Denver Public Schools is planning to streamline its enrollment system and will ask – but not require – all students to choose their schools beginning as soon as fall 2012.
Under the proposed plan, families for the first time would be able to use one form to apply to traditional DPS schools, magnets or charter schools, and all applications would be on the same deadline.
Families not wishing to participate would be assigned to their neighborhood school by default, as always. District officials say people exercising choice should find this new system easier to navigate.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the change is really simply one of “mechanics.”
“For those families who do exercise choice, it will be a system that is more equitable, more efficient and more transparent,” Boasberg said.
But a key part of the plan – what factors will be plugged into a formula to match students with schools – has yet to be developed. A PowerPoint presentation given to school board members in May says only that “a formula will combine students’ preferences with current school priorities and capacities, giving schools and students a single ‘best match.’ ”
Nowhere does the district define “current school priorities,” causing one leading charter school advocate to ask whether district officials will use the plan to promote greater diversity in schools or some other “values agenda.”
The program is to involve all grade levels, but officials expect those most affected will be in the transition years of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade.
The Enrollment Improvement Initiative is being designed by the New York City-based Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice. Its executive director, Neil Dorosin, helped design the school matching systems for the New York City and Boston school districts.
At its core is the use of a formula to match students with schools. It includes two rounds for voicing preferences, plus an appeals process for families unhappy with results.
But unlike other cities with similar plans, no aspect of the Denver program would be mandatory. State law mandates school choice for families, meaning no one can be required to attend a school against their will.
The plan is not without its critics. Some school board members have raised concerns ranging from its potential impact on transportation costs – district officials insist there will be none – to whether it compromises the autonomy of the district’s 33 charter schools.
But district officials say the plan does not require a policy change, meaning it doesn’t require board approval.
“We are very much committed to making this happen,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, DPS director of school choice.
A single system for choosing schools
District officials say the plan’s main purpose is to streamline and unify the district’s current patchwork and often confusing systems of school choice. During the 2010-11 school year, 53 percent of DPS students attended schools outside their assigned attendance area. This includes charter schools.
Dorosin said he knows no other major urban district that uses one application form for district schools and charter schools.
The proposal would continue guaranteed enrollment in neighborhood schools as well as priority status for those with siblings already attending a school.
Board member Mary Seawell has met with Dorosin and said she supports the change, if it will put all district families on a level playing field when choosing schools.
“To me, it is really about, is our system working and is it fair? Is there equity for all kids? And I’ve learned that it isn’t fair, and we need to be fair,” she said.
The cost of Dorosin’s contract with the district is vague – “$5,000 or more,” according to the document. DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn said DPS has paid Dorosin $5,000 to date, but that the district is developing details for a second contract to cover additional consulting work.
Other cities matching systems differ in key areas
In the 2004 New York system Dorosin helped design, eighth-graders were asked to rank up to 12 schools in order of preference, while schools ranked applicants without seeing how those students ranked the schools. A computer then compared rankings, using an algorithm originally created to match medical residents with hospitals.
“To me, it is really about, is our system working and is it fair? Is there equity for all kids?
— Mary Seawell, DPS boardThere are differences between what is in place in New York and Boston, and what is contemplated for Denver.
New York and Boston did not include its charter schools in the choice process as Denver will. New York implemented the plan only for high school students. Denver will do it systemwide, as has Boston. New York did away with wait-lists, Denver will not.
For 2010-11 in New York, of 78,747 students who applied, the computer placed 83 percent of the students with one of their top five choices. Another 7 percent matched to schools further down their preference lists.
However, roughly 10 percent of the city’s eighth-graders were matched with none of their listed choices.
“That just means they didn’t get matched in the first round,” said New York City Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal. “We’re currently in a supplementary round, so the process is not by any means over. There’s always a period for appeals but after the supplementary round, they are essentially given one assignment.”
Mittenthal added there are “hundreds of appeals every year.”
Dorosin said technical aspects of the Denver program are still under development. Using a formula to match students to schools prevents savvy parents from gaming the system at the expense of less sophisticated families, he said.
While Dorosin said the New York and Boston models hold lessons for Denver, DPS spokesman Vaughn underscored a fundamental difference in what’s contemplated here.
“We do think it’s good to encourage families to think proactively about their choices, but in no way is any part of this mandatory,” Vaughn said.
Critics have questions about transportation, autonomy
Andrea Merida was one of three school board members who raised questions about the initiative. She said questions about transportation and charter school autonomy had policy implications that require a board voice.
“We’re looking at transportation policies not changing in any way, shape, or form as a result of this.”
— Shannon Fitzgerald, DPS staffSeawell also said the inclusion of charters in the program might mean the board should play a role.
Vaughn dismissed any suggestion that charters’ inclusion in the program might in any way threaten their autonomy.
“All of our charters have signed the district-charter compact that talks about equity of access, and I think this is very much supportive of that principle … that there be one simple process to go through and that process should be the same, regardless of what type of school that is,” he said.
The District-Charter Collaboration Compact, signed Dec. 6, 2010 by Boasberg and representatives of each charter school, can be read here.
Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that his organization and all schools that signed the compact agree that DPS needs a more “nimble, simplified, equitable process.” He said he has concerns about a unified enrollment system bogging charters down in district bureaucratic dysfunction.
The other concern from the charter sector, Griffin said, is that “values” built into the algorithm could deprive some families of their first choice of schools in the interest of some perceived greater good. In this scenario, he said, socio-economic or geographic diversity, or similar considerations, could trump parental choice. No one yet knows what values, if any, might be built into the algorithm, he said.
But, Griffin said, Nora Flood, the league’s senior vice president, sits on an enrollment and admissions task force that is hammering out the details and he trusts the charter league’s concerns will be addressed there.
As for transportation, Fitzgerald, DPS’ director of school choice, said, “We’re looking at transportation policies not changing in any way, shape or form as a result of this.”
Leaving the DPS busing system as it is will limit the true level of choice that will result from the new proposal, Fitzgerald said.
“By virtue of not offering transportation, there probably are many families that cannot attend their true school of choice” said Fitzgerald, adding that “this is no different from how we operate today.”
Currently, the district provides busing to students who attend their neighborhood school and live outside the designated “walk zone.” Some magnet programs offer transportation as well.
Board member Jeannie Kaplan said her main concern is that without adequate marketing, the district’s linguistically diverse population won’t get equitable access to the choice process.
Vaughn acknowledged that “extensive community outreach is an absolutely critical component.” He said a streamlined choice process would make the district’s job easier in this regard.
No clear effect on achievement?
How well such choice programs work depends largely on implementation, said Henry M. Levin, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Levin has studied such programs in other cities.
“These are the questions: Are the students informed? Are the schools providing accurate information on what they are doing? And what is the performance of the overall system in terms of student achievement and student success?”
Levin pointed to a story in the June 22 New York Times, showing high remediation rates for graduates of the 70 New York City high schools which still somehow earned an “A” on a city progress report. Levin termed that news “scary.”
“So there is a real question here, in terms of its effect,” Levin said of changes to the city’s choice system.
Dorosin said it’s not possible to correlate a school district’s choice system and districtwide academic performance.
“We can look at what parents want, and what they don’t, and try to respond to what they want. It’s very sad that our kids are not prepared, and we still have not figured out the formula to solve that,” he said. “But fixing that involves including a healthy and effective choice system, as one spoke in that wheel.”