How does school of choice work in Colorado?

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Growing up in Denver in the 90s, I never thought I had much choice around the school I attended. I always assumed the school I attended was dictated by the area I lived in. 

The neighborhood schools that were dictated by the district for me to attend were Jose Valdez Elementary, Skinner Middle School and North High School. In 1994, Colorado passed the Public Schools of Choice” law, which enabled more choices for families beyond geographical boundaries. 

Since then, one of the most important decisions a parent or guardian makes is deciding what school best fits the needs of their student. Denver Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, supports students and families with this critical decision through the SchoolChoice process, which presents families with an array of schools to choose from through a one-application, one-deadline process. In other areas of the state, local districts have similar processes to guide families through what is also known as Open Enrollment. Having a guide – essentially a portfolio – of the many different school options available for families is helpful to navigate the often complex process. 

Having more options for students is helpful because different students need and thrive in different environments, and lots of factors contribute to success. By having many options, Colorado’s Public Schools of Choice law helps elevate the overall education system for every child and family.

Schools have many variances, from communities they serve, to academic focus and even approach to teaching. One thing that is not often discussed, is the actual model of the school. Do you ever wonder: Who overlooks and governs the school? How are schools licensed and financed?  

A guide for families during open enrollment

Key for emojis 

📝 List or additional resources

📊 Data and accountability info

In Colorado, there are essentially five public school models – the largest being traditional public schools, and the second largest being public charter schools. One misnomer is that charters and magnet schools are not public schools. In fact, the school models below are tuition-free and public. There are also independent schools that may have tuition but often provide strong scholarship programs.

We’ll introduce each of these models below as a resource as you begin the open enrollment journey. 

How to use this guide

This is an overview of how school of choice works and the general options available for families in Colorado.

The goal of this resource is to give an overview of the process and governance models in Colorado, along with district-specific resources so families and students can explore their own options in their communities further. 

📊 Interested in a specific school? Visit the CDE SchoolView website for school and district data. 


What are the differences between the school governance models? 

Did you know? In Colorado, each Colorado school district by law has to recognize “Choice of programs and schools within school districts,” (C.R.S. 22-36-101)? See the CDE’s Public School of Choice education directory for more state-wide and to learn about the specific schools that match the below governance models in your community. 

Charter Schools 

In the last decade, charter school networks across the Denver Metro area have grown exponentially. The most prominent charter school networks in Denver are Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST Public Schools), STRIVE Prep, and KIPP Schools. While there are several large charter networks in Denver, most charter schools are independent schools and single site schools.

Though these schools are public, they operate independently, meaning they have their own charter school board. This board has a contract with the DPS Board of Education and is required to operate under the Colorado Charter Schools Act.  Charter Schools in Colorado have to apply to be a charter. After they apply, they have a set of guidelines that they have to fulfill from their governing board. The district has to authorize the charter application so the school board will formally decide to approve or deny the application. The decision usually comes after the application is reviewed by the district accountability advisory committee pursuant to the district’s guidelines.

FIlling out an application does not obligate you to enroll your child, but does include your child in any future lottery if the charter school uses a lottery system. Some charter schools enroll students on a “first-come, first-served” basis, and the “Intent to Enroll” form will put your child on a wait list. If your child is awarded a seat in the charter school by lottery or by wait list, you will be notified. Parents/guardians generally have a stated amount of time to officially enroll their child in the school or the seat is given to another student.

📝 Explore a directory at Colorado League of Charters

Magnet Schools 

Unlike charter schools, magnet schools operate under the school district’s leadership directly. Magnet schools are most known for having a specialty or focus in their educational program like STEM, languages, or the Arts. Magnet schools are also free, but they receive additional funding to maintain their specialized programs. Magnet schools often receive academic accolades as they utilize extra funding for materials, supplies and resources that propel them academically.

Many magnet schools admission processes include essays, interviews, or additions.

Note: While magnet programs specialize in one academic or performance area, each school within a Colorado district is responsible for meeting the needs of “identified gifted and talented students,” explains the DPS Student Equity and Opportunity website. Magnets are a great option for those students with special interests, but many other charters or traditional public schools include advanced programs.  

📝 Here is a list of magnet schools via Niche

Traditional Public Schools 

Traditional public schools (also known as neighborhood schools), are schools that are directly run and overseen by the school district. They follow all state requirements and Board of Education policies, without the ability to have waivers. Families can go to traditional public schools, which often happens for location preferences, sports teams, specific clubs or activities, AP or IB program, etc.

These schools guarantee that those families living in their geographic assigned area have a seat. If you enroll your child with the school district you live in, they will be automatically placed at their neighborhood school unless you fill out a school of choice application. 

📊 Explore more about the traditional public schools in your area by exploring CDE’s accountability resources website. 

Alternative Schools

A common misconception is that districts provide the alternative school option for students who have behavioral issues. Alternative schools are simply an opportunity for students who are not as successful in the traditional learning experience. Some students do better in different atmospheres and these environments can allow for more support. Some alternative programs will focus on supporting high-risk student populations. These schools have more flexibility as they tend to adhere to each student’s individual needs. 

📝 Here is a list of some alternative schools in Colorado. 

Innovation Schools 

The biggest difference between innovation schools and other school models is the ability to have more autonomy than traditional schools. Some innovation schools are completely new, while others are existing schools who have requested flexibility and converted to an innovation school. Innovation schools are managed by the district and have a different perspective and strategy than traditional schools. Innovation waivers are utilized by schools (known as Innovation Schools) to opt out of district curriculum choices so they can pursue a different model, and have more decision making power at the school level (for example, choosing to have extended school years and days). Waivers can be requested as a means to improve academic performance. 

📝 More info about innovation schools here, including a list of innovation schools approved by the State Board in Colorado. 

Independent Schools 

An independent school is autonomous in its finances and governance. Also known as private schools, non-governmental, privately funded, or non-state schools, they are not administered by local, state or national governments. While most private schools charge tuition, many have substantial scholarship programs such as Regis Jesuit School, Arrupe Jesuit High School and St. Mary’s Academy. 

Compare governance models 

📝 Below you will find a chart from our Denver’s Next Journey report, explaining some of the main differences between school models. 

Traditional District-Run Schools Magnet Schools Charter Schools Innovation Schools Innovation Zone Schools
Operational Decisions

Who makes decisions about teaching, learning, and operations?

Superintendent and central office district staff, principals Principals, superintendent and central office district staff Charter school board, Charter staff, often the principal or executive director Innovation school principals, superintendent and central office district staff Innovation zone executive director, principals, innovation zone board, superintendent and central office district staff
Authorization and Renewal

Who determines if the school can open and serve students?

Denver Public Schools Board oversees these schools and makes decisions about opening or closure Superintendent and Denver Public School Board Denver Public Schools Board authorizes and renews charters; charter school board applies for authorization and renewal With consent of 60% of school- based staff, Denver Public School Board authorizes and renews innovation schools, State Board of Education approves authorization and renewal Innovation schools opt to join zone with 60% consent of staff; Innovation zone board approves school membership; Denver School Board authorizes and renews zones and schools; State Board of Education approves local authorization and renewal

Who holds

the schools accountable?(Note: all schools rated on the School Performance Framework, and subject to state and federal accountability)5

Denver Public Schools Board Denver Public Schools Board Charter School Board, Denver Public Schools Board Denver Public Schools Board Innovation Zone Board; Denver Public Schools Board

Can schools appeal decisions or disagreements to the State Board of Education?

No ability to appeal decisions No ability to appeal decisions Charter school can appeal decisions to State Board of Education Unclear if school can appeal to the State Board if there is disagreement between innovation school and district Unclear if zone

can appeal to the State Board if there is disagreement between innovation school and district


Who are principals and teachers employed by?

Denver Public Schools (part of collective bargaining unit)6 Denver Public Schools Charter School Denver Public Schools (can vote to waive parts of collective bargaining agreement) Denver Public Schools (can vote to waive parts of collective bargaining agreement)

How are they funded?

The district determines how to allocate dollars to district-run schools. The district currently uses student-

based budgeting (SBB), distributing resources to schools based on the number and characteristics of students they serve.

The district determines how to allocate resources to district-run schools. Magnet programs often receive additional resources to support their programs. Charters receive the state allocated per-pupil funding through the district for each student they serve. The district retains up to 5% for administrative costs and services. Charters also “buy” into services from the district, like special education, transportation, food services etc. Innovation schools receive student- based budgeting, like traditional district-run schools Zone schools have access to additional student-based budgeting (SBB+) if they opt out of district-provided services in order to provide those services to zones themselves.

Who do they serve? (Note: all DPS schools, regardless of governance, participate in SchoolChoice)7

Often serve neighborhood boundaries, but can also be schools of choice, where families have to enter a lottery to attend Programs of choice, often with selective admission requirements. Can be located within boundary- serving schools or stand alone schools Often schools of choice, but can also be boundary- serving schools.

No charters in Denver have selective admissions requirements.

Can be boundary serving schools or schools of choice Can be boundary serving schools or schools of choice

What buildings do they have access to? (Note: all schools subject to Denver’s Facility Allocation Policy to determine which access to district-space)8

District places schools in district- owned or contracted facilities District places schools in district- owned or contracted facilities Charter school is responsible for finding and financing the facility; can make an agreement with the district to operate in a district- owned facility

Instructional Models

In addition to governance models, there are several distinct instructional approaches which include structure teaching strategies, methods, skills, and student activities for a particular instructional emphasis. Examples of models are:

  • Expeditionary Learning (EL)
  • Dual Language
  • Montessori
  • Project Based Learning (PBL)
  • Arts Focused
  • Blended
  • and more.

Explore these different types in A+’s 2018 report about school model diversity in Denver schools. This report is the first to take a detailed inventory of the options available to families in a particular district.

Descriptions of School Model Types, from A+ Colorado in 2018 report.

District specific resources & more 

From January 15 until February 16 2021, Colorado families can participate in open enrollment. This time of year, the Public Schools of Choice law allows residents to enroll at schools in districts for which they are not zoned. 

Launched during the 1994-95 school year, Colorado’s choice laws are some of the most student-friendly in the nation. They “grew out of the end of a court-ordered desegregation case in the 1970s,” reported NPR in 2017. “Back then, a busing decree from a federal court led to an exodus of white families to the suburbs and, in the end, undermined efforts at school integration.”

Now, school of choice is a tool that parents can rely on to personalize their child’s education. In Colorado, the process is extremely student-focused and equitable: There are many public school options that families can choice into for free without a lottery or voucher system. 

Some states’ school of choice program utilize tax credits which means that families foot the bill for private school scholarships, and are given tax-credits. Some states include school vouchers, which gives parents the availability to choose a private school, and they can be given public funds if they are chosen. Other states utilize a lottery system for vouchers or an education savings account where families are given public funds to pay for private school feeds or other options. Explore the different types of school of choice here

In Colorado, many high-interest schools have a waitlist, but for the most part in Colorado, public schools do not need to be accepted in and all public schools are free to attend. For school of choice acceptance, “there must be space available after serving all students living in the neighborhoods assigned to a school, and the school must have a program that can meet the student’s needs — an issue that mostly comes up for students who need special education services,” reports the Denver Post in their 2020 school of choice guide. 

Additionally, districts are not required to provide bussing outside of the dedicated in-area designated schools, however, some districts do provide transportation, or regional transportation – so this is something to explore early in the process if your child would need arranged transportation if they choice into another school or district. 

“Colorado has long been an open enrollment state, meaning that students can choose to attend their assigned neighborhood school, or they can apply to other public schools within their district, or even outside it. Despite its benefits, open enrollment can be confusing for families who need to manage multiple school applications on multiple deadlines,” writes DPS’s School Choice website. This is why they created a one-application, one-deadline process in 2011. The system is based on the 2012 Nobel Prize-winning work of Dr. Al Roth, and is designed to maximize the number of students getting their most-preferred school.

During the 20-21 school year, 81% of incoming kindergarteners were placed in their first choice; 83% of sixth graders received their first choice; and 85% of ninth graders were enrolled in their first choice. Jeffco Public Schools has a similar tool, where you can search for schools that may be a good fit for a child based on a criteria search, and Cherry Creek Public School’s online School of Choice application is district wide as well. 


Here are some resources for starting the Open Enrollment process, whether you’re in Denver proper or in surrounding areas. 

📝 DPS Enrollment Guide, including 2021-22 a online and printable elementary and secondary enrollment resources, available in nine languages.  

📊 Denver’s Next Journey is a 6-part series covering a new era of Denver Public Schools with a focus on equity and engagement. This includes reports on school quality and flexibility in Denver, and facts about specific school options. 

📝 The Denver Post’s school choice guide, while a year old, includes relevant information on the processes and systems for school of choice in the Denver area, including the outlying school districts. 

Find the specific school of choice process for Denver-area districts in the below listings, from Denver Post’s 2020 school choice guide. Please note that this information is from Denver Post and some details may have changed since publishing. 

Website and dates

Adams 12: Kids who live in-district and have an older sibling who would be attending the school at the same time have first priority, followed by those whose older sibling currently attends the school but will move up next year (for example, an incoming sixth-grader whose sibling will move to ninth grade) and then all other in-district students. Students crossing district lines then follow the same pattern.

Adams 14: Children attending a school via choice are taken on a first-come, first-served basis, provided the school can meet each student’s needs.

Aurora: Children who are accepted into a magnet or specified program have top priority, followed by children of district employees; students facing displacement due to school boundary changes; students who go to child care in the school’s area; and all other district residents.

Boulder Valley: Students who moved out of their school’s boundaries, but still live in the district, get first priority. They’re followed by students with a sibling in the school they want; children of employees; students who left their neighborhood school but want to go back; all other resident students; and former residents who moved outside the district. A few programs also give preferences to low-income families, those living within certain cities and, in the case of some charter schools, the children of board members and school founders.

Cherry Creek: Children who have a sibling in the school have top priority, followed by kids of regular district employees (which doesn’t include hourly workers, substitutes and coaches, among other exemptions). All other kids then receive a lottery number and are matched with schools in order.

Denver Public Schools: Denver schools set their own admissions priorities, so where your child will rank depends on the school you select. Each child is assigned a lottery number between 1 and 1 million. An algorithm then puts the kids in lottery number order, within their priority group. Schools will go through the top priority group (say, students with siblings in the school) before moving into the next group, regardless of what lottery number students receive. Students who don’t get into their top choices can go on a waitlist, but will start out at a less-preferred school.

Douglas County: All students who live within a school’s boundaries can have a seat there, even if they previously choiced out (though those who left will need to complete a form to return). Families who move to a different address in the district, but want to stay in their previous school, also can request to keep their seat if they fill out a form. If a school has more applicants than space available, students with a sibling in the school have first priority, followed by students who were reassigned by a school boundary change, dependents of district employees, and all other district residents. Some charter schools may have different priorities.

Englewood: Students living in the district who want to use choice are placed on a first-come, first-served basis, but district officials say it’s rare for a school not to be able to accommodate everyone. Principals have some discretion in admitting students from across district lines.

Jeffco: Students returning to their neighborhood school after having choiced out the previous year are at the top of the list, followed by students with siblings in a certain school, those whose parents work in that school and all other Jeffco residents. Children who live outside the district but have a sibling in a certain school or attended a school that would typically “feed” them into the next level have priority over other non-residents. Some charter schools may have different priorities, however.

Littleton: Both of the district’s enrollment windows involve a lottery drawing. Children with siblings in a school get first priority, followed by all other students in the district. Out-of-district students who have a parent working for the district are prioritized over other kids crossing district lines. If any seats are still available after both enrollment windows, they’re filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Mapleton: Mapleton doesn’t have neighborhood schools, so geography isn’t a factor. Schools can consider whether students have a sibling in the school.

Westminster: Capacity isn’t generally an issue since most students go to their neighborhood schools, though there are three innovation schools that cater to students with particular interests, district officials said.