When I had the opportunity to participate in Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) Strengthening Neighborhoods committee, I knew I had to get involved. I wanted to bring my perspective as a DPS graduate and current DPS parent. I wanted to contribute to a citywide conversation about integration and to be as informed as possible about decisions affecting my community. But I also wanted to represent other families whose lives have been meaningfully affected by school choice. In my family, having the freedom and access to choose the right school for each of my children has made all the difference.
Growing up in Denver in the 80s, I attended all of my neighborhood schools; that’s just what you did back then. But when my husband and I chose a middle school for my daughter – Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) – we were so amazed at the positive impact it had on our entire family. Without school choice, our daughter would never have been able to go to a school like that.
When our son was struggling academically in the fourth grade, we made the difficult decision to move him to a different school mid-year. With middle school just a few short years away, we knew that he needed more intensive support than he was getting. We enrolled him at Centennial Elementary, even though it was February, and even though, at the time, the school had a lower rating on the School Performance Framework than we would have preferred. We knew that high-needs schools receive extra resources and supports to help their students improve, and trusted our instincts that he would get the help he needed. He ended up dramatically improving his skills in reading, writing and math, and is now thriving in the seventh grade at Skinner Middle School.
Having access to the schools that met my children’s needs is something I am deeply thankful for, so I was honored to work with committee co-chair Diana Romero-Campbell in the group that focused on ensuring equitable access to schools for all students. Our work focused on ways DPS can promote socioeconomic integration by increasing access to less-diverse schools through the district’s enrollment systems.
The committee members wrestled with challenging issues and topics, many of which were very personal and hit close to home. I believe that everyone in the group ultimately came to a good place with the recommendations. In addition to the overarching recommendations from the full Strengthening Neighborhoods committee, our sub-group created recommendations as well. They include:
Increasing access through enrollment priority
We recommended giving underrepresented students priority in the enrollment system so they can have a better chance at enrolling at less-diverse schools, regardless of where they live in the city. I was encouraged to see that this week, DPS announced the expansion of a pilot program focusing on increasing access to high-quality schools for students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. Although it may be tough for schools that are at or close to full enrollment to find additional seats for students, we believe that this is an important starting point.
Increasing integration through additional enrollment zones
We also recommended that the district create additional enrollment zones as a way to increase school and classroom diversity. Because Denver’s housing patterns tend to be highly segregated across the city, we could see that smaller, individual school boundaries would continue to result in more homogeneous schools. With this recommendation, we suggest that DPS widen enrollment zones, where students in a broad geographic area are guaranteed a seat at one of the multiple schools in that area (instead of just their neighborhood school).
We think DPS should identify areas where the housing market and population shifts have caused the most segregation and proactively change boundaries/zones to create a wider selection of high-quality, integrated schools. Those new zones should include all types of DPS schools: traditional neighborhood schools, innovation schools and charter schools too. There will be a very few schools whose highly-specialized programs shouldn’t be included in zones, but those should be the exception – not the rule.
Increasing access through transportation options
Being able to enroll in any school is great in theory, but transportation can be a significant barrier for many Denver families. This aspect of access was particularly challenging for our group, because DPS’ ability to change their current transportation options is constrained by state and federal law, as well as limited resources. If DPS were to invest in a wider range of transportation options, it could limit or decrease the money available to invest in classrooms, including resources that could support equity and inclusion.
Ultimately, we recommended that if future funds become available, they should be earmarked for transportation within enrollment zones to increase school options for underrepresented students. We also recommended that DPS continue to build on its partnerships with RTD, the City and County of Denver and community partners to provide students with as many transportation options as possible.
Increasing access for all students throughout the school year
This recommendation was the most important to me personally. My family was fortunate because when we chose to change my son’s school, the school had space for him. But the city’s housing crisis means that for many families, changing schools is a necessity, not a choice. Some families have to move frequently, often with barely 30-days’ notice to find a new place to live. Moving is stressful enough for children, let alone starting over in a new school. In the 2017-18 school year, 7,154 students arrived at schools after the district’s annual October count, when each school reports the number of students in attendance and enrollment is determined for the year. It’s vitally important that our schools have room to accept new students who need a place to learn after the beginning of the school year.
All DPS schools should make seats available for students who need to enroll at different times throughout the school year, no matter what grade level. We also recommended that DPS create a thorough equity audit to address any restrictive enrollment policies that could be a barrier to socioeconomic integration.
One part of a complicated puzzle
I hope that Denver families and community members understand that the recommendations are just the first step to addressing the issues of gentrification, segregation and inequity in our city. The committee’s recommendations are just one part of a complicated puzzle. The work of public education is hard, and these big changes take time. But if we ensure that every voice is heard in these challenging conversations, we’ll make sure that all of Denver’s kids and families have access to a great education. And that’s worth the effort.
Amanda Sandoval graduated from North High School and is proud to serve as Senior Council Aide to Councilman Rafael Espinoza, whose district includes North High School. Amanda follows in her family’s legacy of public service, political activism and is an advocate for social justice within her community. This blog is the second in a CO School Talk series detailing the Strengthening Neighborhoods committee’s recommendations on how to increase integration and inclusion in DPS schools.