Denver parents disagree on co-location of Cory-Merrill schools

Some parents worry about large classes, others like collaboration at C3 and Merrill Middle School


For the last seven years, Creativity Challenge Community (C3) has housed elementary school classes in the lower level of the Merrill Middle School building in the Cory-Merrill neighborhood. But the growth in numbers of students also has some parents — who worried from the beginning about space — saying the buidling has become too cramped to provide an adequate learning environment.

Parents Michele Orlee and Amy Duclos, whose children attend the middle school, say the growing elementary school is squeezing the middle school. They would like to see DPS find another home for C3, possibly in the former Rosedale Elementary School building which is about three miles southeast of Merrill, and closed for the 2005-2006 school year due to low enrollment, according to DPS.

But other parents, who have had children go through C3 and Merrill, aren’t sure that’s the right solution: They like the collaboration between the two schools.

Denver Public Schools officials also are hesitant to move C3 because they say data projections show a decrease in student populations in southeast Denver in coming years.

Julia Shepherd, principal at C3 since it opened in 2012, remembers the protests from parents when the announcement was first made to open C3 in Merrill in the building at 1551 S. Monroe St. She said she — along wth Merrill Principal first Christina Sylvester, who started working at the school three years ago have worked hard to build a community within the two schools.

“There was no where else to put us,” Shepherd said about opening the school inside Merrill. DPS “looked at other possibilities. This is where the kids were, this is where the space was. We had to deal with protests before we got in here. That’s a hard thing to get through, but once we got through it we moved forward and we have not looked back.”

Concerns about size, safety

Orlee, who has a son in eighth grade at Merrill, said she spent quite a bit of time working with parents to enroll their children into Merrill as the district worked on improving classes and student performance there.

Today, Duclos and Orlee say Merrill and C3 are bursting at the seams.

DPS records show Merrill has 577 students and C3 has 306, for a total of 883. Both schools have seen slight increases to their student population since 2014, according to those records. Shepherd and Sylvester estimated that the Merrill building can fit around 1,000 students.

Duclos says one solution to the crowded space is to move C3 into a new building. But other parents — while acknowledging the large class sizes —say that may not be the right move.

Michelle Bills has had children move through C3 and Merrill. Now that C3 has been in the Merrill building for seven years, there is finally collaboration happening between the two, Bills said.

But Bills did say DPS needs to develop a plan for the future of the two schools, as well as for the crowded class sizes. Since DPS has already invested so much in opening C3 inside Merrill, a new solution needs to be cost-efficient, Bills said.

“I hate the idea that all of that money goes out the window,” she said.

Kim Dolan, who has three children at C3, said she does not think the building is overcrowded. And, she said, the co-location of the two schools is an opportunity for students to grow and learn from each other. At C3 in particular, she said her kids are well known by their teachers and “not just another number in a classroom.”

Sylvester, who became Merrill’s principal three years ago, said her priority is working with Shepherd as a team.

“We do a great job cultivating a community while still maintaining that we are separate schools,” Sylvester said. “I would prefer to work within the existing structures and have community and harmony and coexist with a co-locating school.”

Duclos, however, said many parents believe community isn’t happening and their children feel segregated within the schools. The older students, for instance, are not allowed to use the playground, she said.

“You’re saying this is a community, but our kids are coming home and telling us a different story,” she said.

A construction project set to start this summer is also stirring the pot with parents. DPS recently allocated bond money to create a single entrance Merrill.  Having one entrance  will help the schools keep track of who is entering the building, Sylvester said.

But Duclos and Orlee feel that the new entrance will give more space in the building to C3. Duclos also argued student safety was not the goal of DPS officials. She points to lack of air conditioning in classrooms and cracked blacktop on the Merrill basketball court that was repaired only after parents complained.

Looking into the numbers

Sylvester said the average classroom size at Merrill for sixth grade is 30 students, 31 for seventh grade and 34 for eighth grade. In the coming years, she is hoping to lower the average closer to 30 across the board. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed the average classroom size for Colorado middle school students who change classrooms for different subjects was 26.1.

The average class size at C3 is 26 students, said Will Jones, director of media relations with DPS.

DPS officials do not have plans to move C3 out of the building because its projection for student populations shows the numbers leveling out in the next few years.

“The Fall 2017 Strategic Regional Analysis confirmed previous forecasts that the elementary seats available in the southeast region are sufficient to meet elementary enrollment needs through the time period examined through 2022,” said Liz Mendez, DPS director of operations support services, in an email.

The waiting list at C3 in October was 176 students for those whose first choice was C3, according to Jones. For Merrill, the October waiting list for first-choice students was 36.

Although the schools have waiting lists, neither school principal wants to increase their school size. Sylvester said that even if she did have all of Merrill to herself, she would not want a 1,000-student school. Smaller class sizes mean students build better relationships with teachers.

Students “need to be able to name the adult,” she said of that relationship, “and the adult needs to be able to name them.”


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