Popularity Contest

In Denver enrollment zones, charter middle schools are clear favorite (and 4 other takeaways)

A shift away from neighborhood schools in some parts of Denver is highlighting the fact that in families’ eyes, not all schools are created equal.

Data from this year’s first round of school choice applications show that in five of Denver Public Schools’ seven “shared enrollment zones,” one school is significantly more popular than others. In one case, one school received more than three times as many applications than the other four in the zone.

In zones where one school is overwhelmingly popular, students were least likely to get into their first choice school.

DPS  created enrollment zones to promote diversity and open access to higher performing schools to more families. Families who live in a shared enrollment zone are guaranteed placement at one of several schools in their general geographic area, but aren’t assigned to any one school.

Three of the district’s zones are new this year: the West and Southwest Middle School Zones and the Southeast Elementary Zone. [Maps of the zones]

Families who live in a zone have an extra incentive to participate in the district’s SchoolChoice enrollment system. If they don’t, they have no way of knowing which school in their zone their children will attend. In parts of town without enrollment zones, students are assigned directly to a neighborhood school.

Close to 25,000 students across the district submitted SchoolChoice applications this year. More than 4,000 of those lived in shared enrollment zones.

Dominant schools and top-choice rates

Districtwide, 78 percent of students who applied got their first choice schools. In the enrollment zones, the rates varied: In the Far Northeast, just 69 percent of students will attend their first choice school, compared to 84 percent in the Southwest. Across the district, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five schools.

The smallest percentage of students got their first-choice school in zones where one school was overwhelmingly popular.

What percent of people got their top choice school? | Create infographics

 

New zones and southwest Denver plans

Participation rates in SchoolChoice in southwest Denver increased dramatically this year, after an extensive “get out the application” effort. More than 90 percent of students in the two zones in southwest Denver submitted applications, compared to 67 percent last year.

The West zone includes Kepner Middle School, which is being phased out by the district as several new schools are being introduced. It looks like students are moving away from Kepner: Just 51 opted into the district-run school, while 76 opted into the Compass Academy Middle School, a new charter school opening later this year in the Kepner building. The most popular school in the West zone was STRIVE Prep at Westwood, also a charter.

West Middle School Zone | Create infographics

In the Southwest zone, 134 students listed DSST: College View, a charter, as their top choice, while just 84 students opted into district-run Henry World Middle School. The district says that information drove a recent decision to bring a new program into Henry.

Southwest Middle School Zone | Create infographics

 

Park Hill Zone and McAuliffe

In the Park Hill / Stapleton Zone, McAuliffe International, a district innovation school, drew more than three times more applications than any other school. It was the most popular school in any zone.

Greater Park Hill / Stapleton Middle School Zone | Create infographics

That’s led to some contention. McAuliffe’s waiting list has been the topic of private Facebook comment threads reviewed by Chalkbeat in which parents vent about having to attend a school outside of their neighborhood.

McAuliffe has applied to the district o open a new school in 2016-17 in the near northeast part of the city, but if that school is approved, it would open too late to host this year’s disgruntled families.

DPS officials say that the fact that not everyone is getting their first choice doesn’t mean the system isn’t working.

“I understand people’s frustration,” said David Suppes, Denver Public Schools’ Chief Operating Officer. “But I don’t think it’s because we’re doing something different than we said we would. What we’re seeing is the incredible popularity of some schools.”

Charters dominate middle school

Across the middle school zones, charter schools were the first choice for many families.

The most popular options in West, Southwest, Lake, and Far Northeast middle school zones are all part of either the STRIVE or DSST charter networks.

Far Northeast Middle School Zone | Create infographics

Lake Middle School Zone | Create infographics

In the Park Hill / Stapleton zone, the second most popular option after McAuliffe was DSST – Stapleton. Significant numbers of students in that zone also applied to attend DSST: Cole and DSST: Conservatory Green.

The trend favoring charters doesn’t carry over to elementary zones, where the most popular choices were district-run programs.

Stapleton Elementary School Zone | Create infographics

Far Southeast Elementary Zone | Create infographics

The long tail

In each of the zones, there is a long tail of schools listed as the top choice by just a handful of students. There are too many of these schools to include in these graphs. Among them are programs for students with special needs.

The district plans to release more information about this year’s first round of school choice later this spring.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.