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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.