ADAMS COUNTY — By the time Katherine McAndrew reaches the last table at the high school fair, her hands are heavy with brochures, data and swag from a number of high schools.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” says McAndrew, a mother with an eighth grade son trying to pick which high school he’ll attend in the Mapleton school district north of Denver.

Cole, a stout young man, wants to be an engineer or an architect. Or a professional football player.

“I’m a lineman,” he says. “Offense. Defense. Put me anywhere.”

But before he can sign with the NFL, Cole and his mother must select which of the six district high schools he’ll attend next fall.

Unlike most school districts in Colorado and across the county, Mapleton does not automatically assign students to schools. District families must choose the best fits for their students, marking down three in order of preference. Other districts — including Denver — promote taking part in school choice but don’t require it.

A decade ago, Mapleton launched its unique choice system as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving student performance in the predominantly blue-collar school district with a growing Latino population. The goal was to make all schools equally rigorous and make sure parents were armed with information to make good choices, while trying to create healthy competition between schools to raise the bar for all.

The results have been up and down. Since the reforms were adopted, Mapleton has been labeled by the state as failing — and then shed that label. Some schools in the district previously on the rise have been flagged for poor performance. Encouragingly, ACT scores have risen dramatically, suggesting that individual students, on average, might be better prepared for college.

Mapleton also has successfully avoided the rancor that can distinguish debates about school choice elsewhere. For Cole McAndrew and the district’s 8,600 students, school choice is simply a way of life.

The genesis of choice

While major urban school districts such as Denver, New York and New Orleans have been nationally recognized for their school choice reform efforts, they’re relatively late to the choice game compared to Mapleton.

In 2001, when Charlotte Ciancio was named Mapleton superintendent, students were either dropping out of high school or leaving the district for other schools at disturbing levels.

“That’s when the board decided the test results we were getting were not acceptable,” she said. “That’s when the board decided our graduation rate wasn’t acceptable.”

Within three years, she and her team, bankrolled by grants from education advocacy groups including the Children’s Campaign, put into motion a plan to bust up the district’s single high school into a cluster of smaller schools with different philosophies. To get students on the path early, some schools start at kindergarten and go through high school.

Today, the district’s offerings include a K-12 International Baccalaureate school; a K-8 expeditionary learning school; an early college school; and a high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The district also promoted smaller schools as a tool for fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

“We learned knowing our kids matter,” Ciancio said. “When we know our kids well and when we can engage them in learning, they improve.”

Teachers agree.

“It lets kids have a say in their education,” said Alisa Grimes, a STEM teacher at Academy High School. It makes a difference. The buy-in — you already have it.”

A work in progress

The district’s reforms have not come without challenges and false starts. And results, district leaders and school advocates say, are far from where they need to be.

By 2008, one year after the district had graduated the last class of its comprehensive high school and graduated the first classes of its smaller programs, students were more engaged but not learning at high levels, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“The struggle they had at the time was that Mapleton was creating a better learning environment, kids were brought into the schools, but teachers were struggling with high expectations for kids,” said Welner, who conducted an external audit of the district. “The district admitted this.”

In 2011, the district and five of its schools were labeled failing by the state. In 2013, the district made enough progress to jump off the state’s accountability watchlist. But in 2014, four schools that had previously improved were flagged again for poor performance.

Perhaps the district’s greatest accomplishments is its improved composite ACT score. In 2001 it was 14.1. In 2007, it was 16.5. Last year, it was 19.2.

“It’s hard to move a dial on an ACT score,” Ciancio said, adding that during the same time the state’s ACT average has been mostly flat.

By other metrics, Mapleton has turned a corner. The dropout rate is holding steady at 3 percent, slightly above the state’s average. It was 5 percent in 2001. And more students are choosing to enroll in Mapleton schools than leaving — likely due to growth in its online school.

“We’re really proud of our results,” Ciancio said. “They’re not yet where we want them to be. But they’re significantly better than they were.”

Making choice work

Asking families to actively enroll their students in a school instead of a district assigning them to a school has become a staple of urban education reform in the United States.

Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.

Supporters champion the policy for a variety of reasons. In dire situations, it allows low-income parents to send their students to high-performing schools historically found in middle-class neighborhoods. In the best situation, parents are allowed to find schools that fit their students learning style.

Those who oppose school choice claim it creates a dog-eat-dog competition among schools that often results in students stuck in impoverished and under performing school for one reason or another with fewer resources.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank that champions school choice, said Mapleton’s effort to offer students different learning environments is promising on a number of fronts.

“It’s not just good for the students,” Lake said. “It’s good for teachers to know what the school is all about.”

Mapleton also has taken steps to ensure families have equal access to all schools by providing free transportation to students and information about programs and quality to parents, closing poor performing and under-enrolled schools and discouraging unhealthy competition — in the classroom and on the playing field.

All high school students, regardless of what school they attend, play on one team for each prep sport.

“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t look at each other’s ACT scores,” said Justin Thomas, an English teacher at Academy and boys soccer coach. “But it’s friendly competition. We push each other to be better.”

It also appears Mapleton has avoided creating segregated schools, a criticism of school choice playing out in some urban areas.

“We find that if you make sure quality is evenly distributed between schools and you create a lot of good options, folks evenly sort themselves out,” Lake said.

At the Mapleton’s recent “Highway to High School” fair, eighth grader Tate Marshall was sorting through his options. He is leaning toward Academy High because of its technology focus.

His father, Dave Marshall, is anxious. He thinks his son should go to Mapleton Early College when he could have the chance to earn an associate’s degree.

“But it’s up to him,” Dave Marshall said. “It’s his life. He needs to make a choice. … But I’ll help.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Alisa Grimes taught English. She is a science, engineering, math and technology teacher at Academy High School.