By Jill Carstens
The prospect of Denver Public Schools closing some of its schools is a sign that we are pricing out the diversity in our neighborhoods.
Gentrification and the rising costs of rent are causing many Latino families to seek housing outside of neighborhoods like North Denver and in areas with lower rents. This is becoming an overarching problem for the school district and for neighborhoods as the resulting decline in enrollment will necessitate the closure of certain schools and the lowering of revenue for DPS.
The rampant altering of Denver neighborhoods through the gentrification process has been dizzyingly swift and difficult to keep up with. Instead of completely closing schools, here are some ideas on how we could keep the character, history, and diversity of our neighborhoods.
A neighborhood could keep existing students in a portion of a school building, while attracting sustainable and community- friendly occupants for the rest of the space. One option would be to offer space to artists as affordable studios. Painters, dancers, and musicians could rent out classrooms and, in turn, provide the school exposure to local arts. Ideally, some artists would offer classes to the school as well as to the surrounding neighborhood.
A gymnasium can turn into a dance studio and the cafeteria can become a commissary kitchen where new recipes are served to the occupants of the building. First Fridays could engage the neighborhood with art exhibits, performances, and food trucks in the parking lot. Another idea is to convert the empty spaces of a school into an affordable co-housing complex.
Classrooms could be converted into studios or small apartments. The cafeteria could act as a shared kitchen where communal as well as individual meals are prepared. Maybe this would also be a live-work space for residents where part of the school library could act as a workstation. Children of residents could attend the school. The expansive yards at a school property could provide space for community gardening.
The parking lot could host farmer’s markets. Such an inclusive community could take advantage of the idea of time-banking where, instead of going out of the community for certain services, the residents “bank” their skills together in a favor system. As a simple example, one resident could provide child care in exchange for another resident building them a website or helping with financial planning.
Vacant rooms in an enrollment-diminished school could serve as a haven for startups, providing affordable space to jump-start new businesses. City agencies, like the Office of Economic Development, could help steer them toward resources like grants and small business loans.
By residing collectively in the building, new business owners could meet in the space, learn from each other, collaborate, and support one another. Perhaps some of these businesses could set up shop and offer goods and services to the nearby community, sort of like a startup shopping mall. The exposure of witnessing a business build from idea to reality could prove as great inspiration to students.
Neighborhood high schoolers could find employment or mentorship with these businesses, learning valuable life skills. The idea of repurposing a school building is not new.
In Colorado Springs’ Ivywild neighborhood, an empty school, dubbed “a community marketplace,” now houses a brewery, distillery, restaurants, and several other local shops, as well as an event space. In Pennsylvania, well-built historic schools have been converted into museums, senior housing, and office spaces.
Personally, I was involved in a similar situation when the church where I rented space for my preschool began experiencing financial troubles, due in part to a declining congregation. Using my art connections in the community, I suggested we offer the underutilized spaces in the church as affordable studio space.
It only took a short while before every empty room in the church was rented out to a local artist or musician. This activated the church on a more daily basis and the artists, congregation, and my preschool developed wonderful relationships with each other.
In my mind, if the school district holds onto their school buildings, there is an opportunity to keep the remaining students and preserve the diversity in the neighborhood while bringing in revenue through entities that provide opportunities for students and surrounding residents.
To me, the possibilities, partnerships, and benefits to the community are endless.
Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! Email her with comments or story ideas at jill@ denvernorthstar.com.