By Kelly Werthmann

DENVER (CBS4) – A small group of teachers, students, parents and community members rallied outside the Denver Public Schools’ central office building downtown on Monday. They demanded air conditioning and later school year start dates.

(credit: CBS)

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“We had classrooms reading as hot as 88 degrees, and some of the classrooms as high as 92 degrees,” Alex Nelson, a 4th grade teacher at Bryant-Webster Dual Language School, said.

Nelson gathered with other educators to advocate for students who deserve better learning conditions.

“It is a very difficult learning environment,” he told CBS4 of the hot classrooms and buildings without A/C. “This isn’t a new issue. I’ve been a teacher with the district for nearly eight years and every school I’ve worked at, which is three different DPS schools, have had the same heat issue. I’ve never worked in a school with A/C.”

He said the conditions are even worse for the preschool classrooms at Bryant-Webster. Nelson explained they cannot have fans in their classrooms because it’s dangerous for the little children.

(credit: CBS)

“Their rooms are some of the hottest in the entire school,” he said. “These are 3 and 4 year olds we’re talking about who have to deal with this.”

Elise Myren, a 7th grade student at Merrill Middle School, joined her mom at the afternoon rally. She said it is important for students to have a voice in their education.

“I want to see DPS put air conditioning or cooling units in all schools,” she said, adding her classrooms are often very hot. “It makes me sleepy, and I can’t learn in those conditions.”

In some cases, DPS teachers are left to find ways on their own to keep classrooms cool.

“One of my teachers was lucky enough to get a grant for $1,000, and she was able to get a ton of fans and an A/C unit for her classroom,” Myren said. “That’s really helped.”

(credit: CBS)

DPS Chief Operating Officer Mike Ferrandino told CBS4 last week the district is not ignoring the issue. He explained the 2016 bond allowed the district to add A/C or other heat mitigation systems into 70 schools. It is now considering whether to ask voters for another bond in 2020 to help update the 60 remaining schools, yet it is an expensive and long process.

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“It is about $200 million of funding, about $3-4 million per school,” Ferrandino said. “If we were sitting on $200 million, it wouldn’t be tomorrow we could have air conditioning. It would still be several years to both get the plans done and get the staff to do it across all those schools.”

Ferrandino also said some of the older schools in the district cannot accommodate A/C, and it is really only used for a brief part of the school year.

“You’re talking about maybe a total of a month,” he said. “How much do we want to invest? At the same time, we know climate change is real, and we’re getting warmer and warmer.”

Rally-goers also said the district should start classes after Labor Day when the temperatures aren’t typically as high.

“A/C isn’t the only solution,” Nelson said. “Start our calendar year in September when we know temperatures are substantially less.”

(credit: CBS)

Yet Ferrandino explained DPS changed the school year schedule to begin before Labor Day several years ago, in part, because other districts around Colorado do as well. Also, many summer camps and programs families rely on for childcare end for summer early.

“The later we do our start, the more impact that has on families, so we try to balance that,” he said.

Which is why, Ferrandino added, the district is doing what it can when it can.

“It is a difficult thing, but something we are continuing to work on and investing on,” he said.

Yet those at Monday’s rally aren’t buying it. They said change needs to happen now.

“It’s still a really difficult learning environment, and it’s really hard to encourage kids to make sure they’re focused,” Nelson said.

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DPS provided the following information about school start dates:

Each year, DPS runs a calendar committee that is inclusive of DPS teachers and parents to advise on the many challenging tradeoffs that must be made when setting the calendar. Here are a few of the reasons, in no specific order, that we have started the school year in mid-August for the past 20 years:

  • Over the years, we have heard a strong preference from teachers and families for the full week break at Thanksgiving and Spring Break and two weeks during the winter holidays.
  • Starting in mid-August allows schools to complete the first semester prior to winter break. A later start date would require the first semester to end after the return from winter holiday and/or shortened Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
  • We’ve heard strong concerns from many DPS families about the hardship of having a gap between the end of summer camps and summer jobs and the start of the school year. Our current start date minimizes that gap based on the current schedules of the many organized summer activities that Denver kids participate in, without having to shorten holiday breaks.
  • Additionally we’ve heard input from high school students and DPS families about the ability to compete for and start summer jobs and internships if they are not able to begin until late June/July.
  • We’ve heard concerns from students and families about the interaction between a later district start date and the interaction with the Colorado High School Sports Association’s statewide schedule for high school sports given that school districts in our area tend to have a similar start date to our current start.
  • We’ve heard concerns from students and families that a later start date would mean two weeks or so fewer days of instruction prior to students having to take college admission exams such as the SAT.

Kelly Werthmann