Choose Your Own Adventure

More students used Denver’s school choice enrollment system this year

Families attended a Denver Public Schools "choice expo" in 2011. Photo courtesy DPS.

Participation in Denver’s unified enrollment system, which parents can use to apply for any of the district’s public or charter schools, jumped nearly 10 percent this year, the district reported Friday.

Close to 25,000 students applied through the system, compared to 22,729 last year. That means well over a quarter of the district’s 90,000 students used the SchoolChoice system.

Families learned by email  today which schools their children will be attending.

SchoolChoice was introduced four years ago to replace a convoluted system in which there were dozens of applications to various public and charter schools in the city.

This year, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five schools, compared to 94 percent last year. That’s a reversal from last year’s trend, when there was a drop in the number of students who were placed in their requested schools.

DPS officials say they will work directly with any families who did not receive a placement in any of the schools to which they applied.

Most families who used the enrollment system are preparing for transition years: Kindergarten, sixth, or ninth grades. This year, kindergartners were most likely receive first-choice schools: 83 percent, compared to 74 percent of sixth graders, 77 percent of ninth graders, and 78 percent of students overall.

Areas of the city that now have shared enrollment zones saw particularly high participation. Under the shared zone system, students are not guaranteed a spot in one particular school, but are guaranteed a spot in one of a number of schools within a limited geographic area.

DPS said the enrollment zones in west and southwest Denver saw the biggest bumps in participation in SchoolChoice, with 91 percent of students in those zones submitting applications compared to 67 percent last year.

The district created two new shared enrollment zones this year, including the one in southwest Denver.

District officials are also predicting that more middle school students will enroll next year than ever before. In Stapleton and the Far Northeast there were particularly big jumps. For instance, in Stapleton, 417 sixth graders enrolled in DPS schools in 2009, compared to 735 projected to enroll this year.

The district has at times walked a tightrope as it tries to create broad selection of school choice options while also supporting neighborhood schools.

In a press release, Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that neighborhood schools still have a role. “We always recommend families look first to their neighborhood schools,” said Boasberg. “We know it is also important to provide schools throughout the city that meet the unique needs of our students.”

A report from A+ Denver, a local education advocacy group, released earlier this year found that most families in Denver that used SchoolChoice were placed in their top choice school, but that there are still inequities in the quality of schools where low-income and higher-income families enroll.

DPS officials said they would provide more information about school choice participation later this spring.

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.