Closures: How Did We Get Here, What Can We Do?

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I’m the proud father of four WRHS Farmers. I served as the Chair and CoChair of the WRHS School Accountability Committee for five years, and have watched the interaction between Jeffco Public Schools and Wheat Ridge for a decade.

Like many, I’m outraged by the proposal to close three WR elementary schools after millions in bond funds were invested to upgrade them. 

How did we get here, and what can you do about it?

Seven years ago, 50 percent of WRHS students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, and nearly 50 percent were minorities. Yet Griff Wirth and his WRHS team were delivering Jeffco’s highest rates of achievement growth for at-risk, general education, and gifted students. 

The Farmers’ “Tradition of Excellence” went far beyond academics. We had outstanding art, theater, and music programs, our STEM program regularly won national awards, many of our women’s and men’s sports teams were champions, and we built a very successful Career Explore CTE program without the district’s help. WRHS had students choicing in from all over Jeffco and surrounding districts. The whole city felt Farmer Pride. 

But underneath, all wasn’t well in education in Wheat Ridge. Here are two examples.

Too many students were entering ninth grade without being proficient in reading, writing, math and science. One cause of this was that schools in Wheat Ridge were all using different curriculums in these subjects. This made no sense then, and still doesn’t.

Griff tried to get the other schools to come together on this, logically arguing that a common curriculum across the articulation area would improve student results. But building principals were unwilling to give up their power to choose their curriculum. 

The second example was the proposal to move Manning into the Everitt Middle School building (and Everitt into Manning), so that more students could obtain the education that has produced Manning’s excellent results. That idea provoked ferocious opposition and was dropped.

WR’s education decline accelerated after Jeffco Schools decided to cut WRHS’s budget in 2016. Wheat Ridge was the most diverse high school in the district. But such schools are expensive to operate. Either district leaders didn’t understand that, or they had grown sick of hearing about the Farmers’ exceptional performance. Despite many people’s arguments against the proposed budget cut, Jeffco didn’t budge.

Seeing the coming destruction of what they had worked so hard to build, Griff and his leadership team quit. And so the decline of WRHS began, and thereafter accelerated.

Throughout this period, the district kept making promises to Wheat Ridge, only to break them. How many of you attended one or more of Jeffco’s many “visioning” sessions for WR schools? 

The two biggest changes I’ve seen in WR were converting Pennington into an “expeditionary learning” school (which has attracted more students), and, at the last minute, telling the world that Vivian was going to become a “classical academy.” 

Many of Colorado’s classical charter schools (e.g., Ridgeview and Golden View) have been delivering great education results for their students. But Vivian was different. Jeffco said that instead of the classical model used by charters, they were going to do classical education “the Jeffco way.” And they never answered the question of which district-run school these students would attend after Vivian if they wanted to continue their classical education. Jeffco wasn’t really serious about classical education at Vivian.

When you look at this history, it’s easy to see why parents have fled WR’s neighborhood schools and three of them are closing.

Even worse, WR residents have no idea what the district will do with all those closed buildings. Rumors range from low-income housing to “community centers.” (I guess the district thinks WR Rec isn’t good enough.) 

None of these proposed uses will improve your children’s education results or your property values. 

If those are your goals, there is only one way to achieve them: Fight like hell to have high-performing, free public charter and option schools open up in the closed WR schools. 

Just in Jeffco we have D’Evelyn, Dennison, Woodrow Wilson, Jefferson Academy, Addenbrooke, and Golden View, to name a few. Looking outside of the district, imagine the benefit to WR of having Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) open up a K-8 charter school in one of the closed schools.

Don’t make the same mistake twice, and passively accept the district’s decision on how to reuse closed schools. Seize the opportunity you now have to dramatically improve Wheat Ridge’s academic results and its property values.

Tom Coyne is a business executive, former member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee, and former Chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee. His wife, Susan Miller, is a member of the Jeffco Board of Education. These are solely Coyne’s views.

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