What the heck do orange and yellow school ratings mean? Why do waitlist numbers go down then up without explanation? Is there favoritism in Denver’s school choice system?

These are a few of the themes that surfaced during Chalkbeat’s listening event on school choice last Wednesday. Over sub sandwiches in a preschool gymnasium, reporters and editors talked with parents  about their perceptions, questions, and concerns about the choice system in Denver. It was also an opportunity for families to get some answers directly from district school choice staff, who also attended the event.

The 1½-hourlong conversation highlighted the fact that many parents want a peek behind the school choice curtain — both to better understand how they should tackle the process and get some reassurance that the system doesn’t allow certain schools or school leaders to play favorites.

Of course, there was too much to cover in a single evening — and that was the point. In the coming months, we’ll dig into some of the bigger and more complex issues raised during the discussion. And if you’d like to chime in with your own burning questions or nagging frustrations about school choice, feel free to drop us a line at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Read on for key takeaways from last week’s event. We’ll use these to inform our reporting and produce stories that we hope are helpful to parents in navigating school choice.

Parents want to know if the school choice system is fair.

No one asked this question explicitly. However, we heard enough to know it’s at the heart of many parental concerns. One mother said she’d heard that some charter schools in the district use the same online school choice form as the district, and some require separate applications. (Charters use the same timeline and choice form as other district schools.)

Another parent asked if principals were allowed to select specific students to enroll in their schools. (Principals set some general priorities, but do not pick individual students.)

One Denver mom talked about how her son’s waitlist number for his first choice school was 14, then three, then eight, leaving the family confused and nervous about where he would land. Finally, on the second day of classes, she drove to the school to see if he’d won a seat. (He had and she enrolled him on the spot.)

School climate and culture matter to parents, but are hard to measure.

Several parents said while school culture matters a lot in choosing the right school for their children, it’s hard to quantify using online data and school reviews. Sometimes even in-person tours don’t help much.

One mother said she appreciates school websites that include photos of every teacher, and a bio, including personal details like hobbies. Another said she routinely asks teachers during school visits what they like about teaching at their schools. Another mother revealed that she received a frank assessment of a school she was considering by asking the principal to connect her with a parent of a child currently attending the school. It was a tip that surprised multiple parents, who said they didn’t realize that was an option.

The district’s school rating system is confusing. Are poor ratings a red flag, a sign that extra help is coming, or just plain wrong?

Some parents voiced a commonly heard frustration about the district’s school rating system. That is, lower ratings, such as yellow or orange — the third- and fourth-lowest — can scare parents away from schools with plenty of great attributes. A father of older students talked about regretting his initial decision to skip his neighborhood school because it was a middling “yellow” on the district’s color-coded rating system. Later when his kids enrolled there, he was pleasantly surprised by how engaged the school community was. Plus, the rating eventually improved to green.

One parent wondered how she should look at a school with a low rating, say, orange. Does that mean it’s a low-performing school she should avoid or a school that would soon be up-and-coming because the district would devote extra resources to help it improve?

So. Much. Terminology.

What’s a community school? What’s expeditionary learning? What’s an enrollment zone? What’s an innovation school? These were just a few of the questions we heard that illustrate how hard it is for parents to flesh out the many dimensions of school choice in Denver. It’s especially tricky because while the answers are usually available somewhere — on individual school websites, on the district’s website, or in a Chalkbeat story — there’s often no one-stop shop.

The bottom line is there’s lots of jargon out there, and we’ll be working this year to cut through the edu-speak with clear explanations of what it means and why it matters.