reserved seating

Denver’s new plan gives its neediest students a shot at coveted schools, but waitlists could grow

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/
McAuliffe International School.

Denver has a new plan to ensure some of its neediest students get spots in its best schools – but it will require a potentially controversial tradeoff.

The district has increased tenfold the number of seats it holds open for students who move over the summer, which will bump other students onto waitlists at some of the most popular schools.

Denver Public Schools claims its approach is the most ambitious in the country for combating the problem of late-arriving students – who are more likely to be living in poverty and struggling academically – getting stuck in the lowest-performing schools. The highest-performing schools tend to fill up first when families choose schools for the following year.

“This is a real big step forward in enrollment equity,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

This new effort is just one of the ways Colorado’s largest district is trying to increase socioeconomic integration in its schools. About 67 percent of Denver’s 92,600 students come from low-income families, but they are not evenly represented in all 200 district schools. What’s more common is that schools either serve a mostly affluent student body or a mostly poor one.

The move to reserve 2,500 seats across all schools for late-arriving students is bigger than another recent effort that has affluent schools give preference to students from low-income families who want to enroll but don’t live in the boundary.

About 10,000 Denver students change schools between the end of the school year and the beginning of the next, according to district data. That’s more than 10 percent of the entire student population. Sometimes, students move to Denver from another city or state. More often, their families are forced to relocate from one neighborhood to another because of circumstances such as eviction or rising rent, a common occurrence in the gentrifying city.

In the past, the district reserved 250 seats for late-arriving students. The seats aren’t for students who move and enroll at their nearby school, which is required to take them.

Rather, seats are saved for new arrivals who don’t want to go to the school down the block because it has low test scores, or because they want to attend a school with a special focus, or for some other reason. The district encourages families to choose the school that’s best for their child, and its common enrollment system allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver.

Families start choosing schools in February for the following fall. If the district doesn’t reserve seats at popular and high-performing schools, there’s a good chance those schools will fill up – and students who arrive in the spring or summer would be shut out.

The reserved seats are also for students living in “enrollment zones,” which are geographic groupings of schools. The district created enrollment zones in part to increase integration by mixing students from different neighborhoods together. Students who live in zones rank their top school choices within the zone and are guaranteed a spot at one of them.

But not all schools in every zone are equal academically. If three schools in a zone are high-performing and two are low-performing, the high-performing schools are likely to fill up first. District officials want to make sure students who moved into a zone over the summer aren’t funneled into the low-performing schools simply because they have room.

The reservation system has worked, but when district analysts began digging into the data, they discovered 250 seats weren’t nearly enough, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, which oversees school choice.

District officials had heard anecdotally that a huge number of students arrived over the summer each year. But the data allowed them to quantify that number, Eschbacher said. Analysts also discovered the students were more likely to have high needs.

For example, 70 percent of students who choose schools in February come from low-income families, a percentage that closely mirrors the district as a whole. But among students who wait until the beginning of August to enroll in a school, 79 percent come from low-income families. The percentage goes up the later students enroll: A whopping 90 percent of students who show up in September or afterward come from low-income families.

Students living in poverty are more likely to be behind academically. That’s true of the late-arriving students, too. Whereas 37 percent of students who enrolled in February met expectations on state literacy tests, only 13 percent of students who enrolled in September did.

District officials believe that one of the best ways to accelerate those students is to ensure they have access to high-performing schools where, for instance, they’re more likely to make two years’ worth of reading progress in a single year. Officials also want to prevent lower-performing schools from getting more than their fair share of late-arriving students.

“That caused equity concerns, as well, around a limited number of schools having that greater responsibility to serve a higher number of our highest-needs students,” Boasberg said.

So this year, the district is drastically increasing the number of seats it reserves for late arrivals. It’s also spreading those seats among schools in what officials consider a more equitable way. Instead of each school reserving 5 percent of its available seats, schools will reserve a number of seats based on how many students have historically moved into that neighborhood or zone.

Also new this year: Schools will reserve seats proportional to their size. For instance, the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone in northeast Denver contains five schools with a total of 2,700 seats. But nearly half of those seats are at one school: high-performing McAuliffe International, which is the district’s most popular middle school. So, hypothetically, if historical data shows 30 students move into that zone over the summer, McAuliffe will reserve 15 seats for them. The other 15 seats will be spread out proportionally among the other four schools.

Of course, reserving 15 seats at McAuliffe for late arrivals would mean 15 students who requested to attend the school back in February may not get in. Boasberg acknowledged that the new system is a balancing act between honoring the requests of families who participate in school choice in February and not penalizing the children of families who don’t.

It’s also a sacrifice for popular schools because it means they won’t know who all their students are before the start of the year, a delay that makes it more difficult for educators to plan.

“What you saw here,” Boasberg said, “was all the schools saying, ‘We recognize this is going to take sacrifice and harder work, but that’s the right thing to do.’”

Charter schools are participating in this new seat-reservation system, too. Charters are publicly funded but independently run, and Denver has a lot of them. The district is known nationwide for collaborating with charter schools, including on student enrollment.

Heather Lamm, the communications director for Denver’s largest charter network, DSST, which will have 14 schools this fall, said the network was willing to reserve additional seats because the idea of better serving high-needs students fits with its mission.

But she said the new system needs to be part of a larger conversation about district enrollment practices. District officials say they’re committed to increasing socioeconomic integration. Reserving seats for late-arriving students, most of whom are poor, is a step in that direction.

The district also believes strongly in school choice, which can perpetuate segregation in some instances. Lamm said she believes district officials need to convene a serious discussion about whether integration efforts trump school choice, or vice versa.

“Our agreement was to absolutely do this, with the understanding that this needs to be much better thought-out,” Lamm said of reserving additional seats. “If we want to be a school district that has high-quality options for every kid, then we still have a lot of work to do.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.