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School choice participation booming in Denver

By   /   March 23, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

More than one-fourth of students in the Mile High city are using their school choice option, and the vast majority are getting into their top-choice schools, according to numbers released by Denver Public Schools.

About 26.5 percent of students in the state’s largest school system participated this school year, or 24,289 of 91,500, slightly less than the 27 percent who participated last year. And 77 percent of those students got into their first-choice schools.

The numbers were even better for what are known as the transition grades — kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. Eighty-four percent of those students got into their top choice this year, compared with 78 percent in 2014-15.

Denver Public Schools photo

CHOICE REJOICE: Kurt Dennis, principal of McAuliffe International School in Denver, speaks at a press conference touting school choice participation. McAuliffe was one of the more sought after options in the city.

Those who don’t get into their top choice are participating in the second round of selections this week. Any student who still doesn’t get into their chosen school is put on a wait list.

DPS actively encourages students entering transition grades to fill out choice forms. Eighty-three percent of kids entering these grades participated in school choice this year.

“Our goal is to have every student in a great school, and school choice is helping facilitate that,” Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said at a press conference last week at Skinner Middle School.

Cordova said that by middle school students tend to develop specific interests in such categories as arts or athletics, meaning families are more likely to look beyond their neighborhoods for a school that’s a better fit.

That is one reason DPS has created enrollment zones, particularly for middle schools. Every family living in one of those zones is guaranteed a spot in a group of schools in which each zone encircles.

“This encourages diversity in our schools in a city still largely segregated by housing patterns,” Cordova said in a prepared statement. “And it ensures every family has an equal shot at the zone school they believe is best for their child.”

School choice participation was highest in the district’s 11 enrollment zones. For example, 97 percent of families in both the Stapleton elementary zone and the Greater Park Hill Stapleton middle school zone filled out choice forms.

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, named DPS the best large district in the country for school choice last month.

RELATED: For large school districts, Denver is first in choice

Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs at the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, told Watchdog.org that this high level of participation in the school choice program shows that children may need to attend a school other than the one to which they are assigned.

“This should be seen as a reflection of the needs of students, rather than a commentary on the effectiveness of the child’s resident public school,” Hiner said. “Some schools, public or private, are high-performing, some are not. The question answered by school choice is whether a child should be able to attend any school that will allow that child to learn at her maximum potential.”

Hiner wonders, however, about those 23 percent of students who don’t get into their first-choice school. She said those are the kids a voucher program could help.

RELATED: Colorado school district will relaunch voucher program this fall

“What if another public school is not a good option for those students?” she asked. “If there are private schools that would meet their needs as well as their first choice public schools that they cannot attend, students should be able to use their state education funding to pay tuition at those private schools.”


Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.