Enrollment zone proposed for northeast Denver middle schools to help feed Manual High

Denver Public Schools is proposing erasing traditional boundaries for middle schools in several northeast Denver neighborhoods in an attempt to more evenly distribute high-needs students, give kids an edge getting into high-demand schools near where they live and better funnel students into Manual High School, which has long struggled with low enrollment but is in the process of yet another reinvention.

Nixing the boundaries would mean that middle school students who live in Five Points, Elyria Swansea, Cole, Whittier, Clayton, Skyland, City Park West and Globeville would no longer be guaranteed a seat at Bruce Randolph Middle School next year. Instead, they would be guaranteed a seat at one of five schools within a new enrollment zone.

The schools in the new enrollment zone would be Bruce Randolph, Whittier K-8, Wyatt Academy K-8, DSST Cole and a new middle school based on the popular McAuliffe International School. A district proposal calls for it to be housed with the original McAuliffe in Park Hill next year and at Manual High School in Whittier starting in the fall of 2017.

Middle school students who live within the enrollment zone could put in requests for certain schools through the Denver Public Schools choice lottery system starting on January 5. The students wouldn’t be restricted to choosing between those five schools — in DPS, any student can try to choice into any school — but they’d have priority at the schools in their zone.

If a student didn’t make a choice, he or she would be assigned to one of the five schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the proposed enrollment zone on Thursday. If approved, it will be the eleventh such zone in DPS.

Filling a void, feeding Manual

Several factors led to the creation of the zone, said Brian Eschbacher, the director of planning and enrollment services for DPS. One was Pioneer Charter School’s decision to close at the end of this school year. Pioneer was among the first charters in DPS when it opened in 1997. But low academic performance caused its board to vote to shutter the K-8 school.

To help fill the void and address other issues in the area, the district put out a call for applications for a new middle school to be co-located at Manual. Three schools applied but the new McAuliffe middle school, dubbed McAuliffe II for the moment, emerged as the only viable choice. The DPS board is scheduled to take a final vote on the school’s model and placement later this month.

District officials have high hopes for McAuliffe II. They envision that it will provide families with a quality middle school option, given that the original McAuliffe is high-performing, and that it will channel students into Manual, which hasn’t had a traditional feeder middle school in the past.

That missing piece — coupled with the fact that Bruce Randolph and DSST Cole serve students in grades 6 through 12, providing middle school students there a natural path to stay for high school — have contributed to Manual’s low enrollment.

Last school year, Manual had 284 students. More than 1,000 students who lived in the Manual boundary, or 84 percent, choiced out of the school, which has been trying for years to boost academic performance and repair a tarnished reputation. The top three schools that those students choiced into were Bruce Randolph, DSST Cole and nearby East High School.

Karen Mortimer, a parent who lives in the neighborhood and is active in the schools, believes that adding a middle school to Manual will breathe life back into the underutilized building and introduce new families to one of the oldest schools in Denver. This year, Manual has a new principal and a new program in which students can earn biomedical training.

“There’s something very special happening at Manual right now,” Mortimer said. But it will take time for the community to realize it, she said. “Sometimes people have ‘seeing is believing,’ and I think that’s part of the value of McAuliffe being there.”

Reimagining boundaries

But adding a middle school at Manual presented the district with the problem of how to redraw the boundary lines to decide which students would be guaranteed a seat there.

Currently, most middle school students who live roughly between 52nd Avenue to the north, Colfax Avenue to the south, Interstate 25 to the west and Colorado Boulevard to the east are guaranteed a spot at Bruce Randolph. As a result, the school is filled to capacity, Eschbacher said. A smaller number are guaranteed a spot at the tiny Whittier K-8 school.

The other schools that serve middle school students in the area, including Wyatt Academy K-8 and DSST Cole, are charter schools without boundaries. Students must choice into them, and kids who move to the area in the middle of the year can’t get in unless there’s room.

So what happens, Eschbacher said, is that Bruce Randolph ends up absorbing nearly all of the students who show up in the middle of the year, in addition to those who don’t participate in the annual choice lottery. Both groups of students tend to have higher needs, he said.

Given the challenges of the boundary system and the expected demand for McAuliffe II, the district decided to propose erasing the boundaries and creating an enrollment zone.

The way Eschbacher sees it, there are several benefits. For one, the enrollment zone system more evenly distributes those high-needs students instead of concentrating them at one school.

It also gives students who live in the zone priority at the schools there. So instead of competing on equal footing with students from around Denver to get into McAuliffe II or DSST Cole, another highly desired school, students in the zone will have an advantage.

“If there’s no zone, families that live across the street might not be able to go to McAuliffe,” Eschbacher said, especially if enough other families list the school as their first choice in the lottery. Ultimately, DPS would like students to go to good schools close to home.

Who will be most affected?

This year’s fifth graders would be most affected by the new enrollment zone because they’ll be the ones having to choose middle schools early next year to attend next fall. There are approximately 475 fifth graders who live in the zone, Eschbacher said.

The area is already served by the Success Express, a fleet of DPS buses that shuttles students between several schools and a series of bus stops, which Eschbacher said eliminates the transportation issues experienced in several other enrollment zones.

But a small advisory group made up of community members, school leaders and parents, including Mortimer, had other concerns. Among them was the rapid gentrification of the area, which the group worried could cause the schools to become segregated if, for example, more affluent families overwhelmingly listed a particular school as their first choice.

To ensure that the schools remain diverse, the proposal requires that all five middle schools in the zone reserve at least half of their spots for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, an indicator of poverty.

If not enough low-income students choice in — which likely wouldn’t happen for several years given that about 90 percent of area students still qualify for subsidized lunches, Eschbacher said — those seats would be reserved for low-income kids who show up after the start of the school year.

The advisory group was also concerned about families with fifth graders at Columbine and Barrett elementary schools. Under the proposal, those families would shift from the enrollment zone that serves Greater Park Hill and Stapleton to this new zone.

The shift makes sense given that the middle schools in the new zone are closer to Columbine and Barrett than the majority of middle schools in Park Hill and Stapleton, Eschbacher said. But because the district needed to set up the new zone before the choice lottery process begins in January, Mortimer said she feels that there wasn’t time to thoroughly vet the plan with that small but exceptionally impacted community.

“To be fair and democratic, before anything is absolutely permanent, there needs to be an opportunity for those families to be heard,” Mortimer said.

As a compromise, the proposal calls for those families to be allowed to participate in both enrollment zones for a period of two years, meaning they’d have priority in both.

If the board approves the entire proposal on Thursday, the district will have less than a month to communicate the details to affected families before the choice process begins. DPS plans to hold a choice fair on January 13 at which area students will be able to meet with representatives from each middle school.