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DPS busts parents lying for seats

Warning to Denver Public Schools parents: If you fudge your home address to get your child into a school by saying you live in the feeder area, watch out.

DPS officials confirmed this week they’re analyzing address anomalies to root out people misleading the district about their home addresses as a way to ensure placement of their children in coveted schools, such as East High School, the Denver Schools of Science and Technology, and Bromwell, Steck, Stapleton and Cory elementary schools.

“We’ve recommitted ourselves to making sure there is equity of access,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, head of the district’s choice and enrollment services office. “That’s a really big value for us.”

Fitzgerald said the district isn’t hiring more people to spy on DPS families. Rather, district staff are simply paying closer attention to data they already collect.

She said a recent data analysis found 15 to 20 families who changed their addresses to locations within East’s boundaries after their child was put on the school’s lengthy waiting list.

District staff have started referring to the group as “East address changers.” Parents can walk into any Denver school to fill out change-of-address forms. District staff also caught a handful of other address changers at other schools.

“It’s a simple report to run,” Fitzgerald said. “And just a few phone calls. We haven’t hired extra people and we’re not working extra hours. It’s just kind of following up on things we should have followed up on.”

District officials contacted the families, asking them to sign affidavits verifying their students actually lived at the addresses provided and to provide energy bills or copies of the lease. In a few cases, DPS security personnel went knocking on doors and, in some cases, found empty apartments.

In most cases, parents declined to sign the affidavit and acknowledged they didn’t actually live at the addresses provided. Most said they would send their children to private schools, Fitzgerald said.

However, in a few cases, parents expressed outrage that an apartment rented for $500 a month near East, even if unoccupied, would not secure a slot at the stately downtown high school, she said.

Fitzgerald said if a family is busted during the school year, the student is allowed to complete the year. But the student is then required to go through the next school choice process or attend his or her boundary school.

Choice staff are also being more vigilant on the front end of the choice process by trying to verify addresses in January at the district’s most popular schools.

Reminiscent of Bromwell in 2009

The situation is reminiscent of early 2009 when several parents were caught using false addresses to get their kids into the Cherry Creek neighborhood’s high-performing Bromwell Elementary.

Classrooms busting at the seams prompted parents to ask questions about who really belonged at the school. Thirty families were found to have outdated address information. Turns out the families were using the addresses of grandparents, friends, businesses and rental properties to secure their slice of quality education.

Fitzgerald said she believes most DPS families are “honest and forthright” about where they live.

“For the handful that aren’t, we’re really trying to make sure that activity is minimized,” she said, “so we can ensure equity for all kids, not just kids who can afford to rent a little apartment across from East.”

About 65 percent of students who name East as their top school in the choice process get into the school. Of the 591 new freshmen on the roster this year, 268 live in the neighborhood. The remaining 323 live outside of the school’s boundary. There are an additional 303 students on a waiting list.

East Principal Andy Mendelsberg said he didn’t think falsifying addresses to get into his school was a widespread problem.

“I don’t think it’s all that common,” he said. “I don’t know if I find it surprising. As our school grows to where we are at capacity and we are not able to take more kids, it might become a more common thing.”

That’s why it’s so important that Denver’s other high schools continue to improve academically.

“I think it’s one of those things where, as our other schools get stronger – and they will, this probably goes away a little bit,” he said. “Right now, the confidence is pretty high in East.”

Fitzgerald acknowledged there’s always more that can be done to ensure fairness in the choice process, but it’s a matter of balancing resources. The district has no plans to pursue criminal charges against a parent who falsely fills out an affidavit.

“We still don’t have an airtight process,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure there are kids going to school using false addresses and not hitting our radar screen.”

One DPS parent, who declined to be identified, said she used a secondary address instead of the family’s home address in an attempt to get her child into the school they wanted.

“I never falsified anything,” she said. “I turned in my work address.”

The parent said she understood why DPS was monitoring addresses, but said the district is going to lose more families to private schools or outlying suburban districts.

“They’re doing what they have to do. I get it,” she said. “But it makes it tough. You don’t know who’s going to get in and who’s not.”