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Voices: Playing the school choice odds

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, says it’s become so hard to get into Denver’s top schools that a change may be in order so that parents of means don’t have an unfair advantage over those lacking resources.

In 2011, Stanford University received 36,632 applications for 2,359 freshman seats, giving applicants about a 6 percent – or a 1 in 17 – chance of getting in. In 1981, there were half as many applicants for the same number of spots. It’s news to few that the most prestigious universities are becoming more selective. Applicants know that beyond the academic experience itself, almost any price tag is financially worth a degree from top schools – given, for example, a 30-year net return of almost $1.2 million at Stanford.

Families who buy pricey homes in neighborhoods with the best schools understand that education is an investment, but so do families who can’t afford million dollar homes.

For all families regardless of their income, choosing the right kindergarten is crucial, not so much for the importance of kindergarten (though it is), but because once parents choose a school, their kids often stay on the course of their peers until they matriculate to middle or high school. The school they choose probably matters more for the course of their children’s lives than any other variable except parents.

Denver parents are right to be stressed out in January, the month for choosing schools – especially if schools can change a child’s life trajectory.

With more school choice and increasing transparency about schools, finding and getting into the right school has probably become more stressful, not less. Because of greater transparency about school quality, the open enrollment law, magnets and charters, and Denver having one of the best choice processes in the nation, families are no longer bound to the closest schools. Instead, they are faced with dozens of options and variables about the schools themselves: Are students learning? What are they learning? What is going on after school? In what colleges or high schools do recent graduates matriculate? What’s the poverty and diversity like? How are test scores? Are teachers good? What books are read in class? What does the school specialize in? What about snack time?

Schools range from shamefully poor to outstanding. And whereas 10 years ago, not a single school in Colorado had most of their low-income students at grade level (or on track to be prepared for college), now there are several high poverty schools that compete with the best suburban upper middle class schools in the state.

Denver’s groundbreaking new choice process raises questions like: how are families that previously had few choices about schools now exercising choice? Where are they applying? Where are they getting in? Are they choosing those schools that would seem to give their kids an academic advantage for getting into top colleges? This is the question we attempt to answer here.

Are parents choosing the best schools based on the data?

The short answer is yes, mostly. We used test scores as a proxy for quality even though we know test scores are not the end-all be-all. We don’t yet have tools to account for variables like school culture. Nevertheless, test scores say a lot about a student’s probable trajectory, and can – with some accuracy – predict a child’s probable future academic success. See here, here and here.

The good news is that there is now choice. The bad news, however, is that the odds of getting into three of Denver’s top schools are worse than the odds of getting into Stanford and other top schools (though at least you don’t have to fork over $250,000).

All of the recent data on school choice in Denver shows that there is increasing demand for “the best” schools (again, we used test scores). Generally, schools with high test scores and high growth also had the highest application rates: Bromwell, Bill Roberts, Polaris, Steck, most DSST schools, KIPP, Odyssey Middle, STRIVE Prep, and Denver School of the Arts.

There were some surprises as well: schools that score very well but have fewer applicants than might be expected, and schools that score poorly but have loads of applicants.

For example, though Odyssey Elementary, McKinley-Thatcher and the Denver Green School score from B- to D on the Colorado School Grades report card (that is tied to the Colorado state method for comparing schools using TCAP proficiency and growth scores), parents are still lining up at the door. The Denver Green School, for example, ranked 913 of 998 Colorado elementary schools but had the fifth highest demand in Denver.

Meanwhile, there are schools with relatively low demand that are performing very well – schools like Newlon (100 percent acceptance) and DSST Cole (50 percent).

The bad news is that it is still far too difficult for parents to get their kids into the city’s best schools. Many of the schools with the highest demand require more than just a choice application. They are specialized schools that might hold seats for neighborhood preference, require tests or auditions. We have relatively few quality seats in Denver compared to the need.

Despite good intentions, wealthy families still have a huge advantage in accessing quality seats in our public school system. Families living in Cherry Creek North can choose Bromwell and have a chance at getting into a good choice school, while families living in Sunnyside do not have access to quality neighborhood schools (they do have equal access to a high quality public charter).

True open enrollment would require that all public schools have a significant proportion of their seats open to lottery enrollment so any family has a decent shot at getting in. Such a system would probably cause an uproar (understandably) among those families who invested in homes just so their kids could attend Bromwell. However, there is a strong argument to be made that a “public school system” (especially one that is heavily funded at the state and federal level) should not give unfair advantage to wealthy families over poor ones.

Most of us agree that parents should not have to play a lottery with their kids’ futures and that we need great schools for every child. Denver’s recent choice data leaves little question that all parents, including those who are poor and/or are non-English speaking, want the best schools for their kids. If we continue to build great schools, parents will come.

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.

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