Originally published in Jefferson, The Magazine Winter Issue 1997-98
County’s Diversity Is New and Growing
By Mary Jacoby Hastings
It is still dark outside when l2-year-old Teresa and her 14-year-old brother, George, leave for their daily walk to their middle school in central Jefferson County. They each have learned to watch over one shoulder for the unexpected. Their breakfast will be served at school as part of free meal programs like the National School Lunch program. Like so many of their peers, they do not carry a sack lunch. The family cannot afford to spare the food. Because they qualify for free lunch at school, the children will get the nutrition they need to stay focused during classes.
The Juarez family moved to the county to escape their gang-infested neighborhood in a nearby city. Like so many Hispanic families moving into the area, the Juarezes want the best possible education for their children. Their parents can barely afford their modest apartment in one of the area's newest multi-family housing complexes, but their move to Jefferson County is worth the price to this hard-working family.
Thirty and 40 years ago, people were leaving the city to move to Jefferson County for similar reasons under different circumstances. Many city dwellers saw the need for a simpler life than a big city could offer. Others wanted to escape Denver’s school busing mandate in the 1950s and 1960s. During those decades there was a significant population shift as these individuals and families migrated to the vast space available in the Jefferson County countryside where busing was not an issue.
Now what so many people moved to the country to escape has followed right behind. According to Arvada Police Chief Ron Sloan, "The core city mentality has also moved into what were those outlying areas.”
Today Jefferson County is Colorado's most populous county with 11 incorporated municipalities within its 777 square miles. It can no longer be considered suburbia. One-third of the county's population of a half-million people can be found in unincorporated areas. When the population of Denver began to dwindle, Jefferson County experienced continued growth and is expected to be home to the highest senior population in the state by the turn of the century.
Only 200 settlers called Jefferson County home as recently as 1858. The Rocky Mountain gold rush produced the area’s first population explosion, with 35,000 people occupying the area by 1860. Early records show that 2,390 people occupied the Jefferson County region in 1870, when the gold rush had become a mere trickle. By 1940, the territory housed a population of 30,725. Before the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s ended, Jefferson County was home to 127,520 people. By the year 2001, the population of Jefferson County will more than double the official 1980 census reflecting 371,753 residents. It is estimated that Jefferson County will be home to more than 630,000 people by the year 2020.
What does all of this mean to the Juarez family and other Jefferson County residents? How will the growth of the county impact the environment, the economy, law enforcement, cultural diversity and education?
Cultural diversity has enriched the county, but it is still very limited. Northern and eastern sections of Jefferson County are the most integrated areas and home to most of the county's non-white population. Southern and western areas still are predominantly while. Despite the near lack of a multiethnic populace in some parts of the county, the Jefferson County R-1 School District has made diversity education a priority in all schools. It is hoped that children from ethnic and minority families like Teresa's and George’s will be welcomed and valued no matter where they attend school because their peers and teachers have gained understanding through knowledge.
Walk down the halls of almost any school in Jefferson County and the culture of that area becomes
quite evident. Debbie Taylor is the principal of Jefferson County's smallest, yet most culturally diverse high school. While 86% of students in Jeffco R-1 schools are white, Jefferson High School has a non-while student population of 49%.
Taylor speaks with great enthusiasm about the mix of students at the school. "It's a field trip in diversity every day at Jefferson High School. Our high school is a real jewel―a shining star, a real adventure."
The bottom line: nobody is considered a minority at Jefferson High School. "We are all here together." said Taylor, a former Cherry Creek teacher and administrator. "The students have a lot of respect for each other and take tremendous pride in their newly renovated school."
She admits gangs are a universal problem, but because most of the students represent so many backgrounds, no one organized group is trying to establish a territory at Jefferson High School.
The school is an education center for the deaf and hearing-impaired and the first in the county to employ a deaf teacher. This has helped everyone better understand yet another facet of diversity.
In schools like Molholm Elementary School, changes are being made in school curriculum to reflect a new awareness. Here the Native American community asked the school to rename the Day on the Prairie program. In response, the school introduced the First Americans Unit to help students focus on the more positive and more accurate history of the area and its people.
At the September 18, 1997, meeting of the Jefferson County R-1 Board of Education. Superintendent Jane Hammond recommended that the board approve a $48,834 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to meet the needs of 380 identified Native American students enrolled in Jefferson County Public Schools.
There also are some municipal police departments like those of Lakewood and Westminster that encourage officers to take diversity classes and to study a second language―including sign language―in order to become bilingual.
There is a move within some parts of the county for law enforcement officers to be able to work more effectively with all residents of growing factions, including Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans.
Initial attempts to create a multi-ethnic focus group in Westminster met with limited enthusiasm, reported a disappointed yet optimistic Dan Montgomery, Westminster police chief. Westminster Mayor Nancy
Heil is an enthusiastic partner and activist in promoting cultural diversity training for all city employees, as well.
A majority of Jeffco R-1 schools now have on-site community resource officers to work with young people during school. The officers teach classes, diffuse cultural tensions, provide counseling, manage drug prevention programs, work on relationship building with a younger generation and serve in their primary role―enforcing the law.
When responding to criminal mischief incidents at places like Jefferson High School, which sits on the eastern side of Jefferson County, often the perpetrators' addresses turn out to be Denver, according to one Edgewater official, who asked not to be identified.
Wheat Ridge Police Chief Jack Hurst reported there has been a substantial increase in lower-income multi-family housing and rental properties over the last 10 years in Wheat Ridge alone. At the same time, gang activity has increased. While he did not draw a correlation between the two, both trends are significant in identifying the community's changing needs.
When neighborhoods change, often the nature of crime in the area changes too. Warring gangs have migrated to Jefferson County's high-density areas, bringing with them increased drug trafficking, turf battles and drive-by shootings. The Juarezes have seen enough violence among warring gang factions and wonder it they’ve moved far enough away, but they know this is a universal problem now.
Police report that crimes within the growing Southeast Asian community are harder to solve because this tends to be a close-knit group.
Nevertheless, law enforcement agencies in Jefferson County are growing as crime changes with changing demographics. The growing segment of elderly citizens has warranted specialized training for law enforcement officers. Westminster, for instance, has a specially trained officer who works closely with seniors in the community.
The Westminster Police Department has begun an innovative program called Citizens' Academy. Twenty-five everyday citizens enroll in the seven-week course and go through the equivalent of police basic training. Officers also are becoming more visible, especially in the schools where they are trying to develop positive relationships with youth.
More than 50% of the student body at Jefferson High School in Edgewater has been involved in the School to Career Partnership. Jefferson High School has one of the strongest student/business working relationships in the R-1 district, according to Taylor.
"We want to help kids be successful while recognizing the special needs we have," she said.
Because Jefferson High School has a high-mobility rate, special programs are in place to help incoming students "get up to speed" and become comfortable in their new surroundings.
Educators in southern and western Jefferson County report higher than usual parental involvement in their schools. Over half of the student body at the new Conifer High School is involved in some form of extra-curricular activity. including sports. This, according to Principal Barry Schwartz is extraordinary. A 20-year veteran educator and administrator. Schwartz said he has never seen such a high level of community involvement in schools anywhere else.
The school, which opened in the fall of 1996, was built with community input and won the prestigious James D. MacConnell Award based, in part, on this school/community partnership. He marveled. "The students care so deeply about one another and about setting up a great school."
This sentiment is echoed by Elk Creek Elementary School Principal Colleen Kerr (near Pine junction on U.S. Highway 285), who has been favorably impressed with the number of parents who pick their children up after school so that they can participate in on- and off-campus extracurricular activities throughout the community.
South Jeffco elementary schools benefit greatly from a high level of parental involvement and more readily available fiscal resources. The affluent Ken-Caryl Ranch community provides a wealthier PTA base as do the western communities of Bergen Park, Evergreen and Genesee.
On the other extreme, parents of students in different sections of the county, like the Juarezes, often work two or three jobs and cannot contribute as generously of their time or finances. Maria and Roberto Juarez do what they can to show support for their children and their school.
Schools like Molholm elementary rely on the generosity of corporate grants to enhance resources. An RJR Nabisco grant provided the resources and staff needed to hold full-day kindergarten at Molholm. The school managed the three-year grant efficiently enough to squeeze a five-year program out of the budget. The funds from the grant have been used up, and the school is no longer able to offer the full-day kindergarten program.
Jeffco schools report test scores below the national average are frequently found at schools with the highest mobility rates. Within the first two weeks of the 1997-98 school year, Molholm Elementary School had 118 withdrawals of the 199 students enrolled. Two hundred fifty more students are expected to enroll within the first semester. The school is not alone but serves as a single example. Other schools with unusually high mobility rates include Edgewater, Eiber, Lawrence, Meadowlark and Russell elementary schools, and Jefferson, Lakewood and Long View high schools.
According to the 1996-97 enrollment data reports by Jefferson County Public Schools, there exists a correlation between the number of children eligible for the free lunch program and lower test scores. Educators cite studies that show there is frequently a correlation between a student's performance and the educational level of the mother in particular.
Housing costs have escalated out of range for many first-rime buyers. The trend is disheartening to the Juarez family members who can only dream of living under their own roof someday. Many older homes in Denver have been purchased and renovated by more affluent couples, which has driven others from city neighborhoods. Local officials in eastern Jefferson County have reported that there is a trend toward building more multi-family housing units for lower-income city "refugees"―the victims of the downside of urban flight.
While some neighborhoods are changing to accommodate a different socioeconomic group, others have changed little because the residents are empty-nesters who prefer to remain in their established neighborhoods. There also are couples who have raised their children, then moved on themselves.
Jefferson County continues to approve the construction of retail centers for a multitude of income level families. Denver West's two new retail complexes promise to rival the elegant Park Meadows. The recently renovated Westminster Mall is doing well, and the city has plans to bring in a new Westin Convention Center and a triple-slab year-round ice rink. The new Ken-Caryl Village will break ground in South Jeffco. The K-Mart Superstore and a variety of merchandise outlet stores line West Colfax Avenue for the shopper on a less exotic budget.
While there are 11 established incorporated municipalities within the county, the future of unincorporated areas remains a mystery. Without an adequate tax base derived from commercial industry, can communities like
Ken-Caryl, Genesee, Conifer, Willow Springs and Columbine Knolls continue to survive? The passing of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights requires a vote of the people for tax increases. Jeffco Commissioner John P. Stone has warned the county could bankrupt itself if developing areas don’t incorporate or annex into existing cities.
Jefferson County has been credited with its dedication to preserving the environment by obligating much of the county's land to Open Space. The original community plans of cities and towns throughout the county reflect an overwhelming commitment to protecting the environment while managing growth.
The Planning and Zoning Department has received prestigious awards for its foresight in planning design to accommodate a rapidly growing area. It is attempting to manage its growth with careful planning.
Meanwhile, the Juarez family is now part of Jefferson County, sharing the tax burden and proud of all the county has to offer―economic opportunities, high quality of living, beautiful environment and the spice of cultural diversity.