It’s the time of year when parents and guardians across Denver can enter their students’ names into a school choice lottery to attend some of the best schools in the state. Denver Public Schools’ enrollment window for school choice opened on Jan. 11 and closes at 4 p.m. on Feb. 12.
The model is remarkable. DPS is one of the only districts in the nation that offers an equal admission chance for some seats in almost every school with a single application.
But unlike in years past, parents are missing key information to help them navigate the more than 200 schools in the city. Denver has stopped publishing “enrollment guides” that include a robust system for parents to judge school performance.
Instead, the district released guides that only include feel-good descriptions of schools.
This baffling decision was deliberate. The Denver Board of Education voted in August 2020, with only the opposition of former Board Director Scott Baldermann, to adopt a resolution hiding data from parents. The resolution contained grand ideals, promising to work diligently to “ensure that all families have equitable access to information that empowers them as cooperative partners in our schools.”
I expected the district, as part of this transition away from data that shows student growth on state tests year over year, to provide parents with data about teacher turnover, classroom sizes, parent engagement, student discipline, and student attrition. I was wrong.
The district now prominently displays the kind of data that perpetuates the gross segregation in DPS, both racially and economically. Only race and free and reduced lunch demographics are reported on the “School Finder” tool for each school. This oversight, whether intentional or not, is disgusting. The message is clear: “Don’t look at test scores or teacher performance; look at race and income when selecting a school.”
An anti-choice movement is growing across this nation, and the DPS Board of Education members bought into that movement when they ended the robust school performance framework. Teacher’s unions want parents to live with the school in their neighborhood under the ruse that every public school offers an equitable education. If the union can convince people that poor student outcomes are the students’ fault and not the result of inept adults, their life gets easier.
But that narrative is simply not true. I know analytically and anecdotally that this city and state have schools where all students thrive academically and schools where very few do.
When I filed a Colorado Open Records Request for data from the district about how students are growing at schools year over year compared to their peers, the response was a link to the CDPHE website for a huge state-wide data download. I went to work sifting through the state data to present Denver’s school-level data to parents, grandparents, and guardians in a way they could actually use to exercise an informed choice this year before it is too late.
Some school performance data exists on the district’s website, but it harkens back to 2019. Want to find out how a school performed on the state’s Performance Framework? The link takes you to 2019 results. Want to know what the district has planned to replace the enrollment guides it used to use? The link to the School Performance Compact is broken with a “404 error Page not Found” message.
Affluent parents have always had school choices: They can download the huge data set from CDPHE’s website, look at the data on their laptops with high-speed Wi-Fi in their homes, and access software like Microsft Excel or Google Sheets. Parents who don’t like what they see can choose a private school or even move to a different school zone.
Denver’s school choice process used to give me real hope that we could close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in this nation. When parents and guardians are armed with data, they can make the best decisions for their students. Now, I fear we are slipping back to the days when only some parents know what schools are thriving, and others are left in the dark — intentionally.
Every school in the district, whether it’s a traditional neighborhood school with enrollment boundaries, a charter school, a magnet school, or an “enrollment zone” school, participates in the choice lottery that opened on Jan. 11. Parents rank their top 12 picks in order of their preference, and a computer randomly assigns students a lottery number and then works through an algorithm to make sure as many students get paired with their top pick as possible.
The algorithm also accounts for individual school priorities. For example, Bromwell Elementary School is one of the top-performing schools in the district, and in the state for that matter, but students from the Cherry Creek neighborhood have automatic enrollment into the school. After accounting for anticipated neighborhood enrollment, any remaining empty seats are assigned through the lottery system, prioritizing kids whose parents work in the school, who have siblings already enrolled at Bromwell, and then students who live in the district before opening seats to out-of-district students.
According to DPS data (that is remarkably still available), Bromwell enrolled 156 students from outside the school’s neighborhood boundary through the choice lottery in the 2023-24 school year, including 33 kindergartners. Six students in the entire school got into Bromwell via choice from outside the district.
The state data is robust, and there is far more available than I could possibly display on these pages. Parents can start with the data included in this article and then visit The Denver Post’s website to do a deep dive into a database created by The Denver Post’s Kevin Hamm. The data shows the school’s median student growth on the 2023 CMAS and SAT year-over-year compared to the student’s peers throughout the state who had similar baseline scores in 2022. The data is presented as a percentile ranking, so a school with a median score of 70% has most students improving their test performance better than all but 30% of the students in the state.
For example, parents can find out where students who are learning English as a second language are thriving. The data shows that fourth-grade students learning English are outpacing their peers on the math exam at Rocky Mountain Prep Ruby Hill (78%), Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside (66%), Johnson Elementary School (62%), Barney Ford Elementary School (61%) and Charles M. Schenck Elementary School (59%).
Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch showed more growth on the fourth-grade math test at these schools: Ashley Elementary School (78%), Sabin World School (76%), Rocky Mountain Prep Ruby Hill (72%), Goldrick Elementary School (71%), and Highline Academy Southeast (65.5%).
Students self-identified as “minorities” — a huge sweeping category that catches many races and ethnicities that are non-white — seem to be excelling in these schools based on the fourth-grade math growth metric: Ashley Elementary School (82%), Polaris Elementary School (77.5%), Sabin World School (75.5%), Rocky Mountain Prep Ruby Hill (72%) and Cory Elementary (71%).
All of this data and more could be provided on the DPS website for parents, but the district doesn’t want parents to know. The district and teacher’s unions especially don’t want parents to know where kids aren’t thriving.
I, on the other hand, am resolved that parents with students at or soon to be attending Barnum Elementary School, Cole Arts and Science Academy, Doull Elementary School and Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy deserve to know that fourth-grade math scores show most students at these schools aren’t improving year over year. And that is true for all students. The median percentile growth in these schools is below the 25th percentile among their peers. Students arrive at one level and most students only make small progress between third and fourth grade on the learning that standardized tests can capture.
Those parents also need to know that for free, they can select up to 12 other schools in this district they would rather have their student attend and be almost guaranteed admission at one of them.
Megan Schrader is The Denver Post’s opinion editor.
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