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No school tours, no school ratings: Denver’s choice process looks a little different in 2021

Two first-grade children in purple shirts and wearing headphones work on iPads in a classroom.

Denver families can begin submitting school choice applications for next year on Friday.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

For many parents, the visceral experience of walking a school’s hallways, chatting with the principal, and peeking into classrooms shapes their opinion of whether it’s a good school for their child. In Denver, a district that encourages school choice, such tours usually happen around this time of year, as families are gearing up to rank their top picks for the fall.

But because of the pandemic, school buildings were closed for much of the fall. And even though they’re reopening now, no parents are allowed inside.

“The challenge is now that we can’t bring people in the building, they can’t feel the vibe of this historic building. They can’t feel the love when they come in the doors,” said Emily Reilly, the assistant principal at Valverde Elementary School in southwest Denver.

School choice in Denver refers to the process allowing students to apply to schools other than the one to which they’re assigned. The window to do so opens Friday. While the online application remains the same this year, other aspects are a bit different.

But school choice veterans say the pandemic’s restrictions have some silver linings. Many schools have moved their tours to YouTube and their open houses to Zoom, where the sessions are recorded. Instead of being accessible only to parents who can show up to the school at 10 a.m. on a Monday, the tours and Q&As are now accessible anytime online.

And the absence of that visceral feeling may have an upside, too. It removes the implicit bias that may influence a parent’s gut feeling when, for example, they walk into a school and see that a majority of students look like their child, or don’t. Or that the PTA has fundraised to install shiny touchless water fountains, or that it hasn’t. Without a tour, parents who say they value things like diversity and equity are left to contend only with the raw data.

“It’s almost a good thing because it forces the parents to realize that the schools are not that different,” said Keely Buchanan, who owns a business called Preparing for Denver Kindergarten that helps parents navigate school choice. “They’re forced to take a step back and say, ‘They’re all schools.’ ... Anything that gives more equity or levels the playing field is a good thing.”

Charters adapt quickly

School choice is enshrined in Colorado law. Any student may request to attend a school outside their neighborhood. For years, Denver Public Schools has strongly encouraged families to find the school that best fits their child’s needs. Students who live in one of the district’s 13 “enrollment zones” are required to list their top schools or be placed wherever there’s room.

While many families do rank schools, critics say it encourages unhealthy competition and an undue focus on marketing. That view has gained supporters on the Denver school board, who decided last year to do away with the district’s school rating system, which was largely based on test scores. That change means parents no longer see a color-coded school rating in any district school choice guides, though they could look up a separate state rating.

Families have until Feb. 16 to submit their selections for next year. They are encouraged to rank up to 12 of their top-choice schools. An algorithm then assigns students to schools based on lottery numbers and the enrollment priorities of each school. For instance, many schools give preference to students who have siblings who already attend there.

Students who want to go to their neighborhood school, often called a boundary school, don’t have to submit selections. Neither do students who want to keep attending their same school — for instance, a second-grader who wants to stay at their school for third grade.

The competition to get into some schools is steep. The district’s most-requested elementary school, the Denver Language School, had 207 kindergarteners on its waitlist last year.

School choice is especially important for the district’s charter schools, which are independent public schools run by nonprofit boards of directors. Many charters don’t serve an attendance area, meaning they must recruit all of their students. Charters adapted quickly to pandemic-era school choice, often with the help of staff members dedicated to recruitment.

DSST, Denver’s largest charter network with 15 schools, hired a photographer to take 360-degree photos of its empty hallways and classrooms so prospective students can go on a self-navigated virtual tour, much like prospective homebuyers can do on sites like Zillow.

DSST schools are also hosting live virtual events, and each has posted an informational video. While some schools have seen a drop in the number of virtual visitors compared with in-person visitors in a normal year, other schools — particularly those serving low-income neighborhoods — have seen a bump, said Andy Mendrop, DSST’s director of marketing, content, and brand.

“To me, that means we need to keep making this accessible to people,” Mendrop said. “There is a group of people this is really working for.”

‘It’s forced us to grow’

Many district-run schools also try to recruit students, but their adaptability during COVID has varied. The district counseling office set up a virtual high school fair every Wednesday wherein visitors can click on different high schools. Some links lead to professionally produced promotional clips. Others are recorded Zoom calls or cell phone video tours.

The district hasn’t set up similar events for elementary or middle schools. A new pro-charter organization, Denver Families for Public Schools, is attempting to fill that void by hosting a series of virtual fairs this month that are open to both charter and district-run schools. 

Valverde is one district-run school that has embraced the challenge of recruiting new students in a pandemic. Once the lowest-performing elementary school city, Valverde underwent significant changes and saw its test scores rise, Assistant Principal Reilly said.

“I remember last year, just feeling this pretty emotionally overwhelming sense of pride that we could be like, ‘Yes, come here! It’s an amazing place to be,’” she said.

In addition to sending out postcards and flyers, Valverde created an interactive virtual presentation this year that includes video clips from classrooms, teacher introductions, and examples of how the school has adapted to remote learning. Reilly expects Valverde will continue to use the presentation in future years after the pandemic. 

“COVID sucks, but it’s forced us to grow,” she said.

Parent questions

Those who help families navigate school choice say parents have many of the same questions they do every year about things like test scores and extracurricular activities. But Ariel Smith, executive director of Transform Education Now, said her organization, which focuses on serving low-income families of color, is hearing some new questions this year, too.

Parents want to know what remote learning looks like at various schools. “How much time kids are doing packets on their own versus getting live instruction is a huge one,” Smith said.

Smith said her organization is reaching more parents than ever before. Zoom calls and Slack channels are more accessible to busy parents, and providing translation in multiple languages is easier online than in person. Buchanan’s business is booming too, partly because parents who held off sending their kids to kindergarten this year are now researching for next year.

Usually, about 80% of students in the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade participate in Denver school choice. District officials and choice experts say it’s too early to tell if that percentage will go up or down this year.

The pandemic, Buchanan said, “could either overly complicate the process or oversimplify it. I wonder if some parents aren’t just like, ‘OK, we’ll go to my boundary school.’”

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