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Roots Elementary Closing

182 Students Will Be Displaced When Charter Shutters At End Of School Year

Photo by Cara DeGette

On Nov. 13, the founders and leaders of Roots Elementary announced to its families that their four-year old charter school will close at the end of the school year.

The school, at the Holly Square at 3350 Hudson St., opened in August 2015 with a kindergarten and first grade. It has grown one grade level every year and currently serves students from kindergarten to fourth grade. All 182 children currently enrolled at Roots will have to find a new school for the 2019-2020 year.

According to the letter sent to its families, Roots’ closure is due to low enrollment. In its application to become a school, Roots had projected having 400 students by now.  Fewer students mean less revenue for the school that is no longer financially viable.

The letter was signed by Board Chair Eric Sondermann and founder and board member Jon Hanover, as well as the school’s current Principal Kathryn Martinez and Interim Executive Director Stephanie Wilson Itelman.

The school had a high teacher turnover, capped last year with the loss of Hanover, the founding executive director who went to work for the ride-share program HopSkipDrive.  With less than stellar academic results, the school has been struggling since its opening.

$4 million in debt

Roots owns the building that houses the school, but not the land on which it sits. Unable to pay its mortgage, Roots will be going into default for approximately $4 million.

“The credit union will take ownership,” said Gerie Grimes, Executive Director of the Holly Area Redevelopment Project (HARP) that held a community meeting on Nov. 19 to discuss the closure and its repercussions.

The Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) owns the land that was leased to Roots. Working to preserve and fortify communities, “ULC land banks parcels of land in Metro Denver to preserve the affordability of future developments for long term community benefit.” ULC acquired the land following the fire that destroyed the Holly Square Shopping Center in 2008. Some of it was developed into the Boys and Girls Club and later some was leased to Roots for its new school.

Now, ULC will be looking for new tenants. But, “we no longer have a blank slate,” said a representative from ULC at the community meeting. Community plans are now constrained by a building and its debt. ULC will work in collaboration with HARP to ensure the long-term benefit of the community.

Accountability and failure

Laura Lefkowits, who sat on the Denver Public Schools board from 1995 to 1999 and who is an active member of the group Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (PHNEE), asked about accountability for the school’s finances and its performance.

Although allocating blame for the school’s closure may not help the children currently in the school, it would be a disservice to all students and Park Hill’s community to overlook what went wrong.

“Kids are being pushed out of the neighborhood,” said Jill Tew, who sits on the school’s board and was one of its founding members.

Accelerated gentrification certainly has a role to play in enrollment at all of Park Hill’s schools, especially those situated in the neighborhood’s north. Blaming gentrification, however, neglects the fact that when Roots proposed its school model to DPS it was fairly warned that enrollment could be an issue. In June 2014, months before the school board approved its proposal, the District School Improvement and Accountability Council stated it clearly: “A concern is the District has not identified the needs for new seats in the Near Northeast area.”

Indeed, several elementary schools less than a mile away had empty seats that needed students. (Smith is .4 miles away, Hallett is .7 miles away and Stedman is .9 miles away). But community leaders encouraged Hanover to focus on northeast Park Hill.

An August, 2017 article in the magazine 5280 noted that Nate Easley, who served on the DPS Board from 2009 to 2013 and who represented Park Hill, was enthusiastic about having the school here: “Easley suggested [Hanover] look at Northeast Park Hill . . . There might have been enough schools to accommodate the kids in the neighborhood.” Easley, who served on Roots’ board until two years ago, was quoted saying, “but there were no quality schools. Nowhere I’d send my own kids.”

Education in ‘crisis’

The idea behind Roots was to install a “quality” school that would compete for students with the neighborhood schools. But this competition model based on diverse school types and favored by DPS as its “portfolio model” and the choice program mean that some schools end up on the losing side.

Claiming that education was “in crisis in the North Park Hill area,” Roots’ application was clear about its intentions: “Roots Elementary intends to locate in near northeast Denver and is specifically targeting the North and Northeast Park Hill neighborhoods.”

Bolstering its ranks, however, could only be done at the expense of neighboring schools that took a hit with decreasing enrollment. The year Roots opened its doors, Stedman lost 21 percent of it enrollment and Hallett lost 17 percent. Smith Elementary held steady. Although other factors may have contributed to enrollment issues, there is little doubt that opening a school in an area that did not need one had negative effects on existing schools.

Roots also failed to deliver on its academic achievement. Although Roots notes in its latest letter to families that it is the highest achieving school in the area, one wonders what data it is summarizing. 2018 CMAS scores showed that not even 12 percent of Roots’ third graders were meeting or exceeding expectations for English Language Acquisition. By comparison Smith was at 19 percent and Stedman at 24 percent (Hallett’s scores were not reported).

Students lose in competition

Scores at all those schools need improvement. When community leaders such as Easley decided to turn their backs on the neighborhood’s existing schools to bank on the promise of an experiment, all schools – and most importantly all students – lost.

When enrollment dropped, so did funding. With loss of funding came loss of resources. When national and local foundations invested in Roots, they were rooting for one school over others.

Imagine if community leaders had petitioned to uplift the students that were already enrolled in Park Hill schools. The Gates Family Foundation’s 2016 annual report reveals that it granted $120,000 to the development of the Roots building and $160,000 to the school’s design. Imagine if those amounts had been invested in the community schools instead of being handed to a school that directly competed with them.

Roots was never able to enroll the number of students it had promised to attract. But Park Hill’s community has turned to its neighborhood schools and is actively supporting them. Stedman has increased its enrollment by 20 percent this year. With a new principal Hallett is showing signs of a revival and Smith continues attract a large number of students. For more than a year the Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education has been working hard in the community to find equitable solutions to an educational system that does not uplift all children equally.

Roots’ students have been systemically failed. Not by teachers and staff who worked hard, day in and day out, but by a portfolio system that values competition over community, a model that too often experiments with the city’s most vulnerable students.

In the New Year

Now that their students are in need of a school, how will DPS support them and their communities?

If some ask for an academic transfer to change schools immediately, will DPS financially help those schools to sustain an increase in their student populations? Typically, after the October student count, funds do not leave one school for another. Given the circumstances and the difficulty of potentially serving many new students, will DPS leaders rethink this policy?

Stay tuned.

 

This opinion column was written by Lynn Kalinauskas, who is Education Chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. 


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