Douglas County School District is preparing to consolidate elementary schools in the Highlands Ranch area in 2026 due to declining enrollment, while looking to build new schools in surrounding neighborhoods.
Superintendent Erin Kane and district staff presented plans to the school board on Jan. 24 addressing the drop in elementary school students in Highlands Ranch, an area of the district that is aging and seeing declining birth rates. The plan also elaborates on the need for new schools in developing parts of the district.
Kane said the district is in the unique position of having an area experiencing a drop in enrollment surrounded by developing neighborhoods that require new schools, which will likely result in consolidation and construction at the same time.
“Our hope is to begin to communicate to our community the challenge we’re facing with growth and decline,” Kane said.
At this point in time, no specific schools have been identified for consolidation and the district is promising there will be no job loss.
Dealing with decline
Across the district, enrollment is expected to be down to 62,431 students in 2023 from 63,401 in 2022, according to projections from Western Demographics Inc. Both district schools and charter schools saw slightly decreased enrollment between 2021 and 2022 and are expected to see further loss next year.
Data from Western Demographics shows that the biggest loss of students will be the north planning area, which covers Highlands Ranch and is predicted to lose around 2,300 students over the next five years.
“We have stay-in-place communities, such as Highlands Ranch, where people moved and came here 20 or 30 years ago, they’re still here and their kids have grown out of our system and are not being replaced,” Kane said.
There are 18 elementary schools in the Highlands Ranch area, while only seven elementary schools serve Sedalia, Sterling Ranch, the Canyons, Castle Pines, Roxborough Park and Ridgegate East.
With those numbers in mind, Kane said the district is beginning to analyze where it might be appropriate to combine elementary schools, with a timeline of consolidation in 2026.
“We know that we have to do this with our community, not to our community, and we have to do it not in a huge hurry,” Kane said. “Really what we’d be looking at is marrying two elementary schools into one for the long-term.”
Decisions about how to use leftover buildings will come after consolidations are finalized, Kane said. Potential uses included special education programming, office space, professional development space or career and technical education.
Kane said some of the concerns with under-enrolled schools are a lack of academic, extracurricular and special education programming, as well as combined classrooms and staffing challenges.
Growth still happening
Shavon Caldwell, district planning manager, said the enrollment projections showed an overall decline, but noted pockets of growth and overcrowding still exist because neighborhoods within the district that don’t currently have schools are now being being developed.
According to Shannon Bingham from Western Demographics, Crystal Valley Ranch, Sterling Ranch and the Canyons all experienced a baby boom last year.
“All of these areas that have a three- or five-mile radius where there are no schools, we’re seeing the effects of the new housing that’s coming online in those areas,” Bingham said.
To meet demand in the growing areas of the district, the district will need voters to approve a bond, Kane said. If voters approve a bond in 2023, the soonest the district could open new schools would be 2026.
Currently, to deal with overflow issues, the district has bused students to existing schools and changed school boundaries, but Kane said those strategies are becoming more difficult.
“Right-sizing our elementary schools through the method of busing children to other geographic regions is really challenging and we haven’t historically done that in Douglas County,” she said. “It’s very reasonable for families moving into Douglas County to expect a community elementary school to be in the vicinity.”
Overcrowded schools face issues with not having enough space for special education programming, staff challenges, large class sizes and mobile classrooms.
The school board directed staff to move forward with creating a detailed timeline and engagement plan for both growth and decline in the north planning area.