As migrants continue to arrive in Colorado, many schools are seeing a record number of students enrolling in the middle of the year.
School enrollment liaisons are trying to reach families to offer help enrolling students, but as the number of migrants and shelters grow, their ability to connect quickly with everyone is slowing down.
In the meantime, you or someone you know might have questions about the process of enrolling a child in a Colorado public school. Here’s what you need to know.
Where do I start to enroll my child in school?
The first thing to know is that public schools have an obligation to enroll and educate students regardless of their immigration status, income, or housing situation. Public schools are free in Colorado for children ages 5 through 18 and in some cases, through age 21.
The first step is to identify which school district you are in and which schools are nearest to you. If you know what district you’re in, you can often use that school district’s website to find the schools closest to you and to learn about their programs.
If you aren’t sure where to start, walking into your nearest school is an option. Many schools have bilingual staff in their offices, and if they don’t, you can ask for an interpreter. You can ask for the name of the district you’re in, and tell them you need help enrolling.
“Language should never be an intimidation point,” said Frida Rodriguez, a student and family advocate in Adams 12, a district north of Denver largely covering Thornton.
Many school districts, including Denver and Aurora, will ask parents to make an account online and fill out forms through their website. The websites are available in Spanish, and the districts can provide assistance if you need help walking through how to fill the forms out. After you submit the forms, it may take a few days to hear back on next steps.
When should I enroll my child?
Educators suggest you enroll your children in school as soon as possible.
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If the semester is about to end, there’s a possibility your child will need to wait to start attending until the following semester, but you won’t be turned away from enrolling, and you may be able to connect to other resources through the schools in the meantime.
To enroll in kindergarten, children must be at least 5 years old by a certain date. Different districts have different dates, but it’s usually near Oct. 1 of the school year in which they’re enrolling. Some children wait to start kindergarten until age 6.
Colorado has also started free preschool for four-year-olds, but enrolling in preschool requires a different process. Some public schools offer preschool, but not all do.
What documents will I need to submit?
There are requirements for enrolling in schools, but district enrollment leaders say it’s important for parents to know that they will work with you if you don’t think you have all of the necessary paperwork.
“We are committed to finding ways to make it work,” said Laurie Premer, director of enrollment services in Denver.
Schools may ask for a birth certificate or other official document like a passport that shows a child’s date of birth. They may ask you for a document that shows your address and where you are living. If you are staying with friends or family, a letter from the homeowner stating that you and your children are living with them can work.
Colorado law also has some vaccine requirements for children to enroll in school, so you may be asked to provide proof of those vaccines. If you don’t have proof, or have decided you do not want to vaccinate your child, you may need to fill out opt-out forms or get your child re-vaccinated. Schools often have clinics and can point you to where to get any missing vaccines for free or at low cost.
If you are living in a shelter at the time you enroll, districts have different policies and will be able to enroll your children with fewer required documents.
How long will it take to enroll in public school?
Typically, enrollment can take just a couple of days. But in districts like Denver where the number of new students each week is growing, enrollment leaders say families should be prepared to wait longer. Currently, it may take a week to hear back from the district before you’ll be able to complete enrollment and registration.
Sary Portillo, manager of multilingual family engagement in Denver schools, is one of the specialists who visit migrant shelters to help families enroll children in schools. She goes out once a week, but now that there are more shelters, her team is only able to visit each shelter every two weeks.
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Once you’ve filled out the enrollment forms, district administrators will let you know if there is space at the school you requested or will work with you to place your children at a school with space. If your child needs Spanish language support, they will try to enroll your child in a school that meets that need.
What is school choice?
Because of a Colorado law, you can choose schools outside of your neighborhood or district. Schools will usually give priority to the kids who live nearby, but if they have space, they will accept families from elsewhere who want to attend that school.
While this allows families to find a school with the programming that is the best fit for their children, you should know that using school choice could make your children ineligible to ride the school bus, so you would need to take them to school or arrange transportation. Some rules for transportation are different for students living in shelters.
In some parts of Denver, school choice is always part of the process, because no school has a neighborhood boundary. That means students are not automatically assigned to schools based on their address. In the far northeast, for example, all families must choose one of the many area schools.
Will public schools help my child learn English?
There are federal requirements for how schools must support students and families who don’t speak English. While not all schools are prepared to do this well, the federal government requires that schools help students learn English and that students will be able to access their learning. There are different variations of what this might look like. In Denver, some schools are set up specifically to provide this type of support and have staff that teach in both Spanish and English.
You can always ask how the school you want to enroll in will support your child.
What is a newcomer center?
Many districts have schools that are designated as newcomer centers. Denver and some other districts have added new centers to accommodate the growing number of immigrant and refugee students. These schools provide more support to newcomers — students who have been in the country less than a year or two. In Denver, some students admitted to newcomer centers have also had interrupted schooling and have limited literacy skills in their primary language.
The newcomer center schools may have more staff that are bilingual, more accelerated support for high school students who need to get caught up to meet Colorado graduation requirements, and have social workers who understand other needs newcomer families might be facing. Students may also feel more comfortable attending school with other students who are also new to the country.
You can ask your district if enrolling in a newcomer center is an option for your children.
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.