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Published in Print: March 24, 2004, as Schools, Developer Partner Up On Denver Project

Schools, Developer Partner Up On Denver Project

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The vast, bare plot of land in the middle of Denver used to be an airport. Today, it’s slowly coming back to life as a planned community called Stapleton.

Believed to be the largest current redevelopment project in the country, Stapleton is also a laboratory for creative school financing and planning that offers lessons for other communities caught in the throes of rapid expansion.

Even before Forest City Enterprises Inc. won the contract to turn the former runways of Stapleton International Airport into neighborhoods, company officials faced a hurdle in attracting buyers: Middle-income families had fled in droves to surrounding suburbs because of the second-rate reputation of Denver’s public schools.

Improving the image of district schools, the developers knew, was crucial to drawing families to the new community.

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Read the accompanying story, "Scarcity of Property Is Growing Obstacle to Building Schools."

So, as part of its bid, Forest City proposed a partnership with the 72,000-student Denver school system. The aim was to build better facilities and improve educational offerings for new residents, as well as for those already living in the older surrounding neighborhoods.

The result has been a win-win situation, say the developers, known here as Forest City Stapleton Inc., and Denver school officials.

"One of our greatest challenges, that Stapleton is helping with, is making sure that all our schools are interesting to all the families that live in a community," said John Youngquist, the assistant superintendent of schools who oversees the northeast quadrant of Denver. "They have an incredible value as a developmental organization."

Through a foundation set up to help the Denver schools, Forest City is donating the land for five school sites: a dual campus with a charter school and a K-5 elementary school; two K-8 schools; and two high schools. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 students will attend the schools.

Forest City, whose main headquarters is in Cleveland, is also financing the construction of two of the schools upfront, which the Denver district will buy back through tax revenue raised from the new homes and businesses being built at Stapleton. The company is also pitching in $500,000 for state-of-the-art science laboratories at a Stapleton charter high school that will specialize in science and technology.

The development group also has helped schools in neighboring, less affluent areas of the district by donating items such as computers and paying for consultants and mentors to provide staff development for principals and teachers.

Stapleton’s developers see the project as a sociology experiment of sorts, in which individual residents and families of all income levels are encouraged to share common spaces and community resources such as schools.

Careful Planning

To foster economic diversity, Forest City has blended townhouses for lower-income buyers with moderately priced houses, urban loft-style condominium apartments, rental apartments, and $1 million mansions.

It’s even taking steps to make sure that houses on the same street do not look identical.

Hank Baker, a senior vice president of Forest City, likens the flat, mostly bare plot of land on which Stapleton sits, surrounded by the rest of Denver, to the hole in a doughnut. His job is to weave that space back into the tapestry of a thriving city.

Mr. Baker’s goal is to create a community that is on par with the most sought-after Denver neighborhoods. "To accomplish this," he said, "we need great public schools."

Forest City’s master plan stresses concepts such as sustainable architecture, which means using environmentally friendly products and strategies, the most up-to-date technological systems, and shared use of facilities by the community and schools. For example, two elementary schools also use adjoining park space for their sports fields.

In addition to the public schools, Stapleton will have a private school for blind students, which received a reduced-price land deal, and a private early- learning center.

So far, many families have been enthusiastic about the project.

Megan Seibel, whose son is a 1st grader at Westerly Creek Elementary, one of the first schools to open, said her family was attracted to Stapleton mainly because of the schools.

She and her husband wanted a neighborhood public school and a place where they would not have to spend all their time driving their two children to school and other events. They recently moved into a new home across the street from the school, and so far they have been happy with the development.

"I really felt like this was going to be a good public school, because of the new facility and because of the Stapleton project," Ms. Seibel said. "People were pushing for it to be an exceptional school."

Mr. Baker said it currently takes about a year between choosing a home plan and final construction. It is expected to take 15 years to completely develop the 4,700-acre site, which could house up to 30,000 people.

To date, Stapleton has about 1,000 homes and roughly 2,500 residents.

On a recent snowy February day, construction crews were working to complete more houses, and a few companies had hung signs to announce that they would soon occupy the brand-new storefronts and offices.

Students at the two elementary schools currently open trudged through the snow and mud during their afternoon recess.

The district held a ceremony last month with the governor and the mayor to break ground on the new science and technology high school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2005. The other schools will be built on an as-needed basis over the next 15 years, Mr. Baker said.

Diverse Options

As part of efforts to bolster the district’s reputation and attract more families to its schools, Denver started a districtwide choice program in 1996 that allows families to choose from a variety of regular public schools or specialty charter and magnet schools.

The first two schools that have opened in Stapleton add to the diversity of those options.

Odyssey Charter School, a 5-year-old, K-8 school that moved to the development last fall, uses the Outward Bound outdoor- and experiential-learning curriculum. Westerly Creek Elementary School offers a more traditional, back-to-basics curriculum.

In an experiment that saved the district $2 million in construction costs, the two schools share a campus.

Odyssey’s 216 students are housed on one end of the brand-new red-brick building, while Westerly Creek, which is filled to only about one-third of its capacity, houses 135 pupils in prekindergarten through 5th grade on the other end. Students share a cafeteria, gym, computer room, and playground, though they use those facilities at different times.

Staff members at both schools say that, so far, the arrangement has worked well.

"People didn’t know whether they wanted to share a building," said Shirley Stafford, the kindergarten teacher at Odyssey and a founder of the school. But, she added, it’s hard for charter schools to find well-suited facilities. Other Odyssey teachers are now also convinced that the arrangement will work well.

Odyssey’s staff, which held classes in a church basement the school’s first year, is happy to have large, custom-designed classrooms and bulletin boards to display the colorful artwork that exemplifies its philosophy of hands-on learning.

The staffs from the two schools worked with the architects to design classrooms large enough to accommodate multiage classes. The rooms also have small "breakout" rooms sandwiched in between for storage and small-group sessions.

Odyssey’s staff even designed a rock-climbing wall to fit behind a staircase, and Stapleton developers donated a computerized weather station to help the students’ studies.

Down the hall, at Westerly Creek Elementary, Principal Trish Kuhn’s office looks out on the frames of houses that are under construction.

One of the best contributions the Stapleton developers have made, Ms. Kuhn said, is to host a principals’ roundtable once a month, where principals from area schools meet for dinner and share ideas and concerns.

"That’s the meaningful, personal piece Stapleton is supporting," added the district’s Mr. Youngquist. "It extends beyond the land they develop to the community."

Developer Contributions

Across Colorado, financial partnerships similar to the one between Stapleton and the Denver public schools are springing up.

The recent growth spurt in and around Denver has pushed developers into outlying rural areas, where some districts’ property-tax revenues were too low to pay for new schools.

Because Colorado laws limit districts’ ability to assess so-called impact fees on developers, several districts have set up foundations for developers to voluntarily contribute money and other resources to schools.

Brighton School District 27J, about 25 miles north of Denver, formed such a foundation three years ago to collect voluntary donations from the homebuilders who have descended there.

The Brighton district has seen its enrollment more than double, to 8,020 students, in the past five years.

"When we were able to convince the developers that the district just couldn’t afford to build the new schools, we got the foundation going," said Joy Gerdom, the planning manager for the district. "We realized it was mutually beneficial to work together."

So far, Brighton’s foundation has collected $3.3 million, and nearly all of the local developers have contributed a set amount of money per home.

Steve Ormiston, a developer with Shea Homes Colorado, based in Highlands Ranch, Colo., said the builders use peer pressure to persuade others to contribute to the foundation.

"We view schools as an important part of the community," he said. "Having inadequate schools is a concern to the builders."

Vol. 23, Issue 28, Pages 1,14-16

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