By Eric Heinz
Editor’s note: After the G.E.S. Gazette’s print edition was published, Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted to not consolidate any schools for the 2023-2024 school year, but officials said that doesn’t mean they could not be considered in the future.
Swansea Elementary is slated to take on more students from the International Academy of Denver at Harrington in 2023-2024 as part of Denver Public Schools recently announced consolidation suggestions.
But by the end of the school year, Swansea must show once again that it is making progress and that its students are improving, or it could face a hearing with the Colorado Department of Education regarding its status on the school accountability clock, which monitors schools that have historically underperformed in standardized testing.
The DPS board of education is scheduled to vote on the school consolidation plans on Nov. 17.
School Accountability Clock
Swansea has been on the state’s accountability clock for three years. It was granted an exemption in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic when students were largely forced into distance learning. Vanessa Trussell, principal of Swansea Elementary, said if the school is able to show growth during this year’s testing, it will begin its first year off the accountability clock.
Swansea Elementary must show two years of consecutive growth before it would be off of the clock completely. But if the school does not show academic growth this year, then it may have to go before the state board of education and would remain on the accountability clock, Trussell said.
“A lot of different things could happen at that point,” Trussell said. “There could be a school closure or they could change the program. They could put in an outside agency to manage the school.” Swansea currently has 307 students enrolled in K-5 and another 60 in early child education (ECE). Since learning returned to in-person instruction, Trussell said the students have been trying to keep up with necessary standards.
“We have challenges of course, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” Trussell said. “We started a Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Students need access to high-quality curriculum that is based on the science of reading, and quite honestly, DPS has been way behind the curve on that.”
Lisa Escárcega, the Colorado Board of Education member who represents Denver, said because there is some missing data with students who don’t test in English, it leaves a gap in Swansea’s academic performance.
“The true issue here is that the state doesn’t provide a growth model between the third and the fourth grade Spanish test,” Escárcega said. “If they would do that they’d at least have one solid year where they could show how much kids have grown.”
Third-graders and fourth-graders who are in the dual language program take the test in Spanish if it is their native language.
“Swansea is a very special place; we actually have more students who are bilingual and learning English,” Trussell said. “We call them multilingual learners. I don’t want them to lose their Spanish because it’s an asset.”
But the test is not available in Spanish in fifth grade, which can hinder students on the literacy side of testing if they haven’t mastered English to a certain level.
On an October day, Spanish could be heard being spoken by most of the teachers on the playground as students realigned following a fire drill.
“The problem with this … is that they don’t show growth for Spanish,” Trussell said. “They could take the test in third grade and fourth grade, and they could show significant improvement. But the state doesn’t count that for growth as they do for English. What’s been happening historically to Swansea is that the gross score has been severely impacted by not representing all of our students.”
Trussell said there is some pressure to get students’ English abilities up to par, but she said showing growth in their overall academic performance is most important. DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero told The G.E.S. Gazette that he is confident that Swansea will not be closed or have the state change the way it is operating.
“That won’t happen,” he said. ”We’ve had other schools that have been before the board. There has been zero indication of any interference from the state.”
Marrero said because teachers from the consolidated schools would be coming with the students to their new school, “That’s only going to enrich the program up there. So I’m not concerned that it is on the clock.”
As DPS has seen significant declines in enrollment, the board of education supported a committee to examine which schools could be consolidated. The criteria was based on addressing schools with a “critically low” enrollment of fewer than 215 students and “each school’s unique context.”
Trussell said Swansea is in a good position to take on more students, as the school has a capacity for about twice the size of its current enrollment.
“It’s just a matter of the families choosing Swansea,” Trussell said. “Our staff is very welcoming and we have a pretty strong culture here.”
“I know for them it’s got to be hard,” she said, adding there were talks of consolidating Swansea’s ECE program, and she understands the trepidation teachers are facing with the possibility of consolidations or closures.
Marrero said the consolidations will also include staff and principals who will move over to their respective consolidated school.
“We’re gonna do a process to make sure that we have a leader (at each school), and it’s going to help also with the unification and the culture,” Marrero said. “That’s what makes our approach very different than everyone else’s. I can’t think of one consolidation, even if they call the closure, that is allowing for this amount of nuance and flexibility. I’m guaranteeing professionals are not only gonna land on their feet, they’re gonna land where other students are headed.”
Marrero said some of the factors that have contributed to school consolidations are the rise in the cost of living and home prices in the area, as well as declining birth rates and the expansion of the number of schools in the Denver area. It was not clear as of The Gazette’s press time how many students would be coming to Swansea for the 2023-2024 school year.
Some students from the International Academy of Denver at Harrington are also slated to consolidate with Columbine Elementary.
According to DPS, in the past five years, elementary and middle school enrollment has declined by more than 6,000 students, resulting in a loss of $61 million annually in taxes. DPS stated an additional loss of about 3,000 elementary and middle school students over the next four years is expected, resulting in an additional loss of $36 million in funding.