Colorado

More students choicing out of district

A growing number of Colorado students are enrolling in schools outside their home districts, a trend fueled by the rise of statewide online and charter enrollment.

Nearly one in ten students this fall are attending a school either not located in, or not run by, the district in which they live, according to state figures released last week.

That includes thousands of students flocking to online schools based out of faraway districts and to nearby schools operated by the state Charter School Institute.

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This fall, 66,296 students are “choicing out” of their home district. That’s 8 percent of the state’s 843,316 pupils; in 2001, the comparable figure was 3 percent.

Colorado law allows parents to enroll their children in any public school with available seats so long as they can get them there. That’s led some to call the law unfair to poor families unable to provide transportation.

But increasingly, distance doesn’t matter as national online programs set up shop in rural communities such as Julesburg, at Colorado’s northeastern tip, and draw students from as far as Alamosa in the state’s southwest corner.

Julesburg exemplifies online growth

Julesburg had the highest enrollment growth of any Colorado district this fall, with a surge of 45 percent. The breakdown:  260 students attend classes on site in district buildings and 1,527 take classes through the online Insight School of Colorado, run by the same company that operates the online University of Phoenix.

Most of Insight’s online students live in Front Range districts. This fall, 150 are from Jefferson County, 120 live in Denver and 118 have Aurora addresses.

“It’s not the small-town, rural school districts that are losing all their kids to online schools,” Julesburg Superintendent Shawn Ehnes advised wary neighboring superintendents when Insight opened three years ago and began growing at a clip of 500 kids a year.

Fastest-growing districts

“That’s what I told them at the time – your fear of losing kids is, in my opinion, ridiculous – and that’s exactly how it turned out.”

In a state where student counts determine state funding, enrollment is far more than a popularity contest. Most of Julesburg’s state education funding this fall – or $10 million of the total $12 million – is following the online students.

After passing a percentage to Insight and covering expenses, the superintendent said the arrangement nets Julesburg about $500,000 annually for extras such as hiring a second music teacher. And Julesburg students can select from Insight’s array of elective offerings.

“When we decided to go online, it was with the realization that small rural communities are dying and slowly losing kids and jobs and people,” Ehnes said. “We wanted to begin the process of identifying alternative, outside-the-box ways of generating revenue and maintaining curriculum resources here.”

There is a cost. The state’s new rating system gives high marks to Julesburg’s on-site schools but a failing grade to the online program. So the district was placed on “priority improvement” status and must submit an improvement plan for state approval.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” Ehnes said of the on-site and online programs, noting most online students have been unsuccessful in traditional schools. “But we’ve kind of put that in perspective … truly without the curriculum options and the additional revenue, as a brick-and-mortar district, we’d be crippled.”

Increasing impact of Charter School Institute

Colorado’s total online enrollment grew 14 percent this year to 15,429 students, meaning they’re a small, if rapidly growing, fraction of students choicing out of district. In contrast, overall statewide enrollment grew 1.3 percent.

Statewide enrollment in online programs was up 14 percent this year.
Statewide enrollment in online programs increased 14 percent this year.

The majority of families choosing to leave their home districts are still physically traveling, typically to a nearby district as they seek a particular program or a more convenient or desirable location.  Nearly all Colorado districts lose some students, and welcome others, each year.

In some cases, the trade is fairly even – Denver lost 826 kids to Aurora this fall but pulled in another 1,020 students from Aurora for a net gain of 194. In other cases, it’s far more lopsided – Denver lost 2,536 students to Jefferson County and only attracted 1,114 Jeffco kids in return, for a net loss of 1,422.

By the numbers, the single biggest beneficiary of the open-enrollment law is the state Charter School Institute, which enrolls 7,981 students in the schools it supervises across Colorado. Students enrolled in CSI schools are categorized as leaving their home district, even if the charter is within its boundaries.

That’s because CSI charters are supervised by a statewide board, not the local district, and their state per-pupil funding flows first to CSI, rather than the local district, before being passed on to the school.

For some districts, the rapid growth of CSI enrollment – up 21 percent this year – combined with the lure of online programs and high-performing neighboring districts mean stiff competition for kids.

Consider Colorado Springs District 11, which serves that city’s urban core and which closed eight schools in 2009 after years of enrollment declines.

For years, the Springs district’s chief rival for students was Academy District 20, its affluent northern neighbor. And Glenn Gustafson, D-11’s chief finance officer, blames “suburban flight” for much of the district’s enrollment loss in the 1990s and the early 2000s as the student count dropped 10 percent.

But starting in 2005, state choice records show D-11 increasingly losing students to CSI, which now supervises six charters with Springs addresses, and to online programs. This fall, D-11, which enrolls 29,459 students, is experiencing a net loss – those entering the district vs. those exiting – of 3,548 pupils. It’s the district’s biggest net loss number since at least 2003.

Where are D-11 families going? State records show 1,377 students are enrolled at CSI, 1,306 pupils are in Academy District 20 and 606 students are attending six statewide online programs.

Gustafson doesn’t disparage school choice and he doesn’t see bolstering D-11’s own online program as a real solution.

“Online enrollment is a mask that covers the challenge,” he said. “The bigger challenge is, why are people leaving D-11? Why are they not satisfied with their neighborhood school?

“I think that’s the root question we have to ask ourselves. Sure, we could try to attract kids back through online enrollment. But that doesn’t solve the problem, kids are leaving the district.”

Winners, losers in district choice

Among sizable Colorado school districts, those with at least 5,000 students, D-11 is among the districts hardest hit by exiting families – its net loss of students is equal to 12 percent of its total enrollment.

Others include Adams 14 Commerce City, with a net loss equal to 16 percent of enrollment, and Adams 50 Westminster, with a net loss equal to 26 percent of enrollment. This fall, 2,734 students are exiting Westminster, with a total enrollment of just over 10,000, and only 90 are entering.

At the other end of the spectrum is Littleton, which gains three times as many students as it loses, and Adams 12 Five Star, home to the state’s largest online program, the 5,304-student Colorado Virtual Academy, known as COVA.

And then there’s Mapleton, the small Adams County district north of Denver, which reported the state’s second-highest growth rate this fall. Enrollment spiked 32 percent after the district added an online school, Connections Academy, and the New America School charter, which serves recent immigrants.

“We try to meet the very diverse needs of the kids in our community,” said Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. “These two schools serve a population of students that we haven’t previously been able to serve.”

The change quadrupled the number of students from other districts enrolling in Mapleton – from 394 last year to 1,648 in fall 2010. Instead of neighboring Adams 12 providing the most out-of-district students to Mapleton, it’s now Colorado Springs District 11.

Most of the new out-of-district students were already enrolled in Connections Academy, the online school which previously contracted with Denver Public Schools. Connections serves 1,372 students.

Ciancio pointed out both new schools were already operating with students last year via contracts with other districts. She also said her district values local control of schools and keeping Mapleton students in Mapleton schools.

“We also are advocates for, and believe in, choice for families,” she said. “We know that there are some families who choice out of Mapleton Public Schools to options we can’t provide, like a large comprehensive high school, and yet there are kids who choice into Mapleton because we offer small schools.

“So I think when you are a state that really promotes and values choice, you have to appreciate and value the choices that don’t necessarily match your schools.”

Students choicing into, and out of, the state’s largest districts

Jefferson County – Fall 2010 enrollment, 85,938

  • Total students choicing into Jeffco – 5,411
  • Total students choicing out – 3,424
  • Net gain or (loss) – 1,987
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 1,114; Littleton, 516; Adams 12 Five Star, 484
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 2,536; Adams 50 Westminster, 914; Adams 12 Five Star, 515

Denver Public Schools – Fall 2010 enrollment, 78,317

  • Total students choicing into DPS – 4,317
  • Total students choicing out – 7,732
  • Net gain or (loss) – (3,415)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Jefferson County, 2,536; Douglas County, 1,156; Aurora, 828
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Jefferson County, 1,114; Aurora, 1,020; Cherry Creek, 752

Douglas County – Fall 2010 enrollment, 61,465

  • Total students choicing into Douglas County – 3,407
  • Total students choicing out – 2,603
  • Net gain or (loss) – 804
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Littleton, 878; Cherry Creek, 387; Adams 12 Five Star, 289
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 1,156; Aurora, 575; Jefferson County, 335

Cherry Creek – Fall 2010 enrollment, 52,166

  • Total students choicing into Cherry Creek – 1,742
  • Total students choicing out – 2,160
  • Net gain or (loss) – (418)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 752; Aurora, 526; Douglas County, 256
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Aurora, 746; Douglas County, 387; Denver, 338

Adams 12 Five Star – Fall 2010 enrollment, 41,957

  • Total students choicing into Adams 12 – 6,412
  • Total students choicing out – 2,864
  • Net gain or (loss) – 3,548
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Charter School Institute, 1,157; Jefferson County, 515; Boulder Valley, 243
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Mapleton, 613; Brighton, 511; Jefferson County, 484

Aurora Public Schools – Fall 2010 enrollment, 38,605

  • Total students choicing into Aurora – 2,912
  • Total students choicing out – 3,218
  • Net gain or (loss) – (306)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 1,020; Cherry Creek, 746; Douglas County, 575
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 828; Cherry Creek, 526; Douglas County, 256

*Source – Colorado Department of Education spreadsheets, “Districts serving non-resident students” and “Students attending public schools not in parent’s district of residence.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.