Jeffco Public Schools is considering significant changes to make its schools more desirable and accessible, including adopting a centralized school choice system, launching new specialized programs in district-run schools and improving student transportation options.

Officials in Colorado’s second largest school district are seeking answers as enrollment declines at some schools, threatening their long-term sustainability.

A district-run centralized school enrollment system, similar to one in neighboring Denver, is still at least a year away. Right now, families in Jeffco who are interested in enrolling in schools that aren’t their boundary schools must contact each school individually to seek a seat.

District officials are moving more quickly on other fronts. At a meeting this month, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass suggested the district create a new district-run option school for the arts. He also presented plans to revamp an existing program at a school that has declining enrollment and has already faced threats of closure.

Glass wants the district to provide more choices among district-run schools as a way of retaining more students and attracting new ones.

“Choice and competition are here to stay,” Glass said. “All school organizations have to find ways to provide what families and students are desiring. That’s just the reality of our policy landscape now.”

School board members, all of whom were elected with teachers union support, have said they would like district-run schools to provide offerings charter schools specialize in. But now, with the possibility of new district-run schools aiming to do just that, the board seemed nervous about the idea of market forces hurting existing district schools.

“I think we do want to do it if the need is real,” said board president Ron Mitchell. “Would I like to get some students back in Jeffco? Yes, but I wouldn’t call that an urgent need. I think we have to keep our eyes open and find out, ‘Did we somehow fail to meet the needs of our students or families?’”

Mitchell said he wants to have more discussions about the issue and gather community feedback.

When district leaders asked the board for thoughts on the arts school plans at the meeting this month, board members questioned and criticized the idea but didn’t kill it.

Since 2014-15, a growing number of Jeffco students are attending schools outside the district, according the Colorado Department of Education. In 2016-17, 3,916 Jeffco students attended schools elsewhere.

More students are coming into Jeffco schools from other districts than those who are leaving to attend school elsewhere, however. That number spiked in 2014-15 with 6,795 students, declined the next year and was at 6,470 in 2016-17.

Jeffco officials cited 186 Jeffco students leaving the district to attend schools that specialize in arts, including 90 going to the Denver School of the Arts.

Board member Brad Rupert, who said he graduated from Denver Public Schools, said he wanted assurances that Jeffco isn’t following that district’s lead. The Denver district has created a “portfolio model” of independently-run charter schools and traditional district-run neighborhood schools as well as innovation schools, which have quasi-autonomy, and magnet school programs. Several schools invest in marketing to compete for students and avoid drops in enrollment, which lead to decreased funding.

“I want to make sure that we aren’t going down the road of DPS,” Rupert said at the meeting.

Glass said there would be no reason existing arts programs in Jeffco would suffer. He said the district estimates that, on average, each existing school would only lose one or two students to the new arts academy.

Jeffco officials said they expect it would cost about $500,000 to restore the vacant building that used to house Sobesky Academy on 20th Avenue and Hoyt Street in Lakewood to open the arts school.

District officials also want the board to consider creating an innovation fund to give grants to schools that want to do something new. Glass said that if the fund is created, the arts school could potentially get a startup grant from that fund. But in the long run, Glass said the school would need to operate on the same amount of per-student dollars other Jeffco schools get, and would not be entitled to extra.

Board members also expressed concern about equality. Many board members wondered if new school options, such as the possible arts academy, would only be accessible to some students such as those with transportation and savvy parents.

School board members said if the school opened, they would like the district to be able to use it as a resource to provide something of value to all district schools so that it can be a resource for them.

Glass said that since admission to the art school would be based on student talent, “talent is equal opportunity.” He added that the district would take steps to ensure talent isn’t confused with skills that some students could pay to develop.

Researcher Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said research has found school choice often perpetuates inequalities because not everyone has the means or transportation to fully take advantage of it.

But because school choice has existed in Colorado for years, districts need to acknowledge that some parents will exercise choice, he said.

“School boards might say we want to respond to demonstrated parental interest but we don’t want to go overboard and create a great deal of churn and uncertainty, with churn meaning schools closing and reopening,” Welner said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right balance for that given community, but you can’t ignore that competitive environment.”

After the board feedback, Glass said Jeffco leadership is looking at updating a 2014 survey that asked parents what kind of programs they would like to see in Jeffco, and will also spend time looking at how to support existing programs so they can continue to attract students.

“I’m in support of an arts academy that is careful to open well in the right timeline and work to be a value-add to arts programming, not a competing drain on resources and other programs,” board member Amanda Stevens said at the meeting.

Jeffco officials had floated the idea of asking the board to vote on the arts school in January — for a possible opening next fall — but Glass said that timeline is likely to change.

Glass said Jeffco also is reexamining the district’s transportation options to see if the district can expand services to more schools or students who aren’t attending their neighborhood schools.

In other school districts, transportation is a barrier to having all students access school options.

Another common barrier to choice is in the process families face selecting schools. Jeffco officials started the work of improving the website of the district and of each school more than a year ago, with the goal of eventually creating a centralized school choice system.

Officials said they want to have a searchable site where families can enter a program-type they are interested in to find all the Jeffco schools where it is available. Diana Wilson, the district’s communications chief, said officials would like to include charter schools, but said each charter would likely have to opt in to the system.

The project has been delayed by not having enough money and time to create a request for proposals for someone to help develop the system. Right now, Wilson said the district is considering a grant to fund the startup costs for the system. The board would also have to approve the costs and the system.

Glass said the goal would be to have the common school choice system in place January 2019 for the 2019-20 school choice process.

The Denver and New Orleans school districts launched the nation’s first common enrollment systems in 2012, allowing for families to choose from among district-run and charter schools. School districts in Newark, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere have followed suit.

In another, more direct step to help a school that is losing funding as enrollment has declined, Glass presented to the school board is a new program model for an existing school, Pennington Elementary. The school would become an expeditionary learning school — a model that focuses on projects to give students realistic learning scenarios.

The school would continue to be a neighborhood school with an attendance boundary. Glass called it a “neighborhood-Plus” model, meant to help attract more families to the school.

Pennington was one of five schools that faced possible closure last spring, but the school board voted to close just one school. Pennington has a high population of low-income students, hosts a center program for students with autism and has had declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to do something different there to stabilize the enrollment,” Glass said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be expeditionary learning, but the school seems excited about it.”

Students in the boundary not interested in the model would have to choice out to go to another school, but Glass points out that the model fits with the district’s vision to make learning everywhere in Jeffco more hands-on.

The board applauded the proposal and asked few questions. Mitchell said the arts school, or future school options, may also be created as programs to operate in existing schools, like the expeditionary learning model possibly going into Pennington.

“We have to embrace choice and competition and find ways that all of our schools can succeed,” Glass said. “There’s no reason that all of our schools can’t be great.”

Correction: A sentence in this story has been edited to make clear that putting an expeditionary learning program into Pennington is at this point a proposal.