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Denver schools make open enrollment easier

By Charlie Brennan

Denver Public Schools will launch its streamlined school enrollment program next month, reducing the steps it takes to enroll in a school other than your neighborhood school from 62 to one.

Families of students in transitional grades – kindergarten, sixth and ninth plus students new to the district – will all be encouraged to prioritize their preferred schools on a single form, with a single deadline.

“We need to do a better job of making the process of selecting a school simple and user-friendly,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “SchoolChoice will boil the process down to one piece of paper and one timeline for families to follow.”

The SchoolChoice initiative will be launched with the help of outside partner organizations led by Get Smart Schools, recipient of a $282,000 grant from the Walton Foundation.

District spokesman Mike Vaughn said the change comes in response to feedback from families, education advocates and community leaders who emphasized the need to make the school-selection process easier.

“By no means is it necessary that they fill out a school choice form. If they want their child to attend their attendance-area school, their neighborhood school, they don’t have to fill out any paperwork whatsoever,” he noted.

Vaughn added, “We’re looking forward to a process that’s much more simplified and user-friendly. We had 60 different processes to communicate to families in multiple languages; now it’s one form, one timeline, one process for us to do outreach to do all of our communities in their native language.”

Marketing now a big push

Marketing and outreach will be the primary responsibility of the coalition led by Get Smart Schools.

“Any time you’re trying to change behavior and get people to do something in a different way than they did it last year, it is a communications challenge, and we want to really get out in front of that,” said Amy Slothower, executive director of Get Smart Schools.

Publicity alerting families to the new system will ramp up in mid-October with publication of the annual DPS Enrollment Guide and the DPS Middle & High School Expo, set for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Infinity Park Event Center, 4400 E. Kentucky Ave.

The new system will ask families to list their top five school choices in order, according to Shannon Fitzgerald, director of choice and enrollment services for DPS.

“We are highly confident that 99-plus percent of the students will get one of those five,” said Fitzgerald.

If a student doesn’t, that student’s name will be added to the roster of his or her neighborhood school.

Still being determined is how many of the 33 DPS charter schools will take part in the program.

“Our intention is that 100 percent of the charter schools will be on board,” said Fitzgerald. “We are still in final discussions with only a handful. But I would be shocked and surprised, if any more than one or two sit it out.”

Nora Flood, vice president of school services for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, agreed.

“For those DPS charters that are under-enrolled, people do see this as an opportunity to get the word out to people, who may not already know about their school, so they look at it as a marketing opportunity.”

There are only “two or three” charters, Flood said, that are “just sitting back and waiting, and might want to wait for the second year.”

Any hesitancy, Flood said, stems from concerns about “autonomy – being in control of your own destiny – and your own wait list.”

Equal access for all families

Boasberg also said that by centralizing and streamlining the process, the advantage typically enjoyed by some families may be eliminated.

“You’re creating a more level playing field, rather than one where people who are more savvy or have more social capital are able to get through a back door, when we want everyone going through the front door,” he said.

Organizations working with DPS and Get Smart Schools on the new program are A+ Denver, Colorado Succeeds, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Metro Organizations for People, Colorado League of Charter Schools, Stand for Children and the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

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