The clock is ticking toward the deadline for Denver Public Schools parents to turn in their forms as part of the district’s new SchoolChoice initiative, but many families have yet to be heard from.
The deadline to complete choice forms for families with students entering transition years – starting ECE or kindergarten, or moving into sixth or ninth grade – is 5 p.m. Tuesday.
According to DPS, there are about 13,000 students in those transition years. As of late Thursday, about 9,300 forms had been turned in – but many of those didn’t come from the targeted transition-year students.
Information from 4,158 of the forms that have been entered into the district’s database shows that only 2,203 of those forms came from students in the targeted transition years.
Still, Shannon Fitzgerald, director of choice and enrollment services, is encouraged at the level of participation that she has seen so far.
“They’re looking better than we anticipated,” she said. “This is actually more received, earlier, than I would have anticipated.
“We’re hopeful that the vast majority of transitioning students submit a form,” she added. “Because we have no benchmark, I would hesitate to give you an exact figure, but I would say we’ll be pleased if we receive 80 percent of the forms.”
The SchoolChoice program, launched this year with an assist from a broad coalition of community organizations led by Get Smart Schools, is aimed at creating a school enrollment program that creates equity and eliminates confusion from the selection process.
“In the Far Northeast, we have already received forms from 75 percent of all transitioning kids,” said Fitzgerald. “We feel like we’re tracking very well. Last year, we received forms from 92 percent (in the FNE) at the end of the whole process. We’re tracking very well to that 92 percent (again), if not more.”
Feedback from DPS community is mixed; concern about outreach
Green Valley Ranch parent MiDian Holmes, with two sons and a daughter in DPS schools, believes the selection process as designed will be more effective in eliminating opportunities for some parents to “game” the enrollment process to the detriment of those who are less sophisticated or hampered by language issues.
However, Holmes is among those criticizing the job DPS has done explaining it to the public.
“I believe the communications process has been a lot more reactive than I would have hoped for,” said Holmes. “If you are not keyed in and don’t have your finger on the pulse, they are not fully aware of what is taking place and what SchoolChoice really means.
“There are parents in my community that have no idea about this new process, and they haven’t received anything in the mail.”
DPS board member Andrea Merida, a frequent critic of district initiatives, gave low marks for the job that has been done in southwest Denver, the district she represents.
Merida called the district’s community outreach inadequate “especially for Spanish-speaking parents. They express a lot more confusion; they don’t understand the necessity of doing this.
“They talk about the heavy sales pitch they get to move their kids” out of neighborhood schools,” she said. “The communication has not been clear … specifically that you don’t actually need to do anything; you’re fine. They are all under the impression that they have to choose something.”
Others have complained the enrollment forms being used this year cannot be completed online; that will change, next year.
District defend publicity campaign, details communications plan
But the district, and support groups such as Stand For Children Colorado, which has sponsored two dozen workshops in English and Spanish, defends the communications support for SchoolChoice in its inaugural year.
The success of informational workshops for those parents who took advantage of them was applauded by Kepner Middle School parent liaison Lourdes Valenzuela, who disputed Merida’s claims of widespread confusion.
“No, no, no,” Valenzuela said. “We haven’t heard of anything wrong.”
District spokesman Mike Vaughn also batted down the notion that the community hasn’t been told enough about the program.
“We’ve been working over the past several months with key community partners on a very aggressive and extensive multilingual outreach campaign to support SchoolChoice,” said Vaughn.
“That included more than 4,000 parents at our citywide expo in the fall and – for the first time ever – school expos in every region of the city in December.”
The publicity campaign, Vaughn said, also included call lines featured on 9News and Univision, plus “dozens” of informational sessions hosted by DPS and community coalition members.
Two newsletters from Superintendent Tom Boasberg to 20,000 recipients, discussion on Spanish-language radio, and 52,000 informational guides in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic have helped spread the word.
Also, Fitzgerald said, “We sent home with each and every transitioning kid a very complete packet of information, and enrollment guide, instruction and forms.
“We tried our best this year to make the outreach as comprehensive as possible,” she added. “Certainly there will be more we think of, that we want to do for next year.”
SchoolChoice goal: equity in enrollment process for parents
In presenting the SchoolChoice enrollment plan to the DPS community, district officials have stressed its simplicity.
In the past, the increasing diversity of traditional schools, magnet programs and charters within DPS had spawned more than 60 different choice forms circulating in the district.
That has now been replaced by a system which, as the district promotes it, features “one application, one timeline and one (school) assignment.” It replaces one in which students might receive acceptances from three different schools, effectively tying up a seat at two of those three schools long enough to exclude other students from a coveted spot.
“I think having a single application is extremely beneficial,” said Sonja Semion, spokeswoman for Stand for Children Colorado. “The problem before is that there were so many application processes. I’d heard from so many parents that it was overwhelming, even for educated parents. And I can’t imagine if English was not your first language.”
Parents now are asked to rank their top five school choices and will be assigned, by lottery, to their top available choice. All students are guaranteed a seat at their neighborhood school. But if they rank another school as a higher preference, and are awarded a seat at that school, they forfeit their spot at the neighborhood school.
Currently, Fitzgerald said, about 52 percent of DPS students opt out of their neighborhood school.
The single form now utilized for every school in the district is actually four pages long, although much of it is informational in nature or consists of the listing of schools, with bubbles to be filled in indicating first-through-fifth preference.
“I just can’t think of it being any more simple”
Sheryl Ziegler, a Mayfair neighborhood parent, has visited nine different schools in her effort to choose an ECE program for her 4-year-old daughter. Ziegler, who is a child psychologist, lauded the new process.
“It’s simple. Very simple,” said Ziegler, who also appreciated that parents can list as many as five preferences. ”I found that at nearly every school I visited, nearly every school had a packet, they reminded you of the deadline, and when it gets to filling it out, I just can’t think of it being any more simple.”
Ziegler is representative of a parent who is enthusiastically involved and fully capable of making a close study of the school selection process. A 2010 assessment of the previous enrollment process, conducted by the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, found that it was skewed in favor of such parents.
The assessment found a high incidence of students being hand-selected at the school level and numerous out-of-boundary students landing at boundary schools in ways that could not be explained. It concluded the system encouraged families to strategize, misrepresenting their true choices in order to manipulate the selection process.
Fitzgerald feels the “virtual lottery” created by the algorithm designed for processing parents’ preferences means those days of inequity are done.
“I feel like we’ve eliminated the advantage that the super-savvy parents get,” said Fitzgerald. “All you have to put on the form is what you really want for your kid. There is no strategy that you can really employ … All parents needs to do is tell us is what they really want.”