By 2025, Pueblo City Schools is expected to lose another 1,000 students. It’s a school district that can seat 20,983 but only has 14,897 students to fill those seats.
It’s a district with schools that are too old, too big in a city that doesn’t have enough young families. It’s a city that blames the district for being the reason why jobs don’t come here.
It’s a Pueblo that has become a 2 high school town with a 4 high school problem.
The district has built only one new school in the last 25 years. Out of 30 open schools, 24 are older than 50 years. Back when the first Jurassic Park movie was released is when Pueblo built a new school.
Who could have imagined in 60 years that Pueblo City Schools would be facing both declining enrollment and schools that need so many physical improvements? It’s cheaper to replace some of them. Back then maybe it was expected that by 2019 there would be flying cars, people living on the moon, and six high schools around Pueblo.
What the school district is staring down is a community that for so long derived its self-worth from its high schools that it may not be able to do what’s best for the students.
What comes next is a series of hard, painful decisions in a hostile environment where the community is worried about the state of education and at times clouded by the veneer of tradition. It’s an open question if our district leaders can take the criticism and lead Pueblo past this era of no good options.
Ahead of the district are three options. Do nothing that could send the district into an unstoppable decline. Close schools and end traditions while asking for money to build new ones. Or, keep traditions and schools open but build new ones that on paper would create a two-tier experience for students.
If the district does nothing and does not ask for a bond to repair old systems and build schools, the district has said if any school faces critical failures in HVAC or electrical systems they would have to close the(those) school(s), temporarily or permanently. Schools with compromised foundations could be closed at any time.
Shutting schools this way would only expedite students and teachers leaving the district. And while doing nothing sounds free, the district would still need to find additional monies to make critical repairs.
Then there’s the “Super High” option. It’s unpopular and a political non-starter to many. If a new $315m bond is passed, the district would close East, Central, Centennial, and South and build two 2,000 student high schools.
These “Super Highs” would be state-of-the-art flagships that offer amenities that on paper is exactly what community leaders have asked for — modern schools to attract families and create better-prepared-for-life students.
“Super Highs” would offer career and technical programs, modern classrooms, a performance auditorium and full complement of amenities to build a “big school” athletic program in 5A sports.
This price tag is $315 million and just Pueblo’s identity.
Then there’s the save-four-high option. In order to save Pueblo’s 4-high school tradition, it would have to replace two schools with smaller high schools that are missing some features like a performance hall, gyms or swimming pool. Technical, career and media centers could be out for students.
Plus, building two small high schools would create a two-tier high school system. Central and South would remain big and old but receive priority repairs. New Centennial and new East would go small. A disparity would be created inside the district and with Pueblo West competition. Should growth return to these areas the small schools could be added onto.
The save-four option comes at a price tag of $290 million.
Going small doesn’t solve Pueblo’s enrollment crisis, either. New Centennial and new East would live and die by the margins to keep pace on academics, athletics and other amenities that schools with larger student bodies can offer.
How did it get this bad for District 60 when just 20 years ago it was lauded as one of the best districts in the state?
This is the wrong question now but blame open enrollments, online schools, competition from outside the district, charter schools, and blame the effects of time. Pueblo is to blame. The failure of the city to not grow past 100,000 people along with a city unable to attract younger families has created this perfect storm.
The right question is what’s best for the students of Pueblo City Schools and what will make the school system be world class again?
For as much as this is about restructuring Pueblo education, it is also an opportunity to get the next decade right. The district must boldly lead the process, not to be content with only planning meetings, a bond campaign and long speeches at school board meetings.
The opponents of reality, the ones who still see Pueblo as a quaint Pittsburgh, cannot drive this process. If by saving one school it hurts the entire district is that too steep of a price to pay for the preservation of one school?
If going smaller is going to hurt, then the least the district can do is ask the community to go bold to rebuild for what is needed and to position itself with an innovative district now and one growing by 2025.
What comes next are hard decisions that can change an entire city’s ability to attract young families, help children in tough situations, and be a selling point for jobs. Close 4 schools and build big but eliminate history and neighborhood schools? Or keep 4 but build small creating a possible two-tier education system of big and old, and small and new?
What’s the bold way for this old 2 high school town to become a thriving 4 and even 6 high school city?