Three Questions About Denver’s Newest Enrollment Equity Effort

I just moved into a new home. The boxes in my garage are about as never-ending as my trips to Target and Home Depot. There’s always something I need to do, which usually also includes somewhere to go. The one thing I don’t need to do is walk to the neighborhood school to see—if by chance—they have any open seats for my kids to enroll at this fall.

I don’t have kids. But if I did, I’d be praying for an open spot at one of the schools within the enrollment zone, and preferably the popular and well-performing elementary school visible from my front porch. And with all the new home construction surrounding me, I’m guessing more than a few of my new neighbors will be headed to the school to try to enroll their kids.

Not everyone will get a spot (more on that in another post), but thanks in-part to a new enrollment initiative, some will—because the district has been expecting them and is holding their spot in line.

Denver Public Schools has committed to hold 2,500 seats across all of the district’s schools (10x what has typically been reserved) for late-arriving students who are new to the district. Often times students who move to the district during the summer months, are left with no choice but to attend schools with open seats and low-performance data.

But these students aren’t just behind the enrollment curve, many are also behind their peers academically and socioeconomically.

According to the district, 90 percent of students who show up to DPS schools for the first time in the fall come from low-income backgrounds. That’s up 20 percent from those who choose schools by the first School Choice enrollment deadline in February.

If Denver is really going to be a district that allows all of its families to choose what’s best for their kids, then it has to make that choice accessible to all families, no matter when they arrive.

While more schools than ever before earned the top two ratings on the district’s School Performance Framework this year, several schools that would have earned top ratings were penalized for showing large achievement gaps between traditionally underserved students and those from more affluent backgrounds.

These gaps were also evident in the data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which revealed statistically significant gaps between more privileged students and those who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said this past spring that closing that gap would be the district’s number one priority. And it looks like the district is trying to live up to that promise, as adding these priority seats is just the latest move in an ongoing effort to increase opportunity for those who have been underserved.

This is what enrollment equity looks like; it’s making sure those who need more support get more support. If Denver is going to close its achievement gaps, the school district has to turn bold ideas into sustainable strategies that will help those who need it the most.

But how will this latest initiative play out over the long-term? Many are familiar with the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee’s recommendations to support enrollment equity. But what is the overarching strategy and how will the district mitigate the unintended impacts that may come from implementing these well-intended proposals? Here are three important questions I hope DPS is looking to address in collaboration with the community sooner rather than later.

Q1: If a late-arriving student receives a seat at a school that has a waitlist, how will that affect students on the waitlist?

A1: Superintendent Boasberg says this may inevitably mean a student on a waitlist remains on the waitlist while a late-arriving student receives a seat. While families across the district may not have noticed their time on a waitlist with 250 seats being held for late-arriving students, that may not be the case with 2,500 seats now being reserved.

Q2: How will reserving these seats impact the percentage of families who receive admission to their first choice school? And, could this affect families’ confidence participating in future enrollment periods?

A2: It’s not clear what the answer would be here. But, this year participation in the School Choice process increased by 17 percent (4,000 families) and the percentage of elementary, middle and high school students who got into their first choice school decreased slightly from 82 to 81 percent. Seems likely that number could decrease even more if 2,500 families are given priority to attend the best schools, right?

Q3:  With schools reserving a number of seats based on how many students have historically moved into a particular neighborhood or enrollment zone, the district is hoping to spread seats more equitably. But how sustainable is this approach, particularly as Denver grows at unprecedented rates?

A3: Despite Denver becoming one of the fastest growing cities in the country, district analysis suggests that for the first time in nearly 20 years, enrollment may actually drop by 2 percent by the year 2021. While this approach may seem sustainable for for many areas of the city, for areas of northeast Denver, such as Stapleton, will the district be able to sustain holding more and more seats open at many of the most highly requested schools? And in Southwest Denver, where enrollment is expected to drop significantly, how will the potential consolidation of elementary schools affect the options and access for late-arriving students?

No doubt, Denver has earned its spot as the best in the country when it comes to school choice and enrollment. And in order to continue providing the best opportunities for every child to succeed, the district must try out bold, new strategies like seat reservations. Questions like those above are to be expected and more will develop over time. With a forward-focused vision that includes the input of community groups and neighbors new and old, Denver will find the right answers. Our students deserve nothing less.

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