Giving students from low-income families priority to enroll at Denver schools that serve mostly students from more affluent families seemed like a promising idea for increasing school integration. But in practice, the priority system has made only a modest difference — and district leaders are now exploring ways to expand the impact.

In four years, the priority has helped 706 students from low-income families get into 27 schools participating in a pilot program, according to data from Denver Public Schools.

There are several caveats to that number, though. More than half of the 706 students would have gotten into the 27 schools anyway because they had good lottery numbers, said Jim Carpenter, the district’s executive director of choice and planning. Denver has a universal school choice system that allows families to request to attend any school, district-run or charter. The one-month window for families to choose a school for next year opens on Jan. 15.

Another caveat is that while the priority made a significant difference at a few schools, its effect at most schools was minimal. At nine of the 27 schools, it made no difference at all.

Still, Carpenter doesn’t think it’s a failure. “It’s done what a pilot is supposed to do,” he said. “You launch a pilot to teach you how to go more and more to scale in more effective ways.”

That could look like experimenting with new ways to identify eligible students and doing more outreach to parents. But Carpenter said the district isn’t considering ordering all schools to offer enrollment priority to students from low-income families.

Denver Public Schools is a diverse urban school district with about 93,000 students. For more than 20 years, the district was under a U.S. Supreme Court order to desegregate its schools. The district instituted mandatory busing to ensure the percentage of white students and students of color at each school roughly reflected the district average.

Busing ended in the 1990s, and many schools have again become homogeneous. Although 65 percent of Denver students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a proxy for poverty, that proportion is as high as 95 percent at some schools and as low as 5 percent at others.

Part of the reason is that many Denver neighborhoods are segregated by race and income. Gentrification and school choice have also arguably played a role by allowing affluent families who move into working-class neighborhoods to avoid the local schools. Instead, those families can request to attend a school in a wealthier neighborhood.

In an effort to better integrate its schools, the district began a small pilot program in 2015 to give students from low-income families priority to enroll at more affluent schools, many of which perform well academically. Research shows integration boosts test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of students from wealthier ones.

Over the next four years, more schools joined the pilot program. All Denver schools use a lottery system to determine which students get in. But schools can set their own priorities. Many schools give first priority to students with a sibling who already attends the school, then to students who live within the school’s boundary, then to students who don’t, and so on.

The schools participating in the pilot agreed to give students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch higher priority in enrollment.

At elementary schools, the pilot program hasn’t made much difference. This year, for example, the priority didn’t help a single kindergarten student from a low-income family get into Swigert International School, a wildly popular school in the affluent Stapleton neighborhood.

The pilot program made the biggest difference at large schools, including East High School. In 2017, the priority helped 113 ninth-grade students from low-income families get in to East, which is the district’s most popular high school. It’s also the biggest with 2,600 students.

About 75 percent of those 113 ninth-graders wouldn’t have otherwise gotten into East because they had poor lottery numbers, according to district data. This school year, 117 ninth-graders got in under the priority, 83 percent of whom wouldn’t have been admitted otherwise.

There are several reasons why the pilot worked well at some schools and not at others. One has to do with school size. Elementary schools tend to be smaller than middle or high schools, and many schools prioritize students who live within the boundary first. Even if a school prioritized boundary students from low-income families ahead of those from wealthier ones, that isn’t going to help much if the school is in an affluent neighborhood with few low-income families.

In that scenario, chances are that the kindergarten seats would fill up with wealthier students who live in the boundary before a priority for students from low-income families from other neighborhoods would kick in, leaving those students without a shot at a seat.

District officials have also identified reasons why the pilot program as a whole hasn’t been more successful. Among them: The program relies on families to self-report whether or not their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and are therefore eligible for the priority.

District data show that many families incorrectly identify themselves when they fill out the school choice form. About half of families who say their children do not qualify for subsidized lunches actually do qualify, which means they’re missing out on the pilot program priority.

Carpenter and his team are looking into possible fixes. One idea would be to stop using subsidized lunch eligibility as the criteria. Instead, students would qualify for the priority based on where they live. The district would use census data to categorize each neighborhood based on factors such as median family income and whether parents graduated high school.

Students living in neighborhoods with lower economic status would get higher priority. Other urban school districts, including Chicago and Dallas, use similar systems.

Another hurdle is getting the word out that the priorities exist. Last year, the district made the pilot information public so low-income families could see where their children had priority. But Carpenter is thinking about ways to do more, including providing additional training to district enrollment specialists and school office staff about how the pilot program works.

District enrollment planners keep coming back to one key question, Carpenter said: “How do we reach out to hard-to-reach families?”