Possible 1-year closure delay no solace for Pike supporters

       The good news, as revealed by District 11 Superintendent Terry Bishop, is that the Board of Education probably won't close Pike Elementary any sooner than the 2009-10 school year.
       The bad news for people in the Pike neighborhood is that it's still being considered at all.
       And, for parents such as Valerie Stevens, who used the district's “choice” option to bring her children to Pike because they were having problems at a larger school, even a year is not enough time to make new plans. “I moved here specifically for Pike, to get that help, and because of that they're not in counseling anymore,” she told district staffers at an informal community meeting with district administrators April 28 in the school gym. “Why close a school where students are getting helped?”
       Pike supporters will get one more chance to make their case - at the school board meeting Wednesday, May 7 at the District 11 office building, 1115 N. El Paso St. According to district spokesperson Elaine Naleski, the proposed Pike closure (as well as that simultaneously suggested for Longfellow Elementary east of downtown) are listed as action items on the agenda. “Citizens may make comments during the time set aside for citizens' comments on action items,” she said.
       No specific time is set for either the Pike or Longfellow discussions. The meeting will start at 6:30 p.m.
       The D-11 administration argument for Pike's closure is that the district is losing students (4,000 from a high of 32,000 in 1998) and, as the smallest school in the district (about 125 K-5 students), it costs too much to keep open.
       The closure proposal surfaced in early April, to the dismay of Pike staff, parents and residents of the Mesa Springs area, who see the 52-year-old school as an anchor for the neighborhood. They have shown little excitement for plans to bus students from the current Pike attendance area to Jackson, Bristol and Howbert schools (none closer than a mile away by road) or for administrators' simultaneous idea to make Pike's building the new home of the Bijou School (an alternative high school currently operating in an aged facility about a mile south at 730 N. Walnut St.)
       Board members had listened to 15 pro-Pike comments during a public hearing as part of a board meeting April 23. The hearing had been advertised as “non-action,” but according to Bishop, later in the meeting board members decided they wanted to talk about the closures. “The board took head-nods, and the majority said they did not want to look at closing Pike or Longfellow for the coming school year,” Bishop told attendees at the April 28 gathering.
       Valerie Stevens was one of about 30 Pike supporters April 28. Listening were a number of school officials (in addition to Bishop), including board members Tom Strand and Janet Tanner, Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurman, Pike Principal Manuel Ramsey, Bijou Principal Wayne Hutchison, Jackson Principal Anne Dancy, Howbert Principal David Morris and D-11 administrators Glenn Gustafson, Shirley Stevens and Frank Bernhard.
       The supporters peppered District 11 representatives with points about such issues as bussing costs/logistics, overall costs, the readiness of the receiving schools, the lack of Title 1 status at Jackson and Howbert, the wisdom of closing a school in a growing neighborhood such as Mesa Springs, whether Pike's reading grants can follow the students, what will happen to Bijou's bond-issue funds, changes resulting from the Bijou relocation, and the psychological effect the displacement would have on the Pike kids.
       Although the administrators tried to answer the various questions, there was a clear sense of frustration after the meeting from the Pike supporters. “Why displace all these happy kids?” asked Jose Benavides, whose fourth-grade son has been at Pike since kindergarten.
       Summaries on each of the above points follow:
       Bussing - All the former Pike students would be bussed to and from their new schools. The cost is estimated at between $5,000 and $15,000 a year, according to Gustafson, the district's chief financial officer. The cost is less than some people had thought because the drivers and buses would already be in the area, so special trips would not be needed, he said.
       After-school activity buses are an uncertainty. Shirley Stevens, the district's executive director of achievement and accountability, confirmed that eight students is the normal minimum, but said that number is more of a guideline than a rule.
       Administrators provided one inaccurate piece of information, saying the distance to Howbert from the Pike area is .8 to 1 mile; the distance by roads is actually closer to 2 miles.
       Overall costs: There would be a one-time savings of $500,000 in capital costs and an annual benefit of $250,000 to $450,000 in overhead, Stevens said. Parents questioned how this was possible, especially with all the school's staff having been promised jobs in the district upon closure. Stevens' response was that new positions would not be created; Pike staffers would be assigned from the list of 200 to 250 staff openings that turnover typically creates after every school year.
       Some parents suggested the district should cut administrative staff instead of closing schools. Gustafson replied that there have been $2.25 million in administrative cuts over the past two years, and average district salaries have also dropped.
       Other schools' readiness: Despite some academic gains by Pike, particularly in reading, Jackson, Bristol and Howbert all have higher composite Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores, statistics show.
       In terms of capacity, Jackson has 200 students now, with room for 325 (69 are expected from Pike). Portable classrooms are used now, and would help handle the additional students, Dancy indicated. Bristol has 223 students, with capacity of 300 (39 are expected from Pike). Howbert should be able to fit the additional students (only two from Pike were anticipated if the closure took effect in the coming school year), despite being over-capacity now, Morris said. Bernhard said he didn't think portable classrooms would be needed there, “but we will look at it. We hate to mess with something that's doing great.” That prompted a spontaneous response from several attendees: “Like Pike.”
       Title 1: Even if the schools they go to are not Title 1, qualifying individual students from the Pike attendance area can still get a free or reduced lunch. The low-income benefit would not apply to summer school classes at a non-Title 1 school. However, “we work with the parents,” Stevens said.
       Neighborhood school: “If you take Pike, it's going to ruin the whole neighborhood,” said Carol Gravenstein, a member of the school's Building Accountability Advisory Committee, charging that Mesa Springs growth will force the district to put an elementary back there in two to four years. “That's why we're not getting rid of the facility,” Stevens said. “That doesn't make sense,” Gravenstein responded.
       Reading grants: It's been determined they can follow the students, administrators announced. Previously, it had been believed Pike's Reading First and Reading Initiative grants were school-specific.
       Bond-issue funds: According to Gustafson, the roughly $700,000 amount that had been itemized for maintenance and upgrades at the current Bijou facility can be used at Pike to remodel it for a high school. “It's school-specific, not address-specific,” he said.
       Bijou impacts: Growth and parking were the main concerns. Principal Hutchison noted that Bijou is a “choice” school, currently capped at about 135 students. With additional space at Pike, the school could grow to as much as 150, he said, “but I doubt we'd have more.”
       With students as well as staff driving to the school, more parking might be needed, and needs, and some spaces could be created in the current school playground, he said.
       Pike supporter Sarah Gaylord complained about the tall fence around the current Bijou, saying it “looks like a prison.” Hutchison said he doesn't like it either, that it went up “as a knee-jerk reaction” a few years ago after a shooting occurred at another Colorado school.
       Displacement: This appeared to be the abiding concern of the Pike parents, staff and nearby residents. Parents such as Valerie Stevens spoke highly of Pike because of the high levels of individual attention that students receive from Principal Ramsey. and his staff. With many of the children coming from low-income and/or dysfunctional backgrounds, several Pike supporters fear problems could occur/reoccur as a result of bussing kids out of the neighborhood.
       Skepticism was expressed when Gustafson explained district reasons for moving Bijou to Pike - because Bijou students would still be near the interstate and bus routes and the location works better in general for the alternative high-schoolers' “very specialized program.” Responded Marcia Barber, a Pike staffer, “You seem more concerned about disrupting high school students than elementary students who will be disconnected from the families involved in their education… I think this will come back and bite the district.”
       Gustafson said, “We have to come to grips with the fact that this school is very expensive for the district to operate. Everyone in the district is paying for that.”
       As for concerns that Pike/Longfellow is just the start of a district plan to close schools of less than 300 enrollment, Bernhard said that is not the case, but “if we continue to see declining enrollments, we will continue to make adjustments.”

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