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DPS’ SchoolChoice worked – for most

Editor’s note – This story was revised Tuesday to include updated data showing additional students, mostly preschoolers, who did not get into their schools of choice.

Nearly 70 percent of the 23,000 families who participated in Denver Public Schools’ new streamlined enrollment process got into their top choice schools, DPS leaders announced Monday.

Meanwhile, 80 percent got into their first or second choice school and 83 percent got a spot in their first, second or third choice.

It was unclear whether the participation in school choice increased this year over previous years, but several parents interviewed said the system seemed more fair and easier to navigate – with less gaming of the system by well-connected parents.

Christine Walvarens, 45, who lives in southeast Denver, succeeded in getting her son into popular East High School.

“For us, it actually was a very smooth process, but I did read everything pretty carefully,” Walvarens said. “It was easy and transparent. I feel it is actually much more fair this way.”

Still, the system didn’t work well for everyone. And many parents whose children didn’t get into schools their siblings attend said the system was anything but fair.

393 families fail to get into top five choices

Some 393 Denver families – 224 at the preschool level and 108 at the kindergarten level – didn’t get into any of the five choices they were asked to place on their applications. Several parents interviewed also reported siblings not getting into the same schools as their brothers and sisters.

Gabriella Cavallero has one little girl who will be going into kindergarten next year. She took mornings off from work to tour schools, attend open houses, talk to principals and observe students in class. She settled on five schools she believed would be good fits for her daughter, and set about ranking them. Then, she submitted her form.

“I know I was choosing schools that didn’t have a lot of slots … but isn’t that going to be the case if you’re researching good schools?”
–Gabriella Cavallero, whose daughter didn’t get into any of her top five choices“I know I was choosing schools that didn’t have a lot of slots … but isn’t that going to be the case if you’re researching good schools?” she said.

Her daughter didn’t get into any of them.

Miguel Oaxaca, parent of two DPS students and a member of the education committee of Metro Organizations for People (MOP), said he had one parent complain that her son had been enrolled in a school she didn’t choose. A few other parents griped about not getting into coveted East High School.

He also said not all schools did everything they could to get the word out to Latino families about the new choice process.

“In the beginning, there was a little confusion, but after a few weeks, it was getting better,” Oaxaca said.

Not everyone will be happy with the unforgiving nature of a lottery, and there are bound to be snafus in a new system serving an 80,000-student urban district. But district officials said they were pleased with participation in SchoolChoice.

“We’re seeing enrollment increases all across the city and are thrilled to be serving more Denver families and seeing the high level of participation in SchoolChoice,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “Now we need to work hard with the community on ways to invest in creating more early childhood offerings and in further strengthening our schools all across Denver.”

In Cavallero’s case, the district told her to consider listing a new batch of schools and go through the second round of SchoolChoice. But Cavallero doesn’t see the point.

“The process – I don’t know what it’s been like in the past – was incredibly stressful, and time-consuming and work-intensive,” Cavallero said. “I do freelance work, and get paid for the time I am working. I had to take off a lot of time because I wanted to be an informed parent.”

Non-sanctioned DPS choice Facebook page pops up

Stories like Cavallero’s are flooding neighborhood list-serves and mommy blogs. A mom in Highlands, Lauren Wolf, even set up a Facebook page as a place for DPS parents to vent about their choice experiences. By Monday afternoon, it had 118 “likes.”

Proponents are still trying to determine whether the new, one-stop-shop SchoolChoice system, which included several information sessions in English and Spanish citywide and was supported by a coalition of community partners led by Get Smart Schools, drew more families into the process.

But DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong cautioned there is no way to compare participation to that of previous years.

“The main reason we did SchoolChoice is that it was such a complicated system,” Armstrong said. “There were literally 62 different forms and time-lines. This year, it was one process.”

Across the district, 82 percent of current students who will be entering “transition” grades next year – kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades – participated in SchoolChoice this year. And, in general, 40 percent of the district’s 81,500 students attend a school that is not their neighborhood school.

District spokesman Mike Vaughn said the district has received positive feedback on the new system, but  acknowledged frustration by parents of younger children.

“We’ve heard about families wanting to get into preschool programs and full-day kindergarten,” Vaughn said. “We have limited funding for preschool, and the state only pays for a half day of kindergarten. We are not near close to where we need to be to meet demand.”

A supply and demand problem

The fundamental problem is there just aren’t enough seats in the most sought-after schools. Yet there are openings at other, often lower-performing, schools.

The answer, according to Boasberg, is for parents to get involved now in their neighborhood schools – through high school – even if their kids are toddlers or preschoolers. The other answer is money: Money for teachers, new schools and expanded capacity at popular schools.

A committee is meeting now to determine whether Denver voters might be willing to open their wallets for this purpose again in November. Boasberg shared these options with Wolf and another mom Thursday in a meeting arranged by 9NEWS.

That’s all good, Wolf said, but she – and other parents – believe the choice process itself needs to be tweaked. For instance, siblings should get the same priority ranking in a choice as a neighborhood student, Wolf believes, since a child who enrolls in a choice school forfeits his or her neighborhood school slot.

“This is the first year there wasn’t room to capture the siblings,” Wolf said. “We have 10 families at Brown (Elementary) with siblings in (early childhood education) who got on a wait list.”

She also doesn’t believe the district is doing enough to handle the population boom in northwest Denver, largely made up of young families.

Wolf says the new choice system, which is now operated entirely through the district’s choice office, didn’t work as well for parents in her neighborhood. Previously, each school handled its own process and deadlines. And while it was still the same lottery system, it seemed parents were able to work with principals to come up with solutions.

Wolf said Brown’s principal, Suzanne Loughran, requested additional kindergarten seats and it looks like that will happen, so it seems her younger daughter will be able to stay at Brown with her big sister. Loughran could not be reached for comment. Even though her situation may be solved, Wolf said that was not the case for many other DPS parents.

“With the district taking control out of local schools, and putting it in a centralized office, it led to a lot more confusion and questions,” Wolf said.

There is still a chance for families to participate in SchoolChoice through the second round, which is ongoing and offers enrollment spaces on a first-come, first-served basis. Families may visit their school or schools of interest to submit a second-round SchoolChoice form through Aug. 31. More information is available at http://schoolchoice.dpsk12.org or by calling (720) 423-3493.

Top choice preferences in Denver Public Schools

These numbers reflect how many students picked each school as their top choice.
High schools

  • East – 869
  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch* – 310
  • South – 308
  • George Washington – 284
  • Thomas Jefferson – 238

Middle schools

  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch* – 510
  • Denver School of the Arts – 391
  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Stapleton – 351
  • Hamilton – 289
  • Morey – 233

Elementary schools

  • Swigert International School* – 505
  • Knight ECE Center – 469
  • Escalante Bridge ECE Center – 340
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval – 310
  • SOAR at Green Valley Ranch – 270

Note: Elementary counts may include duplicates. Students may be counted more than once if they selected multiple programs at the school, such as full-day and half-day kindergarten. Asterisks denote schools in enrollment zones, or those with shared boundaries.