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2015 School Choice Evaluation Report

Denver’s SchoolChoice System shows consistent improvement in participation and outcomes, but critical obstacles remain for some families

A+ Denver and University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) release third-year findings of Denver’s unique school choice system

Denver’s pioneering school choice system is working remarkably well for families, but gaps remain in the availability of high-quality choices across the city. DPS has seen a consistently high rate of participation in the school choice process, and about 3 in 4 students are matched to their first choice schools. Nearly all students got one of their top five choices. However, the interviews and quantitative data behind An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process, 2012-2014 reveal that parents in areas with few highly rated schools remain frustrated by the fact that choosing the best schools would often mean driving across town – and space in those schools is still limited.

“It is impressive to see such drastic changes in such a short period of time – both in the way parents can choose schools and in the availability of better options. DPS essentially leapfrogged other districts around the country by going from a system with 62 applications to a single application system,” said Van Schoales of A+ Denver. “The problem we are still trying to solve is having enough good schools, and seats in those schools, so that every child can attend a school that fits her needs.”

Key findings in the report:

–       Opportunities are improving:  there are now 20% more projected openings at the city’s best schools than in 2012 (mainly due to schools getting better ratings on the School Performance Framework)

–       Transportation and travel times greatly influence which schools families choose. Only 1 in 5 students choose schools outside of their home regions as their first choice, and just over 1 in 5 students in regions with a low number of high-quality options choose to go outside of their region.

–       Low-income students use the choice system less than non-low income students but have better odds of getting their first choice schools. Low-income students have 19% higher odds of getting their first choice than non-low income students; and special education students have 11% lower odds than general education.

–       The supply of available seats is evenly distributed across the city, but parental demand follows quality, which is not evenly distributed.

–       Demand for the city’s highest quality schools varies by race and income: 55% of Hispanic students listed highly rated schools 1st compared to 73% of white students.

–       58% of low-income students chose green and blue schools whereas 66% of non-low income students did.

–       The greater proximity of more highly rated schools to white and non-low income families may explain why these families are more likely to choose highly rated schools as a first choice.

–       The vast majority of schools can accommodate all of the students who select them, but there is a small set of highly rated, high demand schools where demand exceeds the number of open seats. Schools that receive the most first choice requests in K, 6th and 9th grades relative to the number of seats available include Polaris, Odyssey, Swigert, Denver Language School, DSST GVR, and CEC Middle College.

–       The highest number of requests per seat (demand) is in Northeast, and the fewest requests per seat are in Northwest.

–       Higher-performing students participated in the choice process more. 75% of those in the top math quartile participated, compared to 63% in the bottom quartile. In other words, more than a third of the lowest-performing students are not actively choosing which school to attend using SchoolChoice.


Denver is only one of a handful of cities in the country to have a school choice system (SchoolChoice) where parents fill out just one application for any school – charter, traditional, Innovation and contract. The system, created three years ago, moved from one where there were at least 62 separate applications, to a streamlined approach where entering five choices automatically gives a student an equal chance of getting into each of the five options – and approving them for their favorite when they are matched.  Aroundt the same time the SchoolChoice tool was released, DPS became one of the first and only districts to provide parents with enrollment guides that clearly spelled out how students at each school were performing academically. This bold approach meant that parents no longer had to decipher confusing websites or rely on word of mouth, but could easily figure test scores into their school choice decisions.

A+ Denver’s Transparency Committee, comprised of school principals, parents, foundation representatives, other education organizations,  and district staff, has been monitoring the system for 3 years in partnership with a third party university evaluator. The University of Colorado – Denver did the analysis for the first two years, and the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) completed the analysis in the third year. For the full text of the reports, click here. In fall 2014 CRPE also completed a comparison study of eight districts, including Denver, to understand how parents’ experiences navigating school choice processes compare across cities. As part of their “Making School Choice Work” initiative, CRPE is studying the development of common enrollment systems in cities across the country and will issue findings in spring 2015.

Report Presentation and Panel Discussion

A+ Denver will host a panel discussion on the report and SchoolChoice process featuring Betheny Gross, Research Director at CRPE and lead author of the report, and Brian Eschbacher, Director of Planning and Analysis at Denver Public Schools.  Event details:

Is the School Enrollment System Working for Families? A discussion of Denver’s SchoolChoice

January 22, 2015 | 5:30-7pm

Denver Public Schools – Emily Griffith Campus, 14th floor

1860 Lincoln Street, Denver CO 80203

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