Three Years In

Report: Most Denver families get first choice schools, but tension between proximity, school quality persists

A student at Ellis Elementary.

More than a quarter of Denver families who send their students to Denver Public Schools used the district’s SchoolChoice system to choose a school in 2013, and most of those who participated were placed in their first choice school.

But Denver families may struggle to balance often-competing priorities—a school’s proximity to home and its quality according to the district’s rating system—when choosing schools.

Those are some of the findings of a new report focused on Denver’s SchoolChoice system released by A+ Denver, a local education advocacy and research group, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, a national research organization with a focus on school choice.

The report, released today, includes data from the first three years of the SchoolChoice system, which was introduced in late 2011 to streamline the application process for families. At the time, there were more than 60 applications, each with its own timeline, for the Denver public schools. Now, all the city’s programs, including magnet and charter schools, are listed on a single application.

One aim of the new system was to increase the accessibility of the city’s best schools to families and students throughout Denver.

“I feel really confident that we now have three years of data that show the system works,” said Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Denver. “It does what it says it’s going to do.”

Some 27 percent of families in the entire district used SchoolChoice this year. That number has remained close-to-constant for each of the past three years. Most of those are families with students entering either Kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grade.

The report shows that most of the same schools have remained popular for each of the three years the system has been in place.

Families with special education students were more likely than families whose students are in general education programs to use the system. That’s a change from previous years, when general education students were more likely to choice into schools.

Families that are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch were slightly less likely to use SchoolChoice.

More than three-quarters of families receive their first-choice school—though the report shows that the percent of kindergarten families receiving their first choice dropped from just over 80 percent to 74 percent this year.

Schoales said low-income families were actually more likely to get their first-choice school than upper-income families. But, he said, those families were also choosing lower-ranked schools.

That is likely because those lower-rated schools are close to home. Citywide, most families still choose schools that are close to home. Just 19.9 percent choose schools out of their own region. But Schoales said that many schools, especially in the southwest and northeast parts of the city, still struggle academically.

Lack of public or district transportation paths to farther-away schools remains a barrier, especially for low-income families or families who live in parts of the city where there are fewer highly-ranked schools, according to the report. The report does note a steady increase in the percent of the city’s schools that earned high scores on the district’s School Performance Framework.

The report has a number of interesting details about who’s using the system and how. For instance, most families either list just one choice or include all five. (Schoales said he had heard of families trying to “game” the system by listing their first choice second; he said that was not likely to achieve the desired result.)

There are also differences among racial and ethnic groups: 84.7 percent of white students participated in the choice program, compared to 75 percent of bi- or multi-racial students, 71.1 percent of Hispanic students, 63.3 percent of black students, and 63 percent of students identified as “other” used the system.

More students who scored in the top quartile on standardized math tests used SchoolChoice than students in the bottom quartile—75.4 percent compared to 63.2 percent.

Denver was one of the first districts in the country to create a unified application system, but such systems are becoming increasingly common. An earlier report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that Denver parents felt more well-informed about the choice system then parents in other cities around the country. Denver’s sytem

Politics & Policy

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.