Proximity beats ratings in DPS school choice

Proximity to schools matters more than the school district’s rating system when families choose schools in Denver.

Image from the school choice page on the DPS website

That’s among the findings of two recently released reports, conclusions that could spark debate about some of the assumptions education reformers have about school choice.

“Almost every family we talked to – even though they are getting through SchoolChoice, they were not accessing any of these beautiful tools that have been created,” said Mike Kromrey, executive director of Together Colorado, which conducted a small study focused on low-income Latino families in Denver. “A lot of money has been poured into creating some pretty nice tools, but what we have learned is that we  have a lot of work to do.”

The report SchoolChoice: How Parents Chose Schools in 2012 examined the new one-stop open enrollment application rolled out in Denver Public Schools and used for the first time last year.

The online application allows families to rank their top five school choices and then matches them with a compatible school based on capacity, availability, neighborhood preference and other factors.

Last year, the application included three optional questions about the most important factor in choosing a school, useful choice resources and additional information that would have helped.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Piton Foundation partnered with the University of Colorado Denver’s Buechner Institute of Governance to analyze responses to those questions. Of the 23,154 forms completed, about half included an answer to at least one of the three questions. Here are the findings:

  • Fewer than a quarter of the respondents listed Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF), which documents student academic growth and school status, as an important factor in a choice decision.
  • Nearly half of respondents said the most important reason for selecting a school was location close to home, work or family.
  • Just under a third of parents indicated that a special program or a school’s focus was an important reason.
  • Parents of Hispanic students were almost twice as likely (59 percent) to cite location as an important factor as parents of white students (32 percent).
  • Parents of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches were twice as likely to endorse school ratings as an important reason in selecting their school, compared to parents whose students do not qualify.
  • When asked which resource provided parents the most useful information, about one third of all respondents cited teachers or administrators at the school. The other most popular resources listed were information from other parents (30 percent) and the SchoolChoice enrollment guide (28 percent).
  • Parents of black and Hispanic students were most likely to respond that the SchoolChoice enrollment guide was their top resource (35 percent and 37 percent, respectively), while parents of white students were most likely to respond that other parents were the best resource (35 percent).

“A lot of families – especially families living in poverty – are still choosing schools more based on location than the School Performance Framework,” said Rebecca Kisner, a Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow and community engagement coordinator at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep.

Chart from Buechner Institute of Governance report. (Click to enlarge)

Kisner said when she and her team presented the results to local school reform groups “people felt like the number of families choosing (schools) based on the SPF was better than it has been but still certainly not as high as we’d like it to be.”

Interestingly, when families were asked what resource they would have wanted but didn’t have, they said information about academic performance. So, there seems to be a disconnect between parents and the SPF, with parents not understanding that the framework reflects academic performance, Kisner said.

The bottom line to Kisner?

“To find a really quality neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood is rare. There needs to be more quality choices in all parts of the city.”

Detailed interviews with Latino families yield similar results

Meanwhile, Together Colorado, The Piton Foundation and Stand for Children Colorado recently released their own report on school choice in Denver and documented similar findings.

Their study, called Fulfilling the promise of choice: Challenges and opportunities in school choice decisions made by Latino families, found families struggling to make sense of the performance framework.

The organizations hired a researcher who spent hours observing and interviewing Latino families as they went through the choice process and conducted six 10-person focus groups.

One of the biggest findings was something the reform groups already knew: Education is highly valued by new immigrants, Together Colorado’s Kromrey said.

“In many cases families come to this country for education,” he added.

The performance framework came up in both studies as something average people struggle to both access and comprehend.

The ratings are based on points awarded for student academic growth, status, post-secondary readiness, student engagement, school demand and parent engagement. Each category is weighted differently, with student growth carrying about two-thirds of the weight, followed by status (whether or not students are performing at grade level). The remaining categories carry less weight.

Schools end up with color-coded rankings that affect a school’s operations and its future. A school consistently labeled “red” can be shut down.

The ratings are:

  • “Distinguished” or blue, which means a school has earned 80 to 100 percent of points possible
  • “Meets expectations” or green, meaning that a school has earned 51 to 79 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on watch” or yellow, indicating a school has earned 40 to 50 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on priority watch” or orange, meaning a school has earned 34 to 39 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on probation” or red. This means a school has earned only 33 percent or less of points possible

The report offered several recommendations on how to help Latino parents better use all relevant information for selecting schools. These suggestions include providing:

  • Comprehensive outreach through community members about school choice and factors to consider.
  • More detailed information on transportation, extracurricular activities and school performance information beyond what was presented in the choice materials last year. In particular, the information presented must meet one of Latino parents’ primary concerns – geographic proximity to home.
  • Information about school academic performance that is more accessible and presented more clearly to parents.
  • Clearer language in choice materials.
  • Informative websites that are simple and streamlined, with an easy-to-find Spanish language option, featuring data that is searchable using geographic criteria, rather than simply comparing schools against each other.

The organizations involved in the research commended DPS for making several key changes since the research was done. Relatively recent tweaks to the SchoolChoice system include creation of a new electronic SchoolMatch tool, improving the enrollment guide, use of school choice liaisons and expanding school choice expos.

But Kromrey pointed out that more needs to be done to help families access and understand the rating data.

“They did care about being close to their families. They did want to be involved with children. They wanted to see how the schools around them were doing,” Kromrey said. “They do want to understand how data works. They need some tools that simplify without being so simple that they’re not fair to the schools.”

Kromrey also noted that transportation remains a huge issue for many low-income families. Together Colorado worked on the Success Express shuttle plan in Northeast Denver and will continue to be involved in those issues, he said. He said families also wanted more information from schools, such as information about arts programs or special education.

“The whole reform community and DPS have work to do to change this,” Kromrey said. “We need to create some different tools. Many parents don’t have computer access. There are some computer literacy issues.”

Understanding How Parents Chose Schools: An Analysis of Denver’s SchoolChoice Form Questions

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”