Last Resort

The schools that take Colorado’s “most vulnerable” students are disappearing. Can they be saved? Should they?

About the Project

“Last Resort “is a Colorado News Collaborative-led four-part investigation by Chalkbeat Colorado, The Colorado Sun and KFF Health News into the collapsing system of schools that serve some of Colorado’s most vulnerable students. 

The state is now scrambling to shore up what are known as facility schools, which enroll thousands of students a year with intense mental and behavioral health needs. Where there were once 80 schools offering a combination of therapy and academics, only 30 remain, All but one are located in the Front Range, leaving rural Coloradans desperate for options. 

 A cross-newsroom team of reporters filed open records requests, sifted through state documents, visited facility and non-facility schools, and interviewed dozens of people, including family members, students, special education specialists, disability rights advocates, educators, and lawmakers  to tell the story of system hobbled by a chronic lack of staff, anemic funding and the unintended consequences of a federal law seeking to prevent the warehousing of children. It is also a system in which oversight is fragmented and opaque, leaving parents and the public with no easy way to determine whether children are learning and safe. Even as the state seeks to beef up the existing system, school districts and others are finding their own ways to help these students succeed.

KFF Health News logo (2)
COSun.square (1)
KFF Health News logo (1)
The Coloardo Sun

The Stories

How Colorado Is Filling Gaps for Its ‘Most Vulnerable’ Children As Last-Resort Schools Dwindle

The Learning Zone is a small school in Littleton that teaches nonverbal students to use devices thatallow them to communicate by pushing buttons that convey words or phrases. But to become a state-approved facility school in hopes of getting more school districts to pay for theirspecialized services, The Learning Zone first had to become a state-licensed day treatment program.When the licensing specialist from the state human services department showed up, she brought achecklist. Did the school have all sharp objects locked up? Were the cleaning chemicals, hand sanitizerand Lysol wipes out...
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Colorado Is Pouring More Money Into Schools for Kids With Behavioral Health Issues and Disabilities, but Are They Helping?

Colorado is doubling the funding next year for schools that enroll students whose mental health ormedical needs are too intense for regular schools to handle, calling for 12 new schools to open within thenext three years. The number of these specialized schools, which operate as day centers or are part of residentialtreatment facilities or hospitals, has fallen over the past two decades to 30 from 80. They offer acombination of therapy and academics in an effort to stabilize thousands of students a year so they canreturn to their home schools. But...
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Students in Rural Colorado Are Left Without Options as Specialized Schools Close

Riley George, a 12-year-old with autism and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, has had to cross a mountain range to get an education.  That’s because all but one of the state’s 30 facility schools, those rapidly disappearing schools of last resort for students with severe behavioral, mental health, or special education needs, are located on the Front Range. In rural Colorado, the lack of facility schools, combined with overwhelmed public schools, can mean students end up learning online, languishing in mental health facilities, or attending a residential school far from home.  For...
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The Schools That Take Colorado’s ‘Most Vulnerable’ Children Are Disappearing

For Erin Schneiderman, the summer between her son’s third and fourth grade year was “one of the worst periods of our lives for sure.” Denver Public Schools had decided that her son should go to a specialized school. He has autism and was overwhelmed by the noise, the crowds, and the unpredictable transitions in a traditional elementary school. He had meltdowns that lasted for hours, and Schneiderman often had to leave work in the middle of the day to pick him up.  But when the first day of fourth grade arrived,...
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Reporting Team

Editing Team

Reporting Team

Editing Team


This project was made possible through unprecedented collaboration between dozens of newsrooms and journalists across the state, who are active partners in the Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab.

To support the statewide effort, donate to the Colorado News Collaborative.