Colorado District Chief Learns from Mistakes, Manages Impact of School Closures

In April 2021, the board overseeing Colorado’s Jeffco Public Schools was on the verge of hiring Tracy Dorland as its new superintendent. However, before that could happen, they had to address a pressing issue — the closure of Allendale Elementary School.

The district’s new superintendent believed that closing the school in the spring was too late, as parents had already made plans for the upcoming fall term.

“I didn’t understand why they were closing a school at this time,” questioned Dorland. “We should be preparing for the next year.”

Jeffco leaders worked to ease the transition for families into new schools. (Jeffco Public Schools)

Enrollment at Allendale, a school in Arvada, just outside of Denver, had dropped by 45% since 2017, with only around 100 students remaining. Some grade levels had shrunk to just a single classroom, and the district was losing money on essential services like transportation and lunch. Most extracurricular programs had vanished.

However, Dorland believed that closing schools was political suicide.

However, after personally visiting the classrooms, Dorland began to understand the situation. “Even though they loved the small schools, families decided to leave,” she shared.

Since taking office, Jeffco has closed 16 schools, with plans to close four more at the end of the current school year.

Saying goodbye to legacy institutions is a challenging process for school communities, akin to experiencing the stages of grief. Residents with emotional connections to schools attended by their parents and grandparents often resist such closures. However, Dorland’s straightforward and respectful approach throughout the process has earned her praise in dealing with a situation that other district leaders across the country will likely face in the coming years. She has taken into account the human cost and has assigned staff members to help principals and families navigate the transition.

Trace Faust, senior project director at the Colorado nonprofit Keystone Policy Center, which conducted community meetings to discuss the closures, praised Dorland for her boldness. “To look someone in the eye and say, ‘I know this is devastating, but I’m looking at the bigger picture of the district,’ that takes courage, and that’s exactly what districts need right now,” said Faust.

In Colorado, as well as in many other states, experts attribute the decline in enrollment to decreasing birth rates and soaring housing prices, making it difficult for young families to afford to live in desirable areas. Many older residents choose to stay in Colorado after their children leave, resulting in a limited supply of available housing.

The Need for Mourning

Fitzmorris Elementary had a first-grade class with only five students. Small schools like this lacked dedicated music and physical education teachers. After-school programs were canceled due to low enrollment.

Following a last-minute vote to close Fitzmorris in the spring of 2022, the district realized that piecemeal closure decisions were no longer feasible. They proposed closing a total of 16 schools and held a series of community meetings before reaching a final unanimous decision in November. This timeline allowed families to have the remainder of the school year to understand how these changes would affect their children.

However, some of the initial community meetings didn’t go well. The Keystone staff was already discussing “re-envisioning” schools and the benefits of consolidation while the community was still struggling to comprehend the decision. Tracy Dorland described the staff as “tone-deaf” to parents’ concerns.

Faust acknowledged that those early meetings “honestly missed the mark,” stating that the community needed time to grieve and express their anger.

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