More incoming Denver kindergarteners, 6th graders, 9th graders get top-choice schools

Significantly more Denver students in the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade got into their first-choice schools this year, although the number of students taking part in the district’s school choice process stayed flat, according to data released Friday.

Of the 19,770 transition-grade students who submitted choice forms in January listing their top five school preferences, 84 percent got into their number-one pick. Last year, 78 percent did.

Overall, 77 percent of Denver Public Schools students got into their first-choice schools.

“Our goal is to have every student in a great school, and school choice is helping facilitate that,” Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said Friday at a press event at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver, which was able to take every student who chose it with room to spare.

This is the fifth year DPS has used a unified enrollment system for its charter, innovation, magnet and traditional schools. The state’s largest school district has embraced school choice as part of its aggressive reform agenda, which has produced mixed academic results.

DPS continues to win national recognition for its single-application process. The Brookings Institution last month named it the best large school district in the country for choice.

Overall, 24,289 DPS students participated this year, or about 26.5 percent of the district’s nearly 91,500 students. Last year, 27 percent of students participated. The percentage of transition-grade students who filled out choice forms stayed the same at 83 percent.

DPS especially encourages students heading into transition grades to fill out a choice form. Students who don’t are assigned to a school.

Participation was much higher in the district’s enrollment zones, which are expanded boundaries that include several schools. District officials have promoted the zones as a tool for better integrating schools, reasoning that the wider the geographic net, the more diverse the student population.

DPS has 11 enrollment zones, including a new one for middle schools in near northeast Denver. Students who live in enrollment zones are given a preference at the schools in the zone and are guaranteed a spot at one of them, though not necessarily their first pick. The zones are set up to encourage — some would say force — families to participate in the choice process.

Two enrollment zones were tied for the highest participation rate: a whopping 97 percent of families in the Stapleton elementary school zone and the Greater Park Hill Stapleton middle school zone filled out choice forms in January, according to DPS data.

DPS’s newest enrollment zone, for middle schools in near northeast Denver, had a 96 percent participation rate. All of the students who filled out choice forms got into their top zone picks.

Overall, kindergarten students have the best chance of getting into their top-choice school, while sixth graders have the lowest chance.

Eighty-six percent of kindergarten students got into their top pick, as opposed to 83 percent last year. The most requested school for kindergarten was Swigert International School in Stapleton.

For sixth grade, 80 percent of students got into their first choice, compared to 74 percent last year. The most requested school for sixth grade was McAuliffe International School in Park Hill. DPS will open a second McAuliffe this fall; it will eventually be housed at Manual High School.

And for ninth grade, 87 percent of students got a seat at their first-choice school, as opposed to 77 percent who did last year. The most requested school for ninth grade was East High School.

District-wide in the transition grades, about 76 percent of seats in schools were filled, said Brian Eschbacher, DPS’s director of planning and enrollment services. But in schools that were rated blue or green on the district’s school performance framework – the highest marks – 95 percent of the seats were taken. Schools that fell in the lowest rungs – orange and red – saw only about half of their seats filled.

The district introduced about 1,500 new seats in the transition grades at schools perceived to be high quality, in a few cases because they are second campuses of successful schools, he said.

“Parents are picking schools based on performance and they are able to access them because we’ve increased supply,” Eschbacher said.

Students in non-transition grades can participate in choice, too. One reason they might do so is if they’re not happy with their current school and want to switch.

Significantly fewer of those students took part in the process this year. Last year, 5,831 students in non-transition grades filled out choice forms, and this year the number dropped to 4,519.

Eschbacher attributed the shift to a combination of students being happier with their schools and more families understanding how the choice process works. Once a student is enrolled in a school, she continues to have a spot there the following year. Some families mistakenly believe they must fill out a form every year, which can lead to a student unintentionally choicing out.

Students (or their families) had between Jan. 5 and Jan. 29 this year to submit their top five school choices. DPS had until Friday to let students know which school they got into.

Students who didn’t submit a choice form in January or who changed their minds can try again starting March 21 in what DPS calls “Round 2” of its school choice process.

Round 2 is different in that there are no priorities given to certain students and no lotteries to pick who gets in. If a student submits a Round 2 application to a school and the school has room, the student is in. If the school doesn’t have room, the student is put on a wait list.

That the district chose Skinner as the backdrop for its school choice announcement was telling.

The district’s creation of a middle school enrollment zone in northwest Denver last year fueled angst among some parents that their students would be shut out of Skinner, which has seen its enrollment and academic performance improve. DPS officials insisted the worry was unfounded, pointing to a declining number of school-age children in the gentrifying neighborhood

Last year at this time, the sixth-grade class at Skinner was full at 225 students, with nearly 60 students on a wait list, a school spokeswoman said. This year, 201 students were accepted in first-round choice – including 18 sixth-graders from outside Denver Public Schools – and the district anticipates filling the remaining 20 spots by this fall.

“It’s important to look at the numbers,” said school board member Lisa Flores, who represents northwest Denver and supported the middle school enrollment zone. “It’s important to listen to our school leaders. They were pretty clear about their ability to meet projected enrollment needs. It’s something we’ll need to continue to keep an eye on.”

Chalkbeat Colorado bureau chief Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.