Declining birth rates have driven a significant reduction in school-aged children in the state. Some districts are seeing an outflow of students due to high home prices and rent.
Colorado’s school population has declined by about 30,000 students since a peak of 913,223 in 2019. Some areas are declining fast, while others are growing rapidly. And it may be a while before the birth rate rebounds.
And it’s not just Colorado. Nationally, enrollment has fallen mostly due to declining birth rates over the past decade.
That has meant districts have been forced to shut down schools — Jefferson County shut down 16 elementary schools last year.
Several listeners like Glenn Straziar, Dave Pence, and others wondered: What’s happening with all the buildings?
School districts are taking a variety of approaches to what to do with the closed buildings, including repurposing them for other district uses or even selling them, which has its own challenges.
Many are repurposed for magnet schools or early childhood centers — and some communities would prefer a park with a pool. Some districts need money from the real estate they’re sitting on. The last school that Denver Public Schools sold turned into a parking lot. Here’s a look at what districts are doing with all their empty buildings.
Background: The city has been experiencing declining enrollment in its southwest and northwest neighborhoods for several years. About 7,000 fewer elementary school students are enrolled compared to the peak in 2014. Although the district’s superintendent initially recommended closing 10 elementary and middle schools, the school board ultimately voted to close three schools earlier this year. More closures are on the way.
What’s happening with the three closed schools now?
Denver is unique from other districts in that it has 20 buildings that house more than one school. So administrators consulted maps and enrollment numbers and decided to repurpose schools based on district needs. To understand the uses of the three schools, it’s helpful to think of a lineup of dominoes. When the Robert F. Smith Steam Academy moved out of the Montbello Career and Technical building to a more central location, the Next Steps affective needs center that was inside the school had to find a new location.
When Fairview Elementary, in the Sun Valley neighborhood, was closed, that became Next Steps' new home. The center assists children who have serious social, emotional, or behavioral challenges associated with a disability.
Denver Discovery School and the Math and Science Leadership Academy, which were closed, were schools that shared their building with other schools. In both cases, the buildings still have other school programs in them.
DPS’s online school Denver Online was located in an elementary school. However, the program serves older students and has grown from 132 students in 2014 to 600 students now. It moved into the Math and Science Leadership Academy building in southwest Denver. The new space has furniture and fixtures more appropriate for older students and will allow them to get optional in-person support and socialization.
Central Park’s Swigert International School added more classrooms where Denver Discovery School used to be.
The most recent school DPS sold was Gove Middle School to National Jewish Health in 2012. It was demolished for an employee parking lot.
Russell Ramsey, the district’s new executive director of enrollment and campus planning, said in the future DPS might need to use some buildings for non-education purposes.
“If we can find ways to hold onto buildings and find ways to use them in service to the community as community assets, it’s always going to be better than to demolish a building and turn it into a parking lot or some other thing potentially.”
He’s closely watching districts around the country like San Antonio, Texas, which is committed to repurposing schools for other community uses. That school district is considering creative ideas like creating affordable housing opportunities for staff, establishing centers for senior citizens, a space for small business incubators, or even a museum to honor the history of older schools, such as the first school to desegregate.
Background: Overall enrollment has been declining in Aurora, but it’s also been shifting. Neighborhoods in the west are losing children, while the eastern side of the city is growing with new housing developments.
Process: Aurora’s plan to close schools was part and parcel of the district’s Blueprint APS plan, a long-term strategic development and facilities plan. It wasn’t just about what to do with buildings, but how could new school models and programs be introduced to different parts of the city equitably. Part of the district’s plan is to convert schools with low enrollment into schools that target specific needs in the district. A big part was understanding what the community wanted through town halls and surveys. Another factor was how much money it takes to keep up the building. The process involved a lot of forecasting what types of programming students might need in the future.
“It's what's happening now and then, what do we anticipate being our needs, and what will happen in the future?” said Marianne Sammons, APS’s strategic development adviser. “It’s trying to take what the community has told us that they wanted and then making that into a reality.”
In 2021, Lyn Knoll Elementary was closed, and South Middle School and Sixth Avenue Elementary began phasing out. Voters approved a bond to construct Del Mar Academy on the Lyn Knoll site, a new PreK-8 school that serves the students in the three schools.
South Middle School became APS Avenues, an alternative middle and high school program for students who want to learn remotely or are overaged or lack credits to graduate. The third school, Sixth Avenue Elementary, hasn’t been through the repurposing process yet.
Last year, Wheeling Elementary converted into a magnet school, the Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy. Peoria Elementary converted into a magnet, the Charles Burrell Visual & Performing Arts K-8. Students from across the district enroll in these schools. Century Elementary School was repurposed as Sierra School of Aurora, which supports students with severe behavioral disabilities. It also provides district staff offices.
The community submitted many proposals for closed schools.
The board of education approved a recommendation to turn Sable Elementary into district-run child development center to open next school year.
Community ideas for Paris Elementary include a community center proposed by the nonprofit Village Exchange Center, a charter school, a developer-submitted proposal for affordable housing units, and a youth-focused community center.
APS Superintendent Michael Giles is expected to make a recommendation for Paris later this month.
Jefferson County, by far, has the biggest number of empty buildings that it has to do something with.
Background: After years of a declining birth rate and an aging population, the district found itself with the capacity to serve 96,00 students in its district-managed schools, but there were only 69,000 students there. It has approximately 14 percent fewer children in schools than in 2000. That meant it had to close schools. Forty percent of that excess capacity was in elementary schools.
In November 2022, Jeffco’s board of education voted to close 16 elementary schools. Earlier this year it voted to close two K-8 schools. Right now, it has about 21 properties it has to do something with.
Process: First, the district will decide if it needs the property in the future or if it should be sold. That means “knowing that future enrollment projections are sustainable without this particular school needing to be used,” said Jeff Gatlin, the district’s chief operating officer, adding that projections look at students who live within a 3.5-mile radius of a school.
The district created a “property disposition” advisory committee that’s designed to evaluate proposals for how to use it, take community input, and make a recommendation to the board. The board then votes on whether the property should go up for sale, and later votes on approving the sale.
Officials acknowledge the process is turning out to be more complex than anticipated. Schools are in the business of educating children, not selling property. It’s working with a real estate brokerage firm to handle most of the details and make recommendations. It takes a long time to even clean out a school. Some of the furniture like desks and tables has already been dispersed to other schools.
But what makes Jefferson County’s process more complex than other districts is that all of the buildings are spread out in several different cities, from Arvada to Westminster. Each city has different rules and regulations for land usage, so they have to be involved in the process.
What’s happening with the closed schools now?
One of the 21 buildings, Campbell Elementary in Arvada, which closed last year, has already been converted into a preschool.
“We saw a need to have more preschool seats, and it made sense from a location perspective,” said Lisa Relou, the district’s chief of staff, because two nearby schools didn’t have preschools.
Coal Creek Canyon K-8 in a small mountain community in Golden is in play for a potential charter school to start at the beginning of the next school year.
However, given the complexity of the process, it’s too soon for the district to say which of the properties it will keep and how many will be sold. So far, only Allendale, Emory and Zerger Elementary have been given the green light to be sold. Zerger was closed in 2012 and since then, was home to a public charter school. Each site has a community meeting to get an idea of what people would like to see.
“I'd say the consistent answer is everybody wants the property to become a park with a swimming pool,” said Relou.
That information is passed on to potential buyers but ultimately, a buyer decides what’s done with it, not the school district.
One other school, Sheridan Green, reverted back to Westminster ownership. On Nov. 20, the city council will weigh four options for what to do with the empty school: 1. renovate it for city programs. This likely would be the most expensive option and would cost an estimated $4 million to 5 million to bring the building up to modern codes; 2. sell the property to a church; 3. the city expand the adjacent park to incorporate Sheridan Green’s land, and demolish the building; 4. sell the building to an organization focused on providing therapeutic services.
The city has had public meetings and surveys about what to do and the park is the preferred option, according to a city spokesman.
In the end, selling buildings will allow the district to avoid deeper cuts because enrollment is projected to keep declining for the next few years.
“Financially, it's a critical part of our plan,” said Relou.
Thompson School District
In the Thompson school district, two schools closed in the 2018-19 school year after voters turned down a property tax increase causing budget issues for the district.
Stansberry Elementary School was converted into an early childhood center. Van Buren Elementary School was converted to the district's Thompson Career Campus, which offers career pathways programs to district students. The site also serves as the new home of Ferguson High School.
Monroe and Mary Blair elementary schools were closed in the 2021-22 school year due to declining enrollment. Monroe is in the process of being marketed and sold. A $6 million deal fell apart after zoning regulations changed but a new buyer was announced recently.
The Monroe Early Childhood Center is in the process of being renovated to become a regional shelter for unhoused youth. The nearest shelter for students without consistent housing was in Boulder. Mary Blair will become a YMCA recreation center, which will soon open fully to the public.
The students at Monroe and Mary Blair were consolidated with students into a renovated and expanded PreK-8 school Peakview Academy at Conrad Ball, according to the district.
Elsewhere in Colorado
Littleton, which has 15 percent fewer children than it did 20 years ago, has a multi-year plan for early-age schools. East Elementary School is now the East Community Center serving the neighborhood and wider community. Twain Elementary School is now a home for school nurse consultants, Child Find services, and hearing/vision services. Peabody Elementary School is now the Center for Professional Learning at Peabody. Village North is now the home of NEXT and a few other alternative education programs.
The Poudre School District is also seeing declining enrollment due to falling birth rates and the high cost of living. It’s expected to drop about 10 percent over the next several years, which translates to a $40 million cut from a $400 million budget, according to the district. A vote on a proposed consolidation plan was pushed back a year after intense community pushback and student walkouts. The district shares long-range planning data on declining enrollment and building use.
In Mesa Valley 51, East Middle School was recently closed after 51 years in operation. The district is in the process of gathering community feedback on what should happen to the school now. In the interim, the city of Grand Junction is using the gym for sports and other activities. The district uses the rest of the building for professional training.
Westminster is converting one of its former middle schools into a career and technical education campus.
It’s been about a decade since Boulder Valley School District has had to close schools. However, one school that closed in 2003 was renovated and turned into an early childhood center.
A survey of other districts shows many haven’t had to close schools in the past three years including Cherry Creek, Adams 12, St. Vrain Valley, and Douglas County.
Durango is expanding a middle school with a new building, a new center for career exploration, and a new outdoor learning lab focused on teaching sustainability. That said, there is the possibility of one school closing in an outlying area of La Plata County as young families can’t afford the high cost of housing.
The Greely-Evans 6 school district is growing. Last year it opened a new PreK-8 school in west Greeley, it rebuilt Greeley West High School with a larger capacity, and a new science, technology, engineering, arts, and math academy opened this August.
27J in Brighton is also growing and building new schools.
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