Students Walk Out, Protest Funding Issues at Denver Center for International Studies

Students from the Denver Center for International Studies capped their march with a roundtable with DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova and CFO Mark Ferrandino.
Students from the Denver Center for International Studies capped their march with a roundtable with DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova and CFO Mark Ferrandino. Nora Olabi
Denver Center for International Studies is a magnet school that draws students from all over the Denver area for its emphasis on educating with a global perspective. The sixth-through-twelfth-grade campus boasts a little over 700 students and offers six language programs, from French and Italian to Japanese and even Lakota, a Native American language spoken by the Sioux tribes.

But students are now worried that the very programs that make their campus attractive as a choice school will be chipped away because of budgetary issues in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year.

To voice their concerns, a small group of students staged a walkout at the magnet school on Wednesday afternoon. They marched to the Denver Public Schools central administration building near Lincoln and 18th streets, followed by an entourage of district administrators, security officers and parent volunteers. This isn't the first time students here have rallied behind a cause; DCIS and nineteen other schools protested President Donald Trump's actions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program.

"DPS needs to put its money where its mouth is," says Camilla Green, a senior at the magnet school. "We’re asking as concerned and alarmed students that we get $300,000 from the district and long-term budget assistance from the district. ... We’re sitting in schools where we're being asked to fire our teachers.”

Although administrators are quick to say that the budgetary issues are not the district's fault, one thing is certain: Cuts have to be made if no additional funding turns up. The reduction in overall funding is the result of fewer projected students, the expiration of a three-year school grant for a counselor position, and a reduction in DPS's budget assistance for mental-health positions and the Teacher Leadership Program. Although the numbers aren't solidified, a campus administrator says the school could see about a $140,000 projected shortfall. Administrators are working feverishly to shave expenses in order to make up the shortfall in time for a February 1 budget deadline.

It's unclear whether the district could chip in to fill the gap, given that DPS and districts across the state are all facing teacher shortages as a result of reduced state funding. Not only is it having troubles paying teachers a competitive wage, but the district doesn't even have the funding to bus students to school.

Students fear that cuts will come down on the school's prized language programs and, potentially, mean teacher layoffs. Although classroom sizes in DPS are about thirty students per teacher, the magnet school sees ten to fifteen students per language classroom, making the program particularly expensive for the campus to fund, something that principal Theresa McCorquodale characterized as "not sustainable" in a staff memo on the student protests.

The budget hasn't been finalized, but options include increasing classroom sizes by teaching two language levels in one class and reducing teachers to part-time rather than completely cutting positions.

"These potential cuts are not because 'DPS is cutting our program,' as many students seem to believe," McCorquodale said in the memo. "They are because we don’t have enough students to make up the difference when we have teachers with such small class sizes. ... So while no one wants to lose any programs/languages/teachers, we have to recognize that this problem is one of a relatively small school trying desperately to continue to fund programs that we don’t have the student budget dollars to fund."

This funding problem has dogged the campus for years. In the past few years, the school let go of a bookkeeper, turned a librarian into a paraprofessional, eliminated a position, paid for a needed counselor with a grant (that's now expiring this year), and drastically cut general instruction accounts, among other concessions, to keep the language department afloat. Despite the financial uncertainty the campus has faced, it is ranked as the twelfth best high school in the state, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Karen Mortimer, a mom who heads up the school's parent-teacher-student association, says that while the programs may be expensive given their small classroom sizes, the language programs are what draws parents in and cuts could take the campus on a downward spiral. She enrolled her eighth-grader two years ago after visiting multiple open houses of choice schools. She immediately fell in love with the campus because she believes its unique programming creates students with "highly informed" world views and a "social justice frame of mind."

"What's going to set us apart in this highly competitive choice environment?," Mortimer says. "It's so much of why parents choose this school. ... That's what makes this hard for these students — to contemplate a teacher they've known for seven years to be let go because Denver Public Schools can't scrounge around for $140,000."

DCIS student protesters ended their march with a roundtable discussion with district administrators, where they vented their frustrations and asked that DPS provide special program funding to sustain DCIS's language programs long-term. Other campuses have tapped into special program funding for things like new instruments and equipment.

"Right now they're just discussions; nothing has been determined," says DPS Director of Communications Will Jones on the DCIS budget. "They're just being talked about."
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi