More than a quarter of Denver families who send their students to Denver Public Schools used the district’s SchoolChoice system to choose a school in 2013, and most of those who participated were placed in their first choice school.
But Denver families may struggle to balance often-competing priorities—a school’s proximity to home and its quality according to the district’s rating system—when choosing schools.
Those are some of the findings of a new report focused on Denver’s SchoolChoice system released by A+ Denver, a local education advocacy and research group, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, a national research organization with a focus on school choice.
The report, released today, includes data from the first three years of the SchoolChoice system, which was introduced in late 2011 to streamline the application process for families. At the time, there were more than 60 applications, each with its own timeline, for the Denver public schools. Now, all the city’s programs, including magnet and charter schools, are listed on a single application.
One aim of the new system was to increase the accessibility of the city’s best schools to families and students throughout Denver.
“I feel really confident that we now have three years of data that show the system works,” said Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Denver. “It does what it says it’s going to do.”
Some 27 percent of families in the entire district used SchoolChoice this year. That number has remained close-to-constant for each of the past three years. Most of those are families with students entering either Kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grade.
The report shows that most of the same schools have remained popular for each of the three years the system has been in place.
Families with special education students were more likely than families whose students are in general education programs to use the system. That’s a change from previous years, when general education students were more likely to choice into schools.
Families that are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch were slightly less likely to use SchoolChoice.
More than three-quarters of families receive their first-choice school—though the report shows that the percent of kindergarten families receiving their first choice dropped from just over 80 percent to 74 percent this year.
Schoales said low-income families were actually more likely to get their first-choice school than upper-income families. But, he said, those families were also choosing lower-ranked schools.
That is likely because those lower-rated schools are close to home. Citywide, most families still choose schools that are close to home. Just 19.9 percent choose schools out of their own region. But Schoales said that many schools, especially in the southwest and northeast parts of the city, still struggle academically.
Lack of public or district transportation paths to farther-away schools remains a barrier, especially for low-income families or families who live in parts of the city where there are fewer highly-ranked schools, according to the report. The report does note a steady increase in the percent of the city’s schools that earned high scores on the district’s School Performance Framework.
The report has a number of interesting details about who’s using the system and how. For instance, most families either list just one choice or include all five. (Schoales said he had heard of families trying to “game” the system by listing their first choice second; he said that was not likely to achieve the desired result.)
There are also differences among racial and ethnic groups: 84.7 percent of white students participated in the choice program, compared to 75 percent of bi- or multi-racial students, 71.1 percent of Hispanic students, 63.3 percent of black students, and 63 percent of students identified as “other” used the system.
More students who scored in the top quartile on standardized math tests used SchoolChoice than students in the bottom quartile—75.4 percent compared to 63.2 percent.
Denver was one of the first districts in the country to create a unified application system, but such systems are becoming increasingly common. An earlier report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that Denver parents felt more well-informed about the choice system then parents in other cities around the country. Denver’s sytem