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Voices: SchoolChoice a success; more needed

Denver’s new SchoolChoice system worked well but there’s more to be done, two education advocates say.

Last year parents and families in Denver Public Schools were subjected to over 60 separate choice processes, deadlines and forms if they chose to enroll their child in a school different than their neighborhood school.  This year?  One process.  One form.  And overall, 85 percent of DPS students who participated in the new SchoolChoice process were matched with one of their top three choices.

Last week, A+ Denver’s SchoolChoice Transparency Committee released its final report, and the data show a majority of families participated in the system, most students ended up in a school of their choice, and the streamlined enrollment process was a more equitable way to match students with schools.

All this indicates there’s been a shift in the community mindset and more of an acceptance that Denver is a district of choice. It took a partnership of nonprofit community organizations to push for this new process and kudos go to the district to take such huge steps this year to make it right.

The new approach to enrollment was a response to a flawed system. Previously, there were an unwieldy 60 separate choice processes, deadlines and forms within DPS. The small group of students who were actually practicing choice was more likely to be white and less likely to qualify for free and reduced lunch, indicating an inequitable process. There also were flaws in the way schools and students were being matched.

SchoolChoice eliminated these issues. More than 22,000 students participated in the process, and there was a huge jump in choice participation among the “transition grades” of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades. Overall, 85 percent of students were matched with one of their choices. More than two thirds received their first choice.   (Read more details on the success here.)

But there’s more to be done:  Priority number one is to ensure all students and families have good choices.  This will require the district to both give families adequate information from which to make a choice and to increase dramatically the number of high quality schools.  The numbers prove parents not only want choice, they want high-performing schools. But there are far too few quality seats in the existing system. It’s a logical next step now that we have an equitable choice process, to ensure the best schools exist in every part of the city — not just affluent neighborhoods.

Until those quality school options are available, the district needs to examine ways to help the entire community access the best schooling options. The only part of the city where students were highly likely to choose schools in the region where they live was the Far Northeast, where there is also a free regional school bus system covering the entire area. We draw the assumption that free and easy transportation options affect parents’ choices, and increasing access to that kind of school bus system could make SchoolChoice an even more equitable system.  We advocate for deeper research to explore this issue and applaud this evaluation for raising additional questions.

SchoolChoice should be heralded as the success that comes when a critical coalition of community groups partner with the school district.   The new school choice process works well – now let’s make sure it’s followed up with good school choices and information to families.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.