Proximity to schools matters more than the school district’s rating system when families choose schools in Denver.

Image from the school choice page on the DPS website

That’s among the findings of two recently released reports, conclusions that could spark debate about some of the assumptions education reformers have about school choice.

“Almost every family we talked to – even though they are getting through SchoolChoice, they were not accessing any of these beautiful tools that have been created,” said Mike Kromrey, executive director of Together Colorado, which conducted a small study focused on low-income Latino families in Denver. “A lot of money has been poured into creating some pretty nice tools, but what we have learned is that we  have a lot of work to do.”

The report SchoolChoice: How Parents Chose Schools in 2012 examined the new one-stop open enrollment application rolled out in Denver Public Schools and used for the first time last year.

The online application allows families to rank their top five school choices and then matches them with a compatible school based on capacity, availability, neighborhood preference and other factors.

Last year, the application included three optional questions about the most important factor in choosing a school, useful choice resources and additional information that would have helped.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Piton Foundation partnered with the University of Colorado Denver’s Buechner Institute of Governance to analyze responses to those questions. Of the 23,154 forms completed, about half included an answer to at least one of the three questions. Here are the findings:

  • Fewer than a quarter of the respondents listed Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF), which documents student academic growth and school status, as an important factor in a choice decision.
  • Nearly half of respondents said the most important reason for selecting a school was location close to home, work or family.
  • Just under a third of parents indicated that a special program or a school’s focus was an important reason.
  • Parents of Hispanic students were almost twice as likely (59 percent) to cite location as an important factor as parents of white students (32 percent).
  • Parents of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches were twice as likely to endorse school ratings as an important reason in selecting their school, compared to parents whose students do not qualify.
  • When asked which resource provided parents the most useful information, about one third of all respondents cited teachers or administrators at the school. The other most popular resources listed were information from other parents (30 percent) and the SchoolChoice enrollment guide (28 percent).
  • Parents of black and Hispanic students were most likely to respond that the SchoolChoice enrollment guide was their top resource (35 percent and 37 percent, respectively), while parents of white students were most likely to respond that other parents were the best resource (35 percent).

“A lot of families – especially families living in poverty – are still choosing schools more based on location than the School Performance Framework,” said Rebecca Kisner, a Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow and community engagement coordinator at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep.

Graph
Chart from Buechner Institute of Governance report. (Click to enlarge)

Kisner said when she and her team presented the results to local school reform groups “people felt like the number of families choosing (schools) based on the SPF was better than it has been but still certainly not as high as we’d like it to be.”

Interestingly, when families were asked what resource they would have wanted but didn’t have, they said information about academic performance. So, there seems to be a disconnect between parents and the SPF, with parents not understanding that the framework reflects academic performance, Kisner said.

The bottom line to Kisner?

“To find a really quality neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood is rare. There needs to be more quality choices in all parts of the city.”

Detailed interviews with Latino families yield similar results

Meanwhile, Together Colorado, The Piton Foundation and Stand for Children Colorado recently released their own report on school choice in Denver and documented similar findings.

Their study, called Fulfilling the promise of choice: Challenges and opportunities in school choice decisions made by Latino families, found families struggling to make sense of the performance framework.

The organizations hired a researcher who spent hours observing and interviewing Latino families as they went through the choice process and conducted six 10-person focus groups.

One of the biggest findings was something the reform groups already knew: Education is highly valued by new immigrants, Together Colorado’s Kromrey said.

“In many cases families come to this country for education,” he added.

The performance framework came up in both studies as something average people struggle to both access and comprehend.

The ratings are based on points awarded for student academic growth, status, post-secondary readiness, student engagement, school demand and parent engagement. Each category is weighted differently, with student growth carrying about two-thirds of the weight, followed by status (whether or not students are performing at grade level). The remaining categories carry less weight.

Schools end up with color-coded rankings that affect a school’s operations and its future. A school consistently labeled “red” can be shut down.

The ratings are:

  • “Distinguished” or blue, which means a school has earned 80 to 100 percent of points possible
  • “Meets expectations” or green, meaning that a school has earned 51 to 79 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on watch” or yellow, indicating a school has earned 40 to 50 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on priority watch” or orange, meaning a school has earned 34 to 39 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on probation” or red. This means a school has earned only 33 percent or less of points possible

The report offered several recommendations on how to help Latino parents better use all relevant information for selecting schools. These suggestions include providing:

  • Comprehensive outreach through community members about school choice and factors to consider.
  • More detailed information on transportation, extracurricular activities and school performance information beyond what was presented in the choice materials last year. In particular, the information presented must meet one of Latino parents’ primary concerns – geographic proximity to home.
  • Information about school academic performance that is more accessible and presented more clearly to parents.
  • Clearer language in choice materials.
  • Informative websites that are simple and streamlined, with an easy-to-find Spanish language option, featuring data that is searchable using geographic criteria, rather than simply comparing schools against each other.

The organizations involved in the research commended DPS for making several key changes since the research was done. Relatively recent tweaks to the SchoolChoice system include creation of a new electronic SchoolMatch tool, improving the enrollment guide, use of school choice liaisons and expanding school choice expos.

But Kromrey pointed out that more needs to be done to help families access and understand the rating data.

“They did care about being close to their families. They did want to be involved with children. They wanted to see how the schools around them were doing,” Kromrey said. “They do want to understand how data works. They need some tools that simplify without being so simple that they’re not fair to the schools.”

Kromrey also noted that transportation remains a huge issue for many low-income families. Together Colorado worked on the Success Express shuttle plan in Northeast Denver and will continue to be involved in those issues, he said. He said families also wanted more information from schools, such as information about arts programs or special education.

“The whole reform community and DPS have work to do to change this,” Kromrey said. “We need to create some different tools. Many parents don’t have computer access. There are some computer literacy issues.”

Understanding How Parents Chose Schools: An Analysis of Denver’s SchoolChoice Form Questions