Denver school choice: What are enrollment zones? And are they working?

All Colorado students have school choice, meaning they can request to attend any public school in the state for free. For the vast majority of students, whether or not to participate in school choice is, itself, a choice: Families happy with their assigned school don’t have to take part.

But for some families in Denver, school choice is all but required. These families live in what Denver Public Schools calls “enrollment zones,” a unique — and sometimes confusing — part of school choice.

What are the zones, why do they exist — and are they achieving their intended goals, which include creating more integrated schools? We’ll answer those questions and more below.

What is an enrollment zone?

An enrollment zone is essentially an expanded boundary with several schools in it. Students who live in a zone are guaranteed a seat at one of the schools in the zone, but not necessarily the school closest to where they live. That’s different than the traditional setup parents might remember from childhood, wherein students attended the school nearest their home.

How many enrollment zones are there?

There are 14 enrollment zones in Denver Public Schools, located all across the city. The smallest enrollment zones have just two schools in them. The biggest has 13.

How do enrollment zones work?

Families who live in enrollment zones don’t have an assigned neighborhood school. Instead, these families fill out a school choice application online that asks them to rank up to 12 schools in order of preference.

Students who live in the zone get priority to enroll at schools in the zone, but families can list schools outside the zone on their application too.

If a family’s first-choice school has enough seats for everyone who applies, their child will likely get in. If the school doesn’t have enough seats, the district will run a lottery. Students who lose the lottery are put on a waitlist and offered a seat at one of their lower choices.

Families submit applications in the winter, and the district tells them the results in the spring. This is the same basic school choice process followed by all families in the district.

If a family doesn’t make a choice, the district will assign them to a school in their zone. But district officials said they prefer families choose a school that’s right for their child.

Why? What is the purpose of an enrollment zone?

Enrollment zones have several objectives, said Jim Carpenter, who until recently served as head of the district’s school choice office. (He is now the district’s chief financial officer.)

The most basic is to increase students’ access to quality schools, he said. Giving students priority at two, five, or 10 schools — instead of at just one — increases the likelihood they’ll get into a high-performing school that meets their needs.

Enrollment zones also increase access to quality schools, district officials said, because Denver Public Schools offers students transportation within their zone. It does not offer transportation to students outside zones who use school choice to attend a school other than their assigned one.

Other goals of enrollment zones are more specific. They include managing enrollment in fast-growing, family-friendly neighborhoods such as Stapleton, where homebuilders continue to build new homes and new families continue to move in.

Rather than having to continually redraw boundary lines to ensure schools don’t become overcrowded, which district officials say would be disruptive to existing families, an enrollment zone allows the district to spread new families among all of the schools in the region.

Another goal of enrollment zones is to ensure that no school in the region receives more than its share of students who enroll after the school year starts. Late-arriving students are more likely to be living in poverty and behind academically, district statistics show.

Without a zone, late-arriving students might get funneled into a single boundary school that would struggle to meet their needs. Having a zone allows the district to reserve a proportional number of seats for late-arriving students at each school in the zone, officials said.

When district officials started enrollment zones in 2011, they also envisioned the zones would help integrate its segregated schools. Like in many U.S. cities, Denver’s schools tend to reflect its neighborhoods: Schools in wealthy neighborhoods serve students from wealthier families, and schools in poor neighborhoods serve students from less affluent families.

By drawing bigger boundaries encompassing several neighborhoods, district officials hoped to diminish some of that segregation. Research shows integration boosts test scores of students from low-income families without lowering the scores of students from wealthier ones.

Did it work?

Not everywhere. Six of the district’s 14 enrollment zones achieve all of the district’s objectives, Superintendent Susana Cordova said. A shining example is the far southeast elementary school zone, which includes three elementary schools: Holm, Samuels, and Joe Shoemaker.

In terms of integration, which is the trickiest goal to reach, the three schools are more integrated by family income than they would be if the district were to draw traditional boundaries around each one, Carpenter said. Holm, which is located in the wealthiest neighborhood, actually has the highest percentage of students receiving subsidized meals: about 82%.

At Samuels, 76% of students get subsidized meals. At Joe Shoemaker, 67% do.

But in other zones, the schools remain segregated. For example, the northwest middle school zone has four schools, including a Montessori school, a dual language school, and two regular middle schools: Skinner, which is district-run, and STRIVE Prep-Sunnyside, a charter school.

At Skinner, 53% of students qualify for subsidized meals. At STRIVE, 91% do. Only six white students attended STRIVE last year, while 212 of Skinner’s more than 600 students were white.

District officials attribute the imbalance to family choice: More Hispanic families choose STRIVE, while more white families choose Skinner. Because there are enough seats at both STRIVE and Skinner to give every family their first choice, the segregation continues.

The example of STRIVE and Skinner illustrates a limitation of the zones: While enrollment zones create the opportunity for integration, Carpenter said, it’s not a guarantee.

“We defer to parent preferences,” he said. “That’s our first principle.”

Does the district plan to create more enrollment zones?

Not at this time, Carpenter said.

Cordova acknowledges that enrollment zones can be confusing for families to understand, and frustrating when students don’t get into their first-choice school — especially when that school is close to their home. It can be difficult for families to support a system that requires their child to take a bus to a school 2 miles away when there’s a school across the street.

But Cordova, who grew up in Denver before school choice, also recognizes the upsides. “Denver has been and continues to be a very segregated city,” she said. “If everybody had to go strictly to their neighborhood school, we’d also see lots of frustrations with that system.”

This article tackles a topic raised during our 2019 Listening Tour. Read more about the Listening Tour here, and see more articles inspired by community input here.