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There goes the neighborhood: Closing Wasson High School

District 11 administrators explain the calculus

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Nicholas Gledich hasn't been making many friends lately.

In recent weeks, the Colorado Springs School District 11 superintendent has taken flak from parents, students, staff and teachers angered by the proposed closure of three schools, including Wasson High School. The district's Board of Education plans to decide Wednesday, Feb. 6, whether to follow through with the plan, but the expectation is that it will.

In 2009, D-11's board closed eight schools, moved one, and came close to closing Wasson. At the time, 771 students assigned to Wasson had chosen to go to another school, leaving it severely "under-utilized." But the board offered a last-minute reprieve for Wasson, and instructed its principal to do everything he could to boost enrollment.

In 2010, Wasson earned "School of Innovation" designation from the state Board of Education, giving it many of the freedoms of a charter school. After years of academic stagnation, it saw fast changes on the student achievement front. According to statistics from the Colorado Department of Education, Wasson had a 14.1 percent jump in its graduation rate between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.

But in 2012, the board asked for a working committee to re-examine the use of D-11 schools and to make recommendations to improve efficiency. Wasson, once again, was targeted because of its dearth of students: Last year 834 kids assigned to Wasson, went elsewhere, leaving the school, which can house up to 1,862 students, only 49.3 percent occupied.

"The need to close the school is really, purely based on the fact that the school is under-utilitized," Gledich tells the Independent. "And the Innovation [program] has been in place for over three years, and the school's utilization rate has not increased.

"The district is faced with the fact that over the last 10 years, our revenue has decreased by 16 percent and enrollment is down 14 percent."

Making the call

In student protests and community meetings, plenty have fought for Wasson, which has been around since 1959. Arguments have included emotional appeals from alumni and pleas for Wasson's current students, especially upperclassmen, whose lives will be significantly disrupted by the move. But since the working committee identified various "triggers" for closing Wasson, much of the debate has circled around numbers — from the true costs of maintenance needs to changes in student achievement.

For his part, Gledich says the real issue isn't how much it will cost to install air conditioning at Wasson, or whether student performance will improve with a few more years of effort. The issue is whether D-11 will ever be home to enough kids to justify keeping the school located near Constitution Avenue and North Circle Drive open.

Neighborhoods tend to have a life cycle. They are built, young families move into them, children grow older and move out. Empty-nester parents live out their golden years there until the house is sold, often to a young couple with children, and the cycle begins anew.

This cycle challenges virtually all districts, which need to ensure they have enough schools to serve children, but not so many that they act as financial dead weight. Locally, there's also a recent push for urban renewal: With Mayor Steve Bach and developers talking of adding new housing to the downtown and surrounding areas, the potential for increased need is there.

But D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson says he's considered these factors, along with U.S. Census birth rate data, and none of it supports keeping Wasson open. Over time, fewer and fewer families with children have chosen to live in D-11, and the trend doesn't appear to be changing.

"Denver is a great analogy because all [Denver Public Schools'] enrollment gain has been from the redevelopment of Stapleton [Airport], which is more as a residential, trendy new neighborhood," he says. "But you know, downtown, [there are] not many kids. We have a great example — Old Colorado City is 150 years old. That neighborhood has recycled or redeveloped a dozen times, and yet we have fewer children now than we had before. ...

"What we really found out is you never get back to your highest point. You'll see some fluctuations over time, but you never get back to where you started."

Gledich adds that D-11 also has to consider that Colorado is a "choice" state, meaning parents can send their kids to any school, even if it's out-of-district or a charter school. One in three D-11 kids enroll in another district or in a charter.

All that aside, even if Wasson could eventually attract more kids, Gledich says he'd still have a problem with also-underused Mitchell High School, near North Academy Boulevard and Galley Road. He says he needs to close one and redraw high school boundaries in order to fill all the high schools.

As for why Wasson was chosen for closure, rather than Mitchell?

"You have to look at where it's positioned within the district," Gledich says of Wasson. "Mitchell is a perimeter school that's of great value to us [because it's more likely to attract students from other districts]. Wasson is not a perimeter school. We also looked at the number of students who permitted in and out of the boundaried area for each one of those schools. Wasson had higher numbers permitting out then Mitchell had permitting out. So there were a lot of things considered."

Coming soon

If the board chooses to close Wasson on Wednesday, it will likely repurpose the building as a hub for alternative, early college and trade school training programs, which are currently housed in several smaller buildings. D-11 high schoolers, including Wasson's old students, will be welcome to take part in any of the programs. The district will provide busing.

Even without Wasson completely mothballed, and most teachers being re-hired in other schools, D-11 is expecting the round of closures to save $2.5 to $2.8 million annually. Most of the savings is projected to come from a reduction of staff: principals, secretaries, janitors, security guards.

That's the way it's played out in the district's first round of closures. And that experience has also provided other insights. Before those closures, Gustafson estimated D-11 would save $3.9 million annually. After paying for the shutdown in the first year, the actual recurring savings has nearly met that target — it's about $3.6 million annually, which has been used to fill the district's budget gap. Meanwhile, nearly all the schools closed in '09 have been repurposed, some as charter schools, one as a community center, one as home of the innovative new Ivywild business project.

Gledich, for one, says he feels comfortable that the changes will ultimately be positive for both the district and the community. Right now, however, he says he's most worried about Wasson's kids, for whom this will not be an easy transition.

"That's where I bleed," he says. "I worry about the juniors and seniors going from one school to another."

stanley@csindy.com

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