, particularly in the Campbell vicinity. Parent Thomas Taylor understands the district needs to make up a deficit. But he’d like it to look at factors beyond enrollment.
“Consider the communities, especially in this area … they've already cut two schools in this exact area … both feed into their biggest high school, their newest high school (Arvada West),” he said.
Several families from the two elementary schools that were closed in the past two years attend Campbell, which now faces closure.
Campbell is also one of those schools that’s educated multiple generations in families. It opened in 1963.
Ashley Whalen drives 20 minutes each day from another school district to keep the family tradition alive.
“It was upsetting, she said, upon hearing about the closure. “My mother, myself, we came here … so knowing that it’s closing is losing that tradition so it was upsetting but you gotta do what you got to do, unfortunately.”
She doesn't know yet where she'll send her child to school next year — but she’ll miss Campbell Elementary.
“They helped get him to where he could open up. He was really shy and now that he's here and talking with the kids and the teachers … He's a very open kid now.”
At 15, Kendra Dickinson still visits her old teachers as she walks home from high school, Arvada West.
"I loved the teachers here, especially Miss Henry,” she said. “I feel sad.”
Her mother, Nicole Sandoval, said her daughter’s father and aunt and all four of her children attended Campbell. Her youngest child is in fifth grade so won’t be impacted.
“However, our kids are pretty devastated about it,” she said.
First-grade parents and children have formed a tight-knit group. They go to birthday parties, invite each other on outings.
“It's been the only real constant in a lot of these kids' lives,” said parent Scot Morrison. “And now it's just gone … it's sad. It sucks. It really does.”
In the car on the way to school Friday, he tried to break the news to his kids in a positive way, telling them that they’ll get to go to a new school next year.
“My daughter teared up immediately. I mean, they love this school. They really do. … It's far more than a little class. It's a straight-up community.”
Some parents are resigned, others have questions
What’s confusing to some parents is this summer, the school installed new playgrounds, repaved the parking lot, and installed a new digital welcome-marquee sign and new HVAC system.
“It definitely doesn't make sense in terms of the growth around Arvada and the potential growth very close to this school, especially after all of the upgrades they performed over the summer on this campus. So that would be my question is why would they upgrade it just to close it down?” asked parent Courtney Karslake.
District data show the money, $482,000, was allotted to the school from a 2018 capital improvement bond. Campbell principal Lara Wiant confirmed that the building is now expected to become a preschool, “which is a silver lining in all of this is that we don’t have to completely shutter the doors of Campbell but re-envision it.”
Most districts try to quietly close one school at a time in what becomes a messy and emotional community engagement process. Forty-three of Colorado’s 64 counties had a decline in their under-18 population over the past decade. Denver Public Schools has an advisory committee on declining enrollment that will make recommendations to the district.
When Superintendent Dorland investigated and saw the magnitude of the problem, she said she knew she had to act boldly, not stringing families along in a constant state of fear that their school could be next.
“When you engage authentically with a community, it does not make sense to me to go out and ask people what they want when there really isn't a choice. I feel that it's important to be a courageous leader who is honest with the community about the realities that we're facing. And as I dug into the data with my team around enrollment site by site, what we discovered was there really wasn't a choice.”
What’s next? ‘A huge opportunity to pivot to hope.’
Grief. Shock. Fear. Worry. Wonder. Hope. Those are some of the emotions families will go through over the next few weeks, said Tara Peña, the district’s chief of family, school and community partnerships. She knows the pain. She went through the same thing as an assistant principal of Arvada Middle School when the school was closed in 2010.
“After the initial stages of grief, sadness, worry, it’s: what does this mean for me? What does this mean for my community?” she said. “I would imagine that we're going to experience a lot of emotion from our families.”
Her team is ready to give support to families. Starting in September, the district — assisted by the Keystone Policy Center — will host community conversation sessions at each school. The meetings are not for parents to try to convince the board their school should be saved but instead to talk about what they would like to see in a new school.
“It’s also a huge opportunity to pivot to hope,” said Berrick Abramson of the Keystone Policy Center. “What is it that they value? What is that aspirational vision that they want to create in this new school community? What are the types of supports and resources they need to make that vision of an even more thriving community a reality.”
That information will go back to the district to help shape a transition plan.
Nicole Rodela is slowly coming to terms with the decision to close Campbell. On Friday, she had a heavy heart … sad, worried and mad. But she’s determined to help other families and help make this year the “best last year possible.” She’s also taking a cue from her daughter.
“Campbell was supposed to serve my child for six of her first years. My daughter said tonight, ‘At least I got two years at Campbell.’ Her spirit is what we need right now. This year will go (down) in Campbell’s history, and living through history is hard but this too shall pass.”
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