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Despite obstacles, ‘I have a lot of reasons to be happy’

Every day, Daliliah Wilson spends four hours simply getting to and from school.

Without a car or driver’s license, Wilson, 18, must take two buses and the light rail from her Wheat Ridge home to McLain Community High School in Lakewood, where she is finishing her senior year.

To arrive on time, she leaves her house by 6:15 a.m., two hours before class starts.

For Wilson, who is living on her own, working two jobs and attending school full-time, transportation is one of her biggest challenges. But she is determined to overcome the obstacles in her quest for a high school diploma, the first step toward one day becoming a pediatric nurse.

“It’s something that I take day by day and try to handle the best that I can,” she said. “Because I know that this is just one tough spot, and all the hard work that I’m putting in right now is going to be worth it in the end.”

Wilson is one of approximately 500 students identified as unaccompanied youths by Jefferson County Public Schools for the 2017-18 school year. They differ from the about 3,000 students in the district classified as homeless because they are not living with a legal guardian and are supporting themselves.

Some, like Wilson, have a stable place to live. But some students living on their own also are homeless, couch-surfing among friends and family or living in their cars, school officials say.

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Keeping students, schools safe: A look at safety and security in Denver metro schools

In Colorado, where eight school shootings have occurred since 1982 — leaving 19 dead and 29 wounded — keeping students safe is a reality that has spurred Denver metro area districts to lead the way nationally when it comes to assessing threats and following sound safety protocol, experts say.

“Schools in Colorado are a little more sensitive and open to safety,” said John Nicoletti, a police psychologist based in Lakewood who works with law enforcement around the country, specializing in threat assessment and trauma recovery. “Some districts out of state I work with, they say they don’t think it’ll happen there. If you’ve never had an event, you’re reluctant to spend money and put time into it. But schools in Colorado take this stuff seriously.”

The metro area’s history includes what was once the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history at Columbine High School in south Jefferson County. In 1999, two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

The most recent attack at a metro-area school was the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial in which a student who was intent on murdering a faculty member instead shot a classmate to death, then killed himself.

Tragedy has changed the way area school districts assess and approach threats: Over the years, a statewide anonymous tip line has been created, a shared safety protocol was introduced with a system that focuses on locking doors, an active-shooter training center opened and threat management has become one of the main focuses of school safety and security teams.

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Sixth-grade shift moves ahead in Jeffco

When parent Darcie Weiser first heard of Jeffco’s intent to move sixth-grade students to middle school, she was not a fan.

In 2014, her son was a fifth-grader at Meiklejohn Elementary in Arvada when the talk of moving sixth-grade students from elementary to middle school came up at that school. To her, it seemed like a “knee-jerk” reaction to needing more space, rather than a thoughtful transition of students.

The change didn’t happen. Weiser was relieved.

But after a few years of being a middle school parent, with that son attending Manning Option School, she has a new excitement about her daughter, who is in sixth-grade now, entering middle school.

“I have come full circle, so to speak, on the transition and have considered it through different lenses,” Weiser said. “Our middle school experience has been so wonderful. I really believe that sixth grade would’ve been good for her to have at the middle school.”

An estimated 3,355 incoming sixth-grade students in Jefferson County Public Schools will move from elementary to middle schools districtwide next year, a shift district officials say will better utilize building space and expand academic offerings.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts and the nation split up elementary and middle school grades. A few schools, with K-8 and 7-12 grade configurations, will remain as they are.

The shift, however, still surprised some parents and community members.