May 15, 2023 - Education

Colorado's "last resort" schools plagued with questions and problems

Erin Schneiderman and her 13-year old son play with the family dog, Ernie, at their home near City Park in Denver. Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Sun/Colorado Sun via Report for America/COLab

On the first day of fourth grade, Erin Schneiderman's son didn't have a seat in a classroom.

Context: Months earlier, Denver Public Schools decided to send him to a specialized school because he has autism and frequent meltdowns.

  • Yet, when the year started, the district didn't have room for him. He stayed home weeks — so long that Schneiderman had to take employment leave.

Why it matters: The situation illustrates an overlooked problem in Colorado. Specialized, or facility, schools are disappearing, according to a Colorado News Collaborative reporting project.

By the numbers: In 2004, Colorado had 80 such schools offering a combination of therapy and learning, all designed to help students become comfortable at their home schools. Now there are just 30 serving an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 children a year.

  • One is set to close on the Front Range soon. In western Colorado, there's just one.

The big picture: The state's facility schools — the last resort for many children — are plagued by limited public dollars and staffing shortages, all contributing to the bigger question about whether the students enrolled are safe and learning.

  • The schools are monitored by multiple state agencies every two years in some cases, and a lack of public transparency — standardized test results are kept secret for privacy reasons and other reports are redacted — contribute to the problem.

What to watch: The vast majority of facility schools operate at a financial deficit, but a new law signed by Gov. Jared Polis this legislative session will increase funding the next three years, adding $28 million a year by 2025 to help open four new locations each of those years.

  • To receive the additional dollars, schools will need to receive accreditation, which will help better track student outcomes, advocates say.

Go deeper … read the 4-part CoLab series


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