Community members and advocates band together for state-funded updates to Garden Place Academy—with the looming reality that every school has its own fight.
Sisters Leslie and Stephanie Meléndez painting the state of Kansas on the playground's U.S. map.
The Garden Place Academy school, which opened its doors in 1904.
Second grader Julio Dominguez painting the playground with paint provided by Denver Public Schools.
Ken Harshman, founder of Greg Wolf Architecture, planting a tree on campus as a community volunteer. City Councilman Albus Brooks donated 22 trees to be planted at the event.
Garden Place Academy, a Globeville elementary school serving about 400 students, is in need of an update. The school opened in 1904, and while the building itself has been deemed "structurally sound," temperatures inside the classrooms can rise up to and above 100 degrees during the hot summer months.
“I think it just [needs] modernization,” says the school’s principal, Rebecca Salomon. “The building is beautiful, but time takes a toll. Just to bring it back to its original condition would be great.”
Garden Place Academy (GPA) recently received a grant from Denver Public Schools (DPS) that funded blueprints suggesting a $17 million interior remodel was needed. The plan includes many upgrades, such as updated ventilation and lighting. “Doing a master plan is a good approach to get an understanding of the needs,” explains David Suppes, chief operating officer of DPS. “But it doesn’t guarantee that the changes will happen. It’s likely that some of them will get funded and approved and some will not.”
John Prosser, an architect and professor emeritus in the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, estimates that GPA would need about half of the $17 million to install HVAC, new lighting, and paint. “It’s in terrific shape,” he says. “We can make it sustainable, modern—preserve a wonderful building that’s beautifully built—and turn it into a holistic learning landscape inside and outside.”
But in order to do that, the school needs funding—lots of it.
DPS officials are currently crafting a comprehensive plan that addresses necessary tech, programming, and facility updates for its 199 schools. If the Board of Education approves the proposed ballot initiative in June, then the voters will get to decide on funding the bond in the fall. “We balance it on the financial side,” Suppes says. “How much funding can we obtain and how do we put a package together that’s attractive to the school district and to voters? Because the voters need to approve this.”
GPA will receive some updates this summer, such as cooling enhancements and improved potable water distribution, thanks to a 2012 DPS bond . Until more funding comes through—either from the new ballot initiative or private grants—a group of school activists and community members are actively working to make additional small improvements where they can.
On April 24, in honor of Earth Day, volunteers gathered to plant trees and freshen up the paint on GPA’s playground, which was designed and built in 2000 via a partnership between DPS and CU Denver’s Learning Landscapes . (Program participants have designed every elementary playground in DPS since its inception in 1998.) DPS provided paint and mulch for the project, and city councilman Albus Brooks donated trees, vegetable starts, supplies for planting, and locally sourced snacks for volunteers.
“We want to take small, meaningful steps to make the community say, ‘We can fix this,’” says Lois Brink, a landscape architecture professor at the CU Denver and founder of Learning Landscapes. Brink is hoping to fundraise  $539,000 for a full revitalization of the schoolyard, which would include extended learning opportunities for the kids, such as affordable technologies that would help the students monitor the community garden.
GPA students have been making their own improvements by taking great academic strides. “We’ve been recognized as a high-growth school in Denver for the past four years,” Salomon says. “It’s really taking a look at what each student needs academically, socially, emotionally, and making sure we’re providing skills-based instruction to fill the gaps.”
Against immense need across the county, the GPA community and its team of advocates show no signs of slowing down.
“DPS has really done a nice job in listening and helping us with this proposal,” Salomon says. “We have a lot of hopes and wishes for our building—I also know that every school has its own fight. We want to put our voice out there and let people know the changes that we would like to see made.”
Because if they don’t speak up about what the school needs, who will?