These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

A+ Denver’s SchoolChoice Panel Discussion Recap

Over sixty people joined the conversation about SchoolChoice in Denver at a panel we hosted on January 22nd.  Our panelists included Betheny Gross, Research Director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the lead author on the latest report on SchoolChoice released by A+ Denver; Brian Eschbacher, Director of Planning and Enrollment at DPS; and Miguel Oaxaca, member of the Board of Directors at Together Colorado and a DPS parent.

“Choice” tends to incite some controversy and even fear because it opens the door to other governance models (like charter and innovation schools), new schools, and different students in schools.   But change and new ideas don’t have to be scary, and we are strong advocates for school choice, as it gives families throughout the city to reach the schools that are the best fit for their kids, regardless of where their house is.

But in order for choice to work, it needs to be fair and that families, regardless of their race, income-level, primary language, and neighborhood, can actually access the schools they want.  To that end, the panelists addressed two critical questions:

1.) Does Denver’s SchoolChoice enrollment system work?

2.) How well does the SchoolChoice system meet the demands of families?

The SchoolChoice enrollment system works….

There was agreement among the panelists that the SchoolChoice enrollment system is working as it’s supposed to and that there is a lot of public confidence across Denver in the system. What used to be a system predicated on relationship building now relies on Nobel-worthy mathematics to appropriately match students with their top choice schools.

And the SchoolChoice enrollment system is easy for families to participate in—Denver families reported some of the least amount of difficulty in the Choice enrollment system of all eight cities studied in acomparative Choice report.

…But choosing the right school is hard.

However, while the application is simple, families find that it is still difficult to choose the right school for their kids. In fact, 40% of families reported difficulty in finding a school that would be a good fit. Parents at the event echoed this sentiment.

Parents struggle to get the information they want….

Denver School Board President Happy Haynes said it would be nice if finding the right school for your student was like buying a car. The problem is that it’s really hard to test-drive a school. Parents and families do want to hear from their students’ teachers and front-office staff about their kids’ choices and what schools would be the best fit. Miguel shared that finding people in schools that can communicate with families and understand how they need information presented is a barrier he and others in minority communities face.

And indeed one of the challenges the District faces in getting information to families is in understanding what kind of information families want, and who should be providing it. Particularly, Brian of DPS explained, the District is trying to figure out how it and schools can better leverage other community organizations and social networks to connect parents to information.

… And face real trade-offs when choosing a school. 

Panelist Miguel Oaxaca pointed to the problem of transportation—a barrier the research also identified as a barrier: Hispanic and Black families frequently have to trade-off performance for proximity when choosing a school.  In fact, Hispanic students travel on average .75 miles further than White students, and Black students travel on average 1.25 miles further than White students to attend the school of their choice.

Miguel called for more transportation solutions like the Success Express in the Far Northeast community.  Betheny pointed out that Denver families’ frustrations with transportation are on par with Cleveland and Detroit—two cities whose general economic development pale in comparison to Denver, underscoring that transportation is a real barrier for families as they try and access the right schools for their kids.

At the end of the day, it’s all about quality options.

It is promising to see Denver pioneering a choice system that works.  The city and District now face the task of making sure families have the choices that work for their students. Consistently, across all demographics and income-levels, parents want—and choose—quality. And so, improving school performance across the city’s schools is critical to better serving Denver families. To make a model Choice system, we need not just the enrollment system where all families can access the city’s schools, but we need better choices to fit all our students’ needs.