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.