Migrant influx leaves Denver Public Schools short $17.5 million in funding as students keep enrolling

Hundreds of migrant children, many fresh from crossing the southern border, have registered to attend Denver schools since last summer, numbers that grow week after week, boosting enrollment in Colorado’s largest school district and — at least temporarily — reversing a years-long decline in students.

Under the state’s official count during the fall, DPS is educating 371 more students than last year, a number that keeps overall district enrollment relatively flat at 88,235 pupils, and is, in theory, good news for the district’s coffers: more students equals more funding.

But the children keep coming.

DPS leaders and educators have welcomed more than 2,800 migrant children who have newly enrolled in the city’s schools as of last week. But the students’ continued arrival during the middle of the academic year and at such record rates — as many as 300 a week — has created an unprecedented challenge for the district.

More than half of the new migrant students enrolled in DPS after Colorado’s October count, which determines how much money the state gives each district annually based on the number of children in their schools.

DPS has enrolled more than 1,600 additional pupils since that count, and with state funding set at about $11,000 per student each year, according to a DPS presentation to the school board, that’s left the district $17.5 million in the hole — a number that will continue to rise as more migrant students enroll.

Still, DPS leaders had predicted enrollment to decline again when they approved the budget for the current school year, so the increase — even if not fully captured by the official count last fall — means the district does have more state funding coming in than officials had anticipated, money that has gone toward offsetting the funding gap.

DPS, which has a $1.3 billion budget, also has drawn from reserves to help make up the difference, district spokesman Bill Good said. The district is now working to hire more Spanish-speaking teachers and other support staff.

“Our system was never built to handle this kind of challenge,” said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “You’re taking an already stressed system and applying more stress to it.”

DPS has asked the Colorado Department of Education to make a one-time adjustment in funding to provide money for the new students who arrived after the October count, Katie Hechavarria, the district’s executive director of finance, told the Board of Education during a meeting Thursday.

Without an adjustment, the district will have to wait until the next count this coming fall to see any potential increase in state funding,

The state education department “does not have authority” to make adjustments beyond the October count process, meaning that any school funding changes would have to be made by the state legislature, spokesman Jeremy Meyer said in a statement.

“CDE is evaluating if there is any existing funding streams available internally that could be used to support districts experiencing an influx of newcomer students,” he said.

More money from the state would help the district respond better to the migrant crisis, especially when the next school year begins in the fall, said Chuck Carpenter, DPS’s chief financial officer, in an interview.

“I don’t think we really know when this is going to change or stop,” he said. “All signs point that this is going to continue to be a challenge in the fall.”

The new students are coming as overall enrollment in Colorado’s public education system has fallen for three of the past four years to a 10-year low. Districts, including DPS and Jeffco Public Schools, have begun closing schools as they have fewer students to teach.

Denver Public Schools Board of Education member Scott Esserman, second from left, addresses Adrienne Endres, right, DPS Executive Director of Multilingual Education and DPS Deputy Superintendent Dr. Anthony Smith, seated next to Endres, during a school board presentation regarding the recent and continuing influx of migrant students, during a meeting at DPS headquarters in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

However, DPS’s unexpected enrollment boost is not necessarily a turnaround for the district. The factors that are driving declining enrollment in Denver, as well as other districts across Colorado, remain ongoing, such as fewer babies being born nationwide.

Other school districts, including Jeffco Public Schools and the Douglas County School District in the metro area, also have seen an increase in migrant students, although not at the same level as DPS, while also facing falling enrollment.

On the Western Slope, Mesa County Valley School District 51 has enrolled more than 70 new English language learner students — mostly Spanish speakers — in the last year, a significant number for the community and one that the district of 20,208 students expects to continue to grow, said Linnea Hulshof, the district’s culturally and linguistically diverse education coordinator.

But that enrollment has not been enough to offset the 1,874 students District 51 lost over the past five years, forcing it to begin closing schools. District 51 is teaching 643 fewer pupils in the 2023-24 academic year than it did the previous year, according to state enrollment data.

Dr. Carol Wilcox, right, escorts sixth graders to their classroom at Bryant Webster Dual Language School in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“Things are not slowing down”

Denver Public Schools normally sees enrollment dip after December, but this year the number of newly arrived migrant students registering to attend school is still increasing, said Russell Ramsey, the district’s executive director of enrollment and campus planning, during a presentation at Thursday’s school board meeting.

DPS saw about 100 new students enroll per week between August to December. That pace has only increased since January, with the district now seeing 200 to 300 new students registering weekly, he said.

“Things are not slowing down,” Ramsey said in an interview. “Hotspots are shifting because the overall numbers are still growing.”

At this point, almost every DPS school has received at least one or two migrant students. But the distribution of the students hasn’t been equal across buildings as DPS aims to place students in schools that can meet their language needs, he said.

“This has been the most challenging part,” Ramsey said. “It’s not just as easy as, ‘There’s a classroom seat at this building — take it.’ It has a lot to do with the type of program we are offering.”

There is also another factor that’s driving where students are landing: housing.

Housing prices and the type of homes that are built have reshaped where children attend school in Denver and who are in DPS classrooms in recent years. Now, the same patterns of housing that have contributed to declining enrollment are also influencing where migrant families live and where their children go to school because the same neighborhoods — such as those in southwest Denver — either don’t have emergency shelters or affordable, long-term housing.

That means schools that have historically low enrollment aren’t necessarily the ones getting needed new students, Ramsey said.

“The story of declining enrollment is a local story,” he said. “The impact will be felt at the school level. In the midst of the positive enrollment trends, there still remain schools that are declining in that enrollment.”

One outlier is Eagleton Elementary, which is one of the 10 schools DPS recommended closing because of low enrollment almost two years ago. More students have begun enrolling in the school this year because of a nearby migrant shelter, he said.

“For some schools, this migrant influx has not changed anything about their status,” Ramsey said. “Other schools it has changed it dramatically.”

The district also is seeing enrollment shift between schools as families move to different shelters or find more stable housing. One new “hotspot” is in the far northeast corner of Denver, where there are more affordable homes and several hundred students recently have registered, he said.

Even Velasquez, 11, right, and Nickel Guerrero, 11, present their art project to classmates at Bryant Webster Dual Language School in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“Really hard to line up the staffing”

Schools in northwest Denver have been among those hit by declining enrollment in recent years. But emergency shelters in the neighborhood mean that schools, such as Bryant Webster Dual Language ECE-8, have been taking in migrant students.

At Bryant Webster, families have left shelters for more long-term housing, settling in places like Wheat Ridge and Arvada. Under federal law, those children, as with any who are experiencing homelessness, are guaranteed transportation to Bryant Webster for the rest of the academic year — but that won’t be the case in the fall when the next school year begins, Ramsey said.

Ideally, migrant students, who are likely to have had their education interrupted at some point, are able to stay at the same school they first enrolled in, even if their families move to another part of the city, to ensure there is minimal disruption to their learning, Ramsey said.

First graders in class at Bryant Webster Dual Language School in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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To meet this need, DPS has had to create new bus routes. The district increased transportation services for students who qualify for McKinney Vento status, meaning they are experiencing homelessness, by 30%, which the district expects will cost an additional $1 million to $1.2 million, according to a presentation to the school board.

With more students, schools also need more furniture, such as desks, for classrooms. At least one Denver school is using its library to house classes after it ran out of space for students. There are also language barriers in the classroom. Teachers who don’t speak Spanish find they have students who only speak the language, meaning they are using Google Translate on their phones to communicate with their pupils, Gould said.

DPS is also searching for more Spanish-speaking teachers and other educators to staff swelling classrooms, a task that has become harder as needs continue to surge halfway through the academic year.

“We have deployed the money,” said Carpenter, DPS’s chief financial officer. “It’s just really hard to line up the staffing.”

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