Unleaded

Fixes underway to remedy high lead levels in Denver, Jeffco and Cherry Creek school water

PHOTO: Flickr

A small proportion of sinks and water fountains in Denver, Jeffco and Cherry Creek schools have been taken out of service because of high lead levels found after school district testing in the summer and fall.

So far, results are back for one-third of Denver schools, mostly elementaries. They show that about 4 percent of samples came back high. Some schools have no sinks or fountains with elevated lead levels, while others — such as Greenlee Elementary and Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School — have four or five.

“We haven’t really found anything alarming,” said Joni Rix, environmental services manager for DPS. “Certainly we’ve found lead, but it’s not widespread.”

Fixes, which are expected to cost around $500,000, will happen at every school with elevated lead levels, she said.

That’s not the case in Jeffco, where testing revealed that about 80 percent of schools have at least one sink or water fountain with high lead levels.

While smaller fixes have been or will be made, district officials say voters’ rejection of the district’s $535 million bond issue earlier this month will make extensive plumbing repairs impossible.

“If it’s any kind of big fix it’s probably not going to happen,” said district spokeswoman Diana Wilson. “It’s probably going to be easier to shut some sinks down.”

In Cherry Creek, where testing was conducted this fall, some schools had elevated levels. In most cases, fixes have already been made, though more systemic problems surfaced at the 1980s-era Creekside Elementary. Water samples from 10 locations in the school had elevated lead levels and samples from most other locations also showed some lead, though not above the federal limit.

District spokeswoman Tustin Amole said via email that students there are drinking bottled water until repairs can be completed — probably over winter break.

The risk of lead poisoning from school water is relatively low, according to experts in Colorado. Still, they say school officials are right to be aware of it given that high lead levels can severely impair children’s physical and mental development.

School districts aren’t required to test their water for lead unless they’re considered public water systems. (That’s the case in some rural districts and on a limited basis in Jeffco, which provides water to six mountain schools.)

Still, in the wake of the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., last year, Colorado’s five largest school districts all decided to test their water.

Douglas County School District launched its effort last spring at 19 older schools, and had no samples above the federal 15-parts-per-billion threshold, according to district records provided to Chalkbeat last summer.

Jeffco began districtwide lead-testing in June and Denver followed in August. In Jeffco, testing is now complete save for a small number of re-tests in locations where fixes have been made.

Aurora Public Schools began testing school water in October, and so far results are available for two early childhood centers, according to the district’s lead-testing web page. Neither have elevated lead levels.

Results for the remaining two-thirds of Denver’s schools will be back by the end of January. Rix said she expects a similar proportion of those samples — 4 to 5 percent — to have elevated levels. All told, district staff collected more than 4,000 water samples this fall.

Starting this Saturday, DPS will also test some schools’ service lines — the pipes that run from buildings to the city’s water mains under the street — to determine whether they are made of lead. That testing, which involves drilling into the ground to reach the service lines, will start at Newlon, Cowell, Goldrick, Schmitt and Knapp elementary schools.

The five, all built in the 1950s, are among 69 district schools that may have their service lines tested this year. The $572 million bond Denver voters passed earlier this month will provide $800,000 to replace lead service lines.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cory Elementary in Denver was among schools with four to five sinks or water fountains showing high lead levels. It had only one water fountain with elevated lead levels. 

Extra sleep

Two Colorado districts shift to later high school start times — for very different reasons

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

The 22,000-student Greeley-Evans school district in northern Colorado will join the 55,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver in adopting later high school start times this fall.

But unlike in wealthier Cherry Creek, the change in Greeley was not the result of a lengthy process to review research and solicit community feedback. Instead, the move came out of a very different conversation: How could the cash-strapped district tighten its belt?

After Greeley voters rejected a district tax measure last November, a chronic bus driver shortage loomed larger than ever. With no additional money to beef up driver salaries and more than a dozen driver vacancies, district officials needed to reduce the number of routes. They decided to discontinue busing for most high school students — part of a package of cuts that will save the district $667,000 a year.

That decision divorced the start time debate from the common concern that pushing high school bell times later requires more bus routes and more money.

“We were only able to move the high school start time by seriously limiting — in fact, almost eliminating — bus transportation for our high school students,” district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

She noted that all district students are eligible for free transportation on city buses. About two-thirds of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Later middle and high school start times have gained traction in Colorado and nationally in recent years with mounting evidence that teens are hardwired to go to bed later and wake up later. When school schedules align with sleep patterns, research shows students are healthier, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

Nationally, Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest districts to embrace later start times — pushing high school and most middle school start times to 8:45 a.m. last year, with plans to shift to 9 a.m. this year. Also, in what could be the first statewide start-time mandate in the country, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prohibit the state’s middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m.

In Colorado, the move to later start times has been relatively slow. Until March, when both the Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school boards voted on the schedule changes, only a few smaller districts had made the switch. They include Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado and Harrison in Colorado Springs.

Both Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley considered later high school start times in the last couple years, but ultimately shelved the idea. Boulder Valley officials said the prospect of increased transportation costs was one of the reasons they didn’t move forward.

In Denver, which currently doesn’t provide district busing to most high school students, administrators expressed concern about complicated transportation logistics, after-school sports schedules and conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Cherry Creek officials say the change in start times this coming year won’t cost the district more money.

In both Cherry Creek, the state’s fourth-largest district, and Greeley-Evans, the 13th largest, high school start times will shift 45 minutes to an hour later this year. In Cherry Creek, high schools will start at 8:20 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m., and in Greeley-Evans, high schools will start at 8 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m.

Other changes in Greeley-Evans include greater walk distances for students at all levels. That means high-schoolers won’t qualify for busing unless they live more than three miles from school, middle-schoolers won’t qualify unless they live more than two miles from school, and elementary kids won’t qualify unless they live more than 1.5 miles from school.

Myers said the new start times haven’t caused much consternation among parents.

“It’s more the transportation issue (that’s) causing some angst for some of our families,” she said. “We’re really going to watch and see how this impacts attendance and tardiness at our schools.”

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”