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Kim Benson doesn't know why Teller Elementary has such a bad reputation. She just knows that many parents who live around Congress Park won't even consider enrolling their children there.
"I've heard from families that have moved into the neighborhood that they've been told they shouldn't even look at Teller," says Benson, a member of the school's Collaborative Decision Making committee (CDM). "We've literally had people who haven't even visited Teller decide to enroll their kids elsewhere. I don't know what's behind its reputation, because no one can ever tell us what, specifically, they've been told about Teller. It's all so vague."
The bad rap dates back more than a decade, however, to when there were two elementary schools in the Congress Park neighborhood: Teller, at 1150 Garfield Street, which served the lower-income families on the eastern side, and Stevens, at 12th Avenue and Columbine Street, which served the western, more affluent side of the neighborhood.
Stevens closed in the early 1990s because of low enrollment, but instead of being flooded with former Stevens students, Teller's population declined dramatically from 349 in the 1995-96 school year to 281 today. The reason for the drop is a Colorado policy that allows parents to enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhoods, a choice that parents in Congress Park have been making.
DPS knows of at least 53 kids in the Teller attendance area who go to other Denver public schools, including Bromwell, Palmer and Steck.
Of the six families with elementary-aged kids on Dave Meggitt's block, his is the only one with children who attend Teller. The rest are spread out between Park Hill Elementary, Bromwell Elementary, Stanley British Primary, a private school in Park Hill, and Good Shepherd, a Catholic school in Congress Park. None of these is as racially and economically diverse as Teller, a factor Meggitt thinks may be behind the flight from the school.
Almost 30 percent of Teller students are Hispanic, 30 percent are black, 37 percent are white and the rest are Asian and American Indian; 12 percent are native Spanish speakers, and 68 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. This makes Teller representative of the entire Denver school district, where 53 percent of the students are Hispanic, 22 percent are white, 20 percent are black, 23 percent are native Spanish speakers and 69 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By comparison, Bromwell, which is recognized as one of the best public elementary schools in Denver and is one of the most sought-after, is 86 percent white; only 1 percent of the students there speak Spanish, and just 8 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"I like Teller because it's racially diverse. I want my kids to grow up in the real world," Meggitt says. "I think a lot of parents feel their kids will get a better education somewhere else, but I beg to differ. I get really defensive when people compare us to Bromwell."
But that is exactly what is happening, say some parents. To compete with Bromwell and other schools that are luring students out of the neighborhood, parents and staff are proposing changing the school's name to Congress Park Elementary.
"Park Hill Elementary has a lot of students from our neighborhood. People love living in Park Hill, and they feel tied to the school of the same name," says Julie Lang, a Teller parent and chairwoman of the school's CDM. "And everyone in Congress Park loves to live in Congress Park, so why not call the neighborhood school Congress Park Elementary?"
The idea first came up at a CDM meeting last fall but wasn't floated publicly until a couple of weeks ago, when the school approached Congress Park's neighborhood association. CDM members are now accepting feedback from neighbors but won't approach the Denver Board of Education unless the majority of the community supports the name change.
Teller principal Karti Lyons says the marketing effort is necessary because parents have so many choices of where to send their kids. "Teachers are basically ambassadors to the school," she explains. "My struggle is to get the word out that Teller is a great school with a veteran staff." (Almost 80 percent of the teachers at Teller have been there more than eleven years, compared to 47 percent district-wide.)
Aside from changing the name, the staff at Teller also hopes to offer a full-day, tuition-based kindergarten next year as a way to make it more attractive to local parents. "One of the problems in Congress Park is that we have no daycare that feeds into the elementary school, like in Park Hill," Lang explains. The school will charge $250 a month for the service, but it needs to enroll twenty children by May 1 to be able to hire a teacher. The school may also add Spanish instruction at the kindergarten level and eventually add Spanish as an after-school program for all students.
Parents say Teller has made huge improvements to its academic offerings and that student discipline problems -- fights and the use of foul language on the playground -- that may have contributed to the school's poor reputation have declined. About four years ago, Teller started a peer-mediation program in which teachers train students how to resolve problems on the playground; this year, 25 fourth- and fifth-graders have volunteered to mediate disputes during lunchtime. Lyons says playground problems have been reduced by 90 percent since the program began.