pick a school

As Denver’s school choice process opens, which schools are the most – and least – popular?

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Denver's Manual High School.

Today is the first day Denver students and families can submit their school choices for next year.

Under Denver Public Schools’ unified enrollment system, families fill out a form listing their top five school choices for 2017-18. The district especially encourages families with kids entering so-called transition grades next year — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

The forms are due by 4 p.m. on Jan. 31. The district will inform students and families in mid-March of their school placement for 2017-18. Whether a student gets into a school depends on that school’s admissions priorities and available space, according to DPS.

If students don’t fill out a form, they will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone. DPS now has 11 enrollment zones all across the city: two for elementary schools, seven for middle schools and two for high schools. Students who live in a zone are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in their zone, though it may not be their first choice.

This is the sixth year DPS has used a unified enrollment system for its charter, innovation, magnet and traditional district-run schools. In school choice lingo, students who choose to attend a school other than their boundary school are considered to have “choiced out” of their boundary school and “choiced in” to another school.

We combed through district data from last year’s school choice process and pulled out several interesting pieces of information, including which schools students most want to choice out of, which schools they most want to choice into and how many get their first-choice schools.

Top 10 Schools with the Highest Choice-Out Rate in 2016
Manual High School — 88 percent
Marrama Elementary School — 87 percent
Morey Middle School — 83 percent
West Campus High School Enrollment Zone — 79 percent
Abraham Lincoln High School — 72 percent
George Washington High School — 70 percent
Northfield High School — 70 percent
North High School — 69 percent
Gilpin Montessori School — 64 percent
Stedman Elementary School — 64 percent

Where are those kids going? Let’s take Manual as an example. District data shows the schools students living in the Manual High School boundary choiced into in 2015.

Top 10 Schools Students in the Manual High Boundary Choiced Into in 2015
Bruce Randolph School — 310 students
East High School — 159 students
DSST: Cole High School — 116 students
Denver Center for 21st Century Learning at Wyman — 51 students
North High School — 42 students
South High School — 37 students
Venture Prep High School — 36 students
STRIVE Prep – Excel — 35 students
Emily Griffith High School — 35 students
DSST: Stapleton High School — 24 students

On the flip side, some schools have very low choice-out rates, which can mean most seats are filled by students who live in the boundary — and few are available for choice students.

Top 10 Schools with the Lowest Choice-Out Rate in 2016
Slavens K-8 School — 3 percent
DCIS at Fairmont — 10 percent
Grant Ranch ECE-8 School — 10 percent
Carson Elementary School — 11 percent
Stapleton-Area Elementary Schools Enrollment Zone — 12 percent
Steck Elementary School — 15 percent
Bromwell Elementary School — 16 percent
Greater Park Hill/Stapleton Middle Schools Enrollment Zone — 17 percent
University Park Elementary School — 18 percent
Southmoor Elementary School — 22 percent

Which schools are most popular? District data from 2016 shows the top 10 schools requested at the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, 6th grade and 9th grade.

Top 10 Schools Listed as Incoming Kindergarten Students’ First Choice in 2016
Swigert International School — 188 students listed it as their #1 choice
Escalante-Biggs Academy — 130 students
William “Bill” Roberts K-8 School — 125 students
Odyssey School of Denver — 105 students
Highline Academy Northeast — 105 students
High Tech Elementary School — 102 students
Park Hill Elementary School — 99 students
Brown International Academy — 99 students
Slavens K-8 School — 86 students
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill — 85 students

Top 10 Schools Listed as Incoming 6th Grade Students’ First Choice in 2016
McAuliffe International School — 411 students listed it as their #1 choice
DSST: Green Valley Ranch — 351 students
Denver School of the Arts — 328 students
Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy — 267 students
DSST: College View — 253 students
DSST: Byers — 199 students
Skinner Middle School — 198 students
STRIVE Prep – Westwood — 197 students
DSST: Stapleton — 191 students
Denver Center for International Studies — 157 students

Top 10 Schools Listed as Incoming 9th Grade Students’ First Choice in 2016
East High School — 669 students listed it as their #1 choice
South High School — 295 students
Northfield High School — 207 students
CEC Early College — 202 students
George Washington High School — 174 students
Denver School of the Arts — 165 students
Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy — 162 students
DSST: Green Valley Ranch — 155 students
STRIVE Prep – SMART — 155 students
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College — 154 students

So how many students get into their first-choice school? District data from last year provides a percentage of students in each transition grade.

Percentage of Transition Grade Students Who Got their First-Choice School in 2016
Kindergarten — 86 percent
6th Grade — 80 percent
9th Grade — 87 percent

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.