The first school in Jefferson County, and the second school in what would be the state of Colorado, the South School opened in Golden in1863.Photo taken around 1874.
I’m a big believer in the “why.” If you’ve ever heard Simon Sinek speak about successful leaders and businesses, he talks about leading with why you do what you do. Make crystal clear why you exist, and then make decisions consistent with that purpose. The why of Jeffco Public Schools, from the district’s inception up to today, is critical to understand as we begin deliberating, engaging in dialogue, and ultimately making decisions about how our district can best be of service to students as we look to the future.
Per the Colorado State Constitution, Jeffco Public Schools exists to provide to each student in the county a free and adequate education. Not the most inspiring of statements, but pure in its focus. Fast forward to the year 2022, we have engaged in the Jeffco Thrives 2025 strategic planning process, and made it the district’s mission to provide a world-class education that prepares students for bright futures. Quite simply, Jeffco Public Schools exists to educate students so that they can successfully navigate future opportunities.
When the pioneers of the Gold Rush settled in Colorado they helped to establish not only their own thriving community, but also the first school in what would be Jeffco Public Schools. Golden High School saw its first class of graduates in the 1880s. In 1950, 39 independent school districts, originally built as stand-alone schools to meet the needs of individual neighborhoods, merged together to become what is known today as Jeffco Public Schools.
From 1950 through the 1970s, Jefferson County experienced another wave of settlers as population growth and the desire for suburban housing spread west from Denver to create new communities throughout Jeffco. As new rooftops began to dot the landscape, Jeffco Public Schools worked with local cities and housing developers to plan small, site-based neighborhood elementary schools situated within walking or biking distance to these new homes. This was accompanied with plans to build additional middle and high schools as new homes were built and more children began to fill the schools.
In 1968, the student count in Jeffco Schools was 60,300. Six years later it was 77,000. This rapid growth, a 28% increase, created the need for three new high schools: Pomona in the North area of Jeffco, Green Mountain in the Central, and Columbine in the South. With a series of failed bond initiatives to get the funds needed to build these schools, in 1973 Jeffco issued Certificates of Participation and started construction on these three new high schools, while at the same time implementing a year-round school program and bringing in temporary trailers to provide classroom space until the new schools were completed.
Since that time, Jefferson County has seen dramatic shifts in population growth, with some areas limited by municipal restrictions on high-density infill and some areas wide open for development. The most recent Jeffco school was built in Three Creeks, located in northwest Arvada. Why? Because that is where new housing developments were constructed in the late 2010s. Every decision regarding where to place or relocate a school since the 1860s has been based on the public education needs of Jeffco’s unique communities as they’ve developed, at one moment in time. As a public school district, we have a responsibility to our students to adapt along with our communities.
Now, as it was in the 1880s and 1950s, communities in Jefferson County are changing. From housing prices pushing families outside of the county, to declining birth rates statewide, to expanded options for parents and students to choose their learning environments, we are experiencing a consistent and significant decline in student enrollment not unlike so many nearby school districts in Colorado and across the country. Jeffco Public Schools has the capacity to serve 96,000 students in district-managed schools, but current enrollment in those schools is closer to 69,000. This is a far cry from the days of a year-round school program in the 1970s and temporary school buildings that were a familiar sight at many Jeffco Schools until the bond initiative of 2018 was passed.
While smaller class sizes and more intimate school populations may be attractive to some families, there’s a downside based on how we fund schools at both the state and district levels. Fewer students means less funding for art, music, and physical education in schools. Fewer students means more split-grade classrooms. Fewer students means less access to before- and after-school enrichment and childcare. Fewer students means fewer opportunities for our special education, center programs, and gifted and talented students to be integrated into a diverse set of peers. To be clear, a lot of Jeffco schools were built intentionally to be smaller. This is not solely about the number of kids in a building, but about how that building is being utilized to cultivate a robust student learning environment.
This upcoming academic year is going to be challenging for a variety of reasons. We need to have honest community conversations about the present and future of our schools. Families and students love their local schools, and for good reason. If we return to our why, to the purpose we have as a school district, then we must make student-focused decisions. Jeffco has a long history, and the district’s footprint developed in ways that may no longer make sense for the Jeffco communities of 2022, nor be in the best interests of students.
This board of education is working collaboratively to provide clarity, consistency, and avenues for conversation as we move forward. These are difficult decisions, and they impact many parts of Jeffco. Every one of our students deserves the very best that we can provide. It’s now up to all of us to make the hard choices that allow students to thrive.