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Roxanne Sims was pregnant when she and her husband Zach Johnston moved to southeast Denver’s Rosedale neighborhood six months ago. That wasn’t a coincidence.
“We considered so many neighborhoods,” says Sims, who has lived in the Denver Metro area since she was eight years old. Johnston has been here since he was five. “We walked around the neighborhood and we saw tons of families with little kids and we were like, ‘this is an area where our son can make friends, and walk to a playground or a rec center,’” Johnston says. “I wanted to get us into a neighborhood that would have a good school, where he could walk to school, possibly.”
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While there is a public elementary school within walking distance of their home, it has been vacant since 2005, when Denver Public Schools closed it citing financial constraints brought on by the economic downturn. In Rosedale, there are two private elementary schools, Denver Waldorf School and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School. The closest public elementary school is Asbury, closer to the University of Denver.
In June, the Archdiocese of Denver expressed interest in buying the property with help from private donors and turning the vacant building into a 400-student Catholic high school—a move that would allow students to continue parochial education in the neighborhood. While no formal offer has been made at this point, the Archdiocese interest has sparked Denver Public Schools to begin considering options for what to do with the building: Renovating it and using it; leaving it vacant for the time being; leasing it to a third party; or selling it.
DPS district officials say it would cost $15.7 million in renovations to restore Rosedale to a functioning public elementary school, and that recent analyses of enrollment predictions don’t show enough need to justify opening another school. “We’ve been losing about a thousand elementary students a year district-wide over the last couple of years,” says Sarah Walsh, director of planning of DPS said at a community meeting held last week to solicit public input on what to do with the building.
The majority of the local community, however, is strongly opposed to selling the public building to the Archdiocese or any other private enterprise. At last week’s community meeting, frustration and mistrust permeated the atmosphere. Many community members voiced concern that DPS hadn’t done its due diligence to accurately analyze and predict birth rates and expected elementary school enrollment in the coming years—and that even if they had, looking just five years into the future is short-sighted.
“Our city and county leaders are saying again and again that they’re bracing for population growth of 21 percent by 2040. The narrative we’re hearing is that the population is growing, and yet our district is saying the opposite,” says Emily Walker, a former resident of Rosedale who says she and her family moved to a different neighborhood because of the lack of access to a public elementary school.
Walker thinks the district should open a preschool in Rosedale—another option that DPS is considering if they keep the building, though renovations would cost more. She also thinks they should wait until 2020 Census data comes in before making a decision.
Indeed, the population density claims are somewhat murky. DPS’s own Strategic Regional Analysis from fall 2017 shows enrollment is actually expected to increase slightly in the region that includes Rosedale in the coming years. “The Southeast is one of only two regions in the city that is forecasted to have increased student enrollment by 2021,” the document reads.
However, Liz Mendez, executive director of enrollment and campus planning for DPS, says the year after that analysis came out, DPS made efforts to “redesign and improve the enrollment forecasting model” and, as a result, “The 2018 enrollment data demonstrated that the region was beginning to plateau with a three percent growth forecast overall (K-12th grade) and four percent declines forecast at the elementary level.”
Angelique Lambert, a Denver resident who was the third generation in her family to attend Rosedale, received a round of applause at the public meeting when she criticized the Archdiocese’s plan to demolish certain parts of the building and suggested getting Rosedale listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mark Haas, director of public relations for the Archdiocese of Denver, resists the notion that opening a private high school is at odds with community good, or that the Archdiocese has anything but respect for the building at heart. “If DPS doesn’t have use for the facility (after leaving it empty for 15 years), we are willing to invest millions of dollars into the property to bring academic life back to the campus, and the upgraded facilities will be available for public use. For example, neighborhood groups could work with the school to host events in the new gymnasium or cafetorium,” he wrote in an email. “I think we would ask people to consider what’s more of a benefit to a neighborhood: An abandoned and boarded up building, or an open and thriving school?”
“This is a community driven and funded plan, with multiple donors already committed to make this idea become a reality,” Haas added.
Sims and Johnston say they didn’t know that Rosedale Elementary was closed when they moved to the neighborhood, but they found out quickly from neighbors, many of whom have put up signs reading “Save Rosedale Elementary School” in their front yards. “It’s an exciting thought to have the school, and it’s a sad thought to lose the school. To never have a chance of it reopening as a school,” Sims says.
The eventual resolution about Rosedale rests with the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, whose decision is months away. Tay Anderson, Denver School Board at-large director, was at last week’s meeting, and ensured the community the board has not made a decision and has yet to even meet to “discuss this in any sort of fashion.” Later, he said in an interview that he is neither in favor of selling Rosedale Elementary nor reopening it as an elementary school, citing empty seats at the two closest neighboring elementary schools as a sign that there isn’t the need for another school in the area. Leasing the school or renovating it for another purpose are the options he is most interested in.
One thing he can say for sure, though: “We heard loud and clear from the community that they have a strong opposition to selling the public land.”