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More Colorado charter schools are using weighted lotteries. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When a highly sought-after charter school in the western Colorado town of Carbondale held its annual enrollment lottery last spring, 52 students were vying for just 14 kindergarten slots.

Seven youngsters, all siblings of students already enrolled at Carbondale Community School, got first dibs. Next up was a group that had never before gotten priority in the school’s 20-year history — kids from homes where English isn’t the primary language.

It was part of an effort by school leaders to help ensure the student body better mirrors the community, where nearly half of students come from Spanish-speaking homes. It also highlights a practice that’s gaining traction among charter schools seeking more diversity: the use of lottery systems that give extra weight to students from underrepresented groups.

Such efforts, both in Colorado and other states, often prioritize students eligible for free or discounted school meals, a measure of poverty. Some target English language learners, students with disabilities, or migrant, refugee or homeless students.

While notable exceptions exist, Colorado charter schools as a whole educate fewer poor, homeless and special needs students than schools statewide. They educate about the same proportion of English language learners.

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Experts say weighted lotteries can be effective in creating more integrated schools, but must go hand-in-hand with other efforts such as a thoughtful school design, strong recruitment and transportation assistance.

“Having a weighted lottery that actually builds diversity into admissions … is a huge tool,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation and a board member of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition. “It’s not perfect and has to be coupled with those other strategies and refined over time.”

Who’s doing it?

No state agency or advocacy group tracks the number of Colorado charters that use weighted lotteries to expand access for underrepresented groups. Chalkbeat counted at least 20 that do so or have recently cited plans to do so, using information provided by officials from the Colorado Department of Education, the Charter School Institute and Denver Public Schools.

(In Denver Public Schools, 17 district-run schools, many in the city’s affluent neighborhoods, use weighted lotteries to prioritize low-income students.)

Charter schools that use weighted lotteries are sometimes part of networks, as is the case for six schools within the Denver School of Science and Technology, or DSST, family.

Other times, they are single schools with themes such as performing arts or Montessori education. In addition to Carbondale and Denver, these schools can be found in Aurora, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Archuleta and Durango.

Experts note that some charter schools, because of their location, mission or other factors, already serve many students from historically underserved groups and don’t need weighted lotteries to get there.

Still, officials at the Colorado Department of Education say the number of charter schools using weighted lotteries has increased in recent years. It’s partly because of a 2014 federal rule change that opened the way for charters that get federally-funded charter school grants to use weighted lotteries to expand access for educationally disadvantaged students.

Colorado incentivized the approach by awarding extra points to charter schools that included weighted lotteries in their grant applications. Eight of 23 charter grant recipients in the last two years said they would use weighted lotteries.

Nationally, the use of weighted lotteries to foster diversity is also gaining steam.

One factor, Potter said, is the growing national recognition that diverse school settings benefit kids and that charters have a role to play in school integration. She also said that some leaders are moving away from the concept of charter schools that serve almost exclusively at-risk students — in favor of a more integrated look.

State charter school laws still vary widely on using weighted lotteries for diversity purposes. A 2015 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Rhode Island — have laws that explicitly allow weighted lotteries and 19 have laws that could be interpreted to allow weighted lotteries. (North Carolina, which was in the latter category when the report was published, has since changed its laws to explicitly allow weighted lotteries.)

The report classifies Colorado’s charter school laws as “silent” on the issue of weighted lotteries, though it’s noted that a letter from the state attorney general has stated that they are allowed.

Reflecting the community

Leaders at Carbondale Community School say they’ve long believed in — and struggled with — creating a student body that represents a cross-section of the Roaring Fork School District where it’s located.

“I just think our schools are a reflection of our community,” said Tom Penzel, who served as principal of the charter school during the launch of the weighted lottery and recently took a job with the school district. “If this is what our community looks like, this is what our schools should look like.”

With just 15 percent of the school’s students coming from non-English-speaking homes last year — compared to 49 percent districtwide — there’s a long way to go. Still, the new weighted lottery made a dent.

All five children from Spanish-speaking homes who applied won kindergarten spots in last year’s lottery. There would have been room for one to two more based on the guidelines specified in the school’s new enrollment policy, but it was still an improvement over 2016-17 when there were just a couple kindergarteners from Spanish-speaking homes in the class, Penzel said.

Because the 135-student K-8 school is in such high demand, there are rarely openings in grades besides kindergarten — meaning it could take several years of weighted lotteries to see a difference schoolwide.

“It obviously makes cracking this nut of increased diversity all the more challenging,” said Michael Hayes, the executive director of the nonprofit that oversees Carbondale Community School and another charter school in Woody Creek.

Since word-of-mouth recommendations are the biggest factor in getting parents to apply for the lottery, Hayes hopes the school’s slowly growing Spanish-speaking population will help spread the word in that community.

Leaders of other charter schools with recently instituted weighted lotteries face other sorts of challenges.

The Denver Downtown Expeditionary School launched a weighted lottery prioritizing students eligible for free or reduced-price meals two years ago. But Letia Frandina, the school’s interim executive director, said it hasn’t made an impact yet. In fact, the percentage of students who get subsidized meals has actually dropped from about 29 percent in 2015-16 to 25 percent last year.

The school’s goal is for kids in that category to make up 40-50 percent of the student body. Districtwide, 68 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Frandina said one factor in last year’s dip may have been the school’s switch to a different lunch program and subsequent confusion about the free and reduced-price meal application form.

Some low-income families also have trouble securing transportation to the downtown school. Frandina said the school combined grant funds with fundraising dollars last year to buy light rail passes for some families and will continue the effort this year.

The school made another recent change that could help boost the numbers — working with Denver Public Schools officials to set aside six seats for low-income students who select the school during the district’s second round of school choice. While the weighted lottery provided access during the first round of choice in the winter, Frandina said some low-income families weren’t ready to make school decisions at that time.

“It’s so super early,” she said. “Some of our families are in transition.”

One piece of the puzzle

The well-regarded DSST network has weighted lotteries in place at six of 13 schools on three campuses — Stapleton, Conservatory Green and Byers.

All of those schools, which are located in higher-income neighborhoods than the other seven DSST schools, meet the network’s recently codified goal of serving 40-70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Spokeswoman Heather Lamm said DSST’s leaders always have prioritized having diverse schools.

“From the first day of the very first campus our goal was 100 percent we need to be an integrated campus … We believe that is the best academic environment and best community environment that we can get,” she said.

Most crucial in achieving that is communicating with prospective families, not weighted lotteries, she said.

Still, in a segregated city like Denver, some schools are in or near affluent neighborhoods where middle or upper-income students predominate.

“In those cases the weighted lottery can be very important,” Lamm said.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”