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A national model and game-changer for Denver

Van Schoales is executive director of A-Plus Denver, “an organization working to bring the power of Denver’s citizens to the effort of school reform.”

This week Denver Public Schools is rolling out “School Choice,” a new common enrollment process for all DPS schools, and a companion guide for families. It’s a bit surprising that there has not been more chatter about all of this but there is a ton of other education news with elections, SB 10-191 rules, the Alexander Russo talk, a George W. Bush visit to Get Smart Schools, etc.

I suspect that many of us will look back on the launch of this new enrollment process as a true paradigm shift for Denver’s efforts at community engagement and school improvement.

Last week, DPS released the “Discovery” school guide, which is the first step in the rollout of the new system. For the first time, the guide includes not just basic information such as school location and hours, it prominently features performance ratings for each school. This will have a huge impact on parent understandings of school quality and may in turn drive more changes in student enrollment from low to high performing schools.

Think of what the combination of Consumer Reports and the web have done to car buying; no longer are we beholden to our local car dealer for information on quality and price for a car purchase. An informed consumer can now see objective data on cars along with purchase and repair costs before even setting foot into a showroom.

Better information means better parental choices

While we have a long way to go on educating parents on school quality while creating systems for school choice that are fair and useful for everyone, DPS is making a quantum leap over what existed before (And yes I know the real heavy lift will be to create more and a diverse types of good schools in every part of Denver).

Just to give you a sense of how the new school guides have changed from last years’, compare what a bit of what’s provided for North High 2011 guide to the 2012 guide.

2011- “Upon graduation, students will have earned college credits and will be prepared to succeed in college.”

No information or data on school quality or student performance

2012-”…provide academic knowledge, skills and behaviors that foster college readiness…”

School Performance, RED-Probation (26 out of 100 SPF ranking)

Both guides provide descriptive information on the school program but the new guide provides objective information on the quality and effectiveness of the school. DPS has had this information for many years but this is the first year that the district is putting this objective information next to the flowery descriptions of the school.

The new guide is not the be-all and end-all (it can’t and shouldn’t be) but it does provide a great start for investigating the set of options parents have in the district. It’s like having objective nutritional information next to the photos of the blueberries on your sugary cereal box.

I’m hoping the guide will inspire more families to spend a bit more time using data and searching for a school that matches the needs and expectations of the child and family.

Streamlining the DPS enrollment process

The more dramatic feature of School Choice is a transition to a common enrollment process, form and timeline for all DPS schools. This change will narrow the number of school enrollment processes from 62 – yes 62 different enrollment processes – to just a few for the more than 150 schools in the district. It will be a huge shift for parents to only have to fill out a single applications rather than navigating a byzantine system of processes for different schools at different times. It will also help level the playing field by giving less advantage to the most privileged families who would sometimes game the systems to get their kids into better schools.

This is groundbreaking in that this is the first time that any district in the country has provided such a comprehensive honest guide with a modern enrollment system. While the new system does not completely level playing field in terms of low-income families having the same kind of access to good schools (folks with money can still buy a house in Hilltop or the Country Club and be guaranteed a good neighborhood school), it does move things in the right direction.

Kudos go to Get Smart Schools who toiled for years to make this happen, SE2 for designing a clear, easy to understand guide, Cathy Lund, formerly of the Walton Family Foundation for supporting it and Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg for standing up for Denver’s least advantaged kids and doing it.

For those that are interested this all evolved from conversations with Rob Stein when he was principal at Manual, MOP, Get Smart Schools, the Donnell-Kay Foundation and a few others two years ago to find a solution to having a fair enrollment process for all DPS families.

It will be fascinating to follow the results in the coming months and years.

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