Gentrification Leading to Overcrowded DPS Classrooms

Gentrification Leading to Overcrowded DPS Classrooms
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Today, August 19, marks the official start of the academic year for Denver Public Schools, and some of the classrooms to which students must report this morning are jam-packed.

Information we've received from local teachers reveal that class sizes of more than thirty students are commonplace at elementary schools throughout multiple sections of the DPS system, and particularly in those neighborhoods that have become favorite destinations for families priced out of their previous homes by gentrification. As of last week, the number of pupils assigned to one south Denver elementary school classroom was 38.

This last figure exceeds the number DPS prefers for its classrooms. However, Jim Carpenter, the district's executive director for choice and planning, reveals that classes with thirty-plus students are seen as acceptable in many situations.

"We work to make sure that elementary school class sizes stay below 35 students," Carpenter notes via email. "Typically, they are much lower. When class sizes are greater than that, we work with the Instructional Superintendent and the schools in that region to try and reduce classes without being too disruptive to families and to the school year."

Teacher organizations such as the National Education Association regularly tout the advantages of smaller class sizes, and while some studies suggest that the positives may not be as large as advocates imply, the concept is enormously popular for reasons laid out in an essay on the subject from the group Parents Across America. Among its assertions: "Class size is a proven and effective reform," "There is NO threshold that has to be reached before class size reduction provides benefits" and "Class size reduction narrows the achievement gap."

This last assertion is particularly apt given that the largest classroom sizes in Denver are often found in areas that have proven attractive to lower-income families. Our sources cite schools in neighborhoods such as Harvey Park, College View/South Platte and Gateway/Green Valley Ranch, where housing prices are more affordable than in the likes of Five Points, Cole and Whittier, which have undergone major demographic shifts during recent years.

click to enlarge The most recent school boundary map available online at the Denver Public Schools website. - DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The most recent school boundary map available online at the Denver Public Schools website.
The Class Size Matters website documents the efforts of numerous states and municipalities to prevent classroom overcrowding over the past twenty years or so. In 2002, for example, Florida set statewide constitutional limits on class sizes in all grades, with a cap of eighteen students for pre-kindergarten through third grade and 22 students for grades four through eight. More recently, North Carolina set a maximum first-grade class size of nineteen for 2018-2019. And while California allows larger class sizes than either of these states, its current cap is still lower than the one used by DPS: a maximum of 33 students in kindergarten, 32 in grades one through three, and a fourth-through-eighth-grade average of around thirty.

And in Colorado? The state's class-size reduction guideline of seventeen students per teacher only applies to kindergarten — and while the statute includes a funding incentive, the policy is voluntary.

For Carpenter, keeping DPS class sizes below 35 is difficult enough, especially right now.

"There’s always a significant amount of enrollment shifts at the start of the year, due to families moving to different neighborhoods and different schools," he acknowledges. "This takes place throughout the district, and we keep a close eye on class sizes and make resource and staffing adjustments as necessary in the opening weeks of the school year."

Complicating these efforts are DPS rules related to securing classrooms for students. For the most part, the schools students attend are dictated by boundary maps like the one for elementary facilities, seen above. But in some areas, Denver uses so-called enrollment zones, where the rules are a bit different.

"If the student has moved into a neighborhood boundary school, the student will be enrolled at that school unless it looks like enrolling them will put the school over 35 students per class at a particular grade by fall adjustment," Carpenter explains. "At that level, we will use our overflow procedures and shift the student to another school (and in that case, DPS would provide transportation to that school)."

If, however, a student is in an enrollment zone (there are currently five for elementary schools, including ones in Five Points and Stapleton), the students "have the right to a seat at one of a number of schools, but not at any particular school," Carpenter goes on. "In that case, we look at enrollment and every school’s budgeted numbers and provide the family options of schools in the zone that have space. To try to provide as many options as possible, we have set up reserved (placeholder) seats in enrollment zone schools that are held back for late arriving students. In those cases, if a student moves into the zone, they would qualify for a placeholder seat if there is one available, which would give them access to more schools."

Such shifts are expected to take place regularly in assorted Denver Public School classrooms over the next few weeks — but like it or not, 35 is the magic number.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts