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It takes five clicks to see a charter school in Jeffco’s new enrollment system. Advocates say that’s not fair.

A fifth-grade student at South Lakewood Elementary School, part of Jeffco Public Schools.
A fifth-grade student at South Lakewood Elementary School, part of Jeffco Public Schools.
Denver Post

Jeffco Public Schools officials are promising to change the way their new online common enrollment system displays charter schools after an outcry from parents and operators.

Enroll Jeffco allows parents in Colorado’s second largest district to shop around and apply to any school in the district, including charter schools. Following the path of Denver Public Schools, observers believe it to be only the second such common enrollment system in the state.

When it launched Monday, though, some parents of charter school students were alarmed that the system defaults to the closest district-run neighborhood school when someone enters a home address. Even entering the address of a charter school turned up nearby district-run schools.

To see other schools, parents have to click “explore more options” and then go through several more screens of questions. At that point, charter and district-run schools are displayed together. Charter advocates, in emails to Chalkbeat, said this violates a promise that all schools would be treated equally in the online system, while district officials said their intent was to help parents sort schools based on their needs and interests.

The early tensions illustrate how long-running policy disputes about school choice, competition, and measuring school performance can make launching universal enrollment systems difficult.

Such systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures. Some teachers and community advocates in Jeffco worry the new system will drain students from local schools and exacerbate segregation. Now those in the charter sector are wary as well.

Other districts have struggled with how to build common enrollment systems, in some cases leading to their demise. In Detroit, the main district spent $700,000 developing a system only to have it put on hold indefinitely. In Oakland, both teachers unions and some charter school operators have expressed skepticism of efforts to create a common enrollment system. And in Newark, some charter schools considered creating a separate system when political changes threatened the common enrollment system there.

Brian Eschbacher, who helped develop Denver’s open enrollment system, said these systems get caught between competing interests and ideologies, when the goal should be making it easy for parents to find the best school for their child.

“Most parents don’t care about district or charter schools,” he said. “Most parents want a good, safe school for their kids.”

That said, any system involves dozens of trade-offs about what information will be displayed and how. Denver’s school finder immediately displays all schools of any type within a given radius of an address. While it marks which school is considered the neighborhood school, it does not say whether schools are district-run or charter, and it also shows the school’s color-coded rating next to its name. But in developing the system, some people wanted the rating displayed on every screen, almost as a warning to anyone applying to a low-ranking school — something Eschbacher thought went too far.

Eschbacher, who now works as an education consultant, said there’s little question that Enroll Jeffco puts charters at a disadvantage. It takes one click from the school finder page to see the neighborhood school, compared to five clicks to see charter options.

“What is the user experience you’re trying to deliver?” he asked. “If the mission is to deliver information as seamlessly as possible, it might be a challenge to learn what other options are out there. The more you have to click, it has to disadvantage them.”

In an interview before the launch and the backlash, Superintendent Jason Glass said Jeffco’s system would reflect the value the community places on neighborhood schools. The district is run by a union-backed board whose members replaced a board that was more favorable to school choice and charter schools.

“The major difference between what we’re doing in Jeffco and something like DPS is that in Jeffco, the overwhelming preference is to attend your neighborhood school,” Glass said. “Our schools have boundaries, and that’s very popular and something that parents still value. We have a choice system that allows for that and still accommodates choice.”

On Thursday, district spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school finder is a “big step up for every school” when compared to the previous system, which involved a clunky school search and paper applications and that Jeffco always anticipated making tweaks in the first year.

“We have heard concerns from our charter school leaders about how this first version displayed their schools in searches,” she wrote in an email. “We are implementing changes to have these concerns addressed by the time the system launches for enrollment in January. We wish every school to be fairly represented in Enroll Jeffco.”

District officials said the intention was to show parents the school in which they are guaranteed enrollment and then to use the questions to help them sort other schools based on their interests. Programmers are working on tweaks over the winter break and hope to have a new way to display schools soon.

The Jeffco site does not include school performance data, a common feature of enrollment systems that seek to make it easier for parents to find high-performing schools.

Wilson said that may also show up in a future version, but the district doesn’t want to place too much emphasis on test scores.

“The school information does display information on basic demographics, academic programs, and a host of student supports,” she said. “We also allow schools to make statements about their school culture and instructional philosophies. Test scores are an important, but also very limited, measure of what makes a great school.”

This story has been updated with additional responses from Jeffco Public Schools.

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