As Denver moves toward a fraught debate over closing schools with low enrollment, critics are assailing an advisory committee process they say has been marred by secrecy and frustration.
Some committee and community members complain of closed meetings, poor translation for Spanish-speaking parents, ignored questions, stifled debate, and filtered feedback.
“Every time somebody asks a question, they’re told it’s not going to be answered and there’s not enough time, we’re going to keep moving,” said Karimme Quintana, a Spanish-speaking mother of two students who serves on the district’s declining enrollment advisory committee.
“It seems like everything is already done, everything is already decided,” she said. “They just have us there so at the end, they can say these committee members decided.”
Inauthentic community engagement and a sense that decisions are a “done deal” by the time the district asks for input are frequent criticisms of Denver Public Schools. The school board made clear it wanted to hear community voices this time. In June, the board passed a resolution saying the community should lead, and the district support, the process of producing options to manage shrinking enrollment — although the resolution implied school closures were inevitable.
But some of the people participating in the process said it suffers from the same old flaws.
“It doesn’t feel authentic,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education and another member of the committee. “It just feels like a compliance thing — check it off, we had the committees.”
After some controversial fits and starts, the district named a declining enrollment advisory committee that began meeting early last month. The committee’s stated purpose is to recommend criteria to Superintendent Alex Marrero for closing or consolidating schools. The recommendations are due next month, but the district says no schools would close until 2024.
School closures are wildly unpopular and often inequitable. Denver risks repeating that. Its smallest schools serve high percentages of students of color from low-income families, according to district data. Several committee members have expressed frustration that they’re not able to question the fairness of closing schools or discuss other solutions to address declining enrollment.
“When they say ‘declining enrollment committee,’ I think, ‘What are some ideas we have to address it?’ Not just, ‘What are recommendations to close and consolidate?’” said Gene Fashaw, a parent and former Denver teacher on the committee. “That’s the only thing they want to hear.”
‘A little disjointed’
Grant Guyer, the district’s chief of strategy and portfolio services, said the narrow focus is intentional. “While I understand this is an incredibly complicated topic with many layers and perspectives, the committee is focused on the criteria,” Guyer said. “If people want to advocate for other approaches, we have to route those through other channels.”
Meanwhile, parents and education advocates who are not on the committee are frustrated at what they say has been a secretive process. The committee’s Wednesday meetings are not open to the public, nor are the virtual sessions recorded and shared afterward — which Guyer said is to ensure the committee has a safe space to discuss a complicated topic.
After community organizations raised concerns about the lack of transparency, the district began hosting separate meetings on Fridays for some organizations. Participants said the district shows them the same materials and data it says it shows the committee on Wednesday and then asks the organizations for feedback it promises to pass along to the committee.
But participants have questions about that process too, which some said feels like a game of telephone — they give feedback to district staff who give it to committee members.
“DPS is controlling what information is getting passed along,” said Shantelle Mulliniks, a Denver parent who was invited to the Friday meetings as a representative of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors, a neighborhood association in a part of the city that has lost students.
The district also contracted with a civic engagement organization, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, to collect feedback from families and deliver to the committee.
Warm Cookies subcontracted with another organization, Community Organizing for Radical Empathy, which hired liaisons to do the work by mid-April. One liaison said the process feels rushed, with the liaisons scrambling to set up meetings at libraries, schools, and online.
“Community engagement, in my mind, should be thoughtful and mindful and should take as long as it takes,” said Erin Phelan, a Denver parent who was hired as a liaison. “In this situation that we are in, we are just trying to get what feedback we can in the short time frame we have.”
The process “seems to be a little disjointed,” said Ambar Suero, who formerly worked in the district’s community engagement office and is now in charge of partnerships at RootEd, a Denver organization that funds autonomous schools, community groups, and equity initiatives.
Though Suero has been following this issue closely, she said she only learned about the liaisons because she saw a post soliciting feedback on Facebook.
‘They’re leaving us out’
A school principal has already quit the declining enrollment advisory committee.
Dominique Jefferson is principal at Hallett Academy, a district-run elementary school with fewer than 300 students. She said she applied to the committee to make sure the criteria would spare Hallett from closure but was quickly disheartened by virtual meetings where the district cut off members attempting to discuss the factors that led to declining enrollment.
“I inherently do not believe in school closure or consolidation,” Jefferson said. “If we have been admonished not to talk about the reasons why we got here, I will not allow my time to be wasted.”
Not all committee members are frustrated. Onsi Fakhouri, a father of three Denver students, said he joined the committee with few expectations beyond wanting to help. A former executive at a technology company, Fakhouri said the process is unfolding the way any process in which a diverse group of people trying to come to consensus on a complicated issue would.
“I’m looking at this and it’s like, ‘This is totally normal,’” said Fakhouri.
While the first few committee meetings focused on providing background to the enrollment problem — explaining how declining birth rates and high housing costs are leading to fewer children in Denver — Guyer said this week’s meeting was the first where members began to brainstorm. Guyer said the district plans to post notes from the session on the district’s website, which will give the community more opportunity to comment on the committee’s work.
But some community members are still skeptical. They argue that mistrust in the process will lead to mistrust in the recommendations. The Latino community feels particularly shut out, which is concerning given that school closures likely will disproportionately affect Latino students.
Enrollment in neighborhoods like the one where committee member Quintana lives is dropping fast due in part to gentrification. Quintana said she joined the committee to discuss solutions but she’s now disheartened. The Spanish language translation at the first few meetings was the worst she’s ever experienced, she said. Guyer said the translation issues have been fixed.
Milo Marquez, a Denver parent and co-chair of a community group called the Latino Education Coalition, said it feels like the district is intentionally suppressing Latino voices.
“DPS has said over and over again that they want the voices of the community to be heard,” he said, “and again and again we see that they’re leaving us out.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.