Denver has a new plan to ensure some of its neediest students get spots in its best schools – but it will require a potentially controversial tradeoff.
The district has increased tenfold the number of seats it holds open for students who move over the summer, which will bump other students onto waitlists at some of the most popular schools.
Denver Public Schools claims its approach is the most ambitious in the country for combating the problem of late-arriving students – who are more likely to be living in poverty and struggling academically – getting stuck in the lowest-performing schools. The highest-performing schools tend to fill up first when families choose schools for the following year.
“This is a real big step forward in enrollment equity,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.
This new effort is just one of the ways Colorado’s largest district is trying to increase socioeconomic integration in its schools. About 67 percent of Denver’s 92,600 students come from low-income families, but they are not evenly represented in all 200 district schools. What’s more common is that schools either serve a mostly affluent student body or a mostly poor one.
The move to reserve 2,500 seats across all schools for late-arriving students is bigger than another recent effort that has affluent schools give preference to students from low-income families who want to enroll but don’t live in the boundary.
About 10,000 Denver students change schools between the end of the school year and the beginning of the next, according to district data. That’s more than 10 percent of the entire student population. Sometimes, students move to Denver from another city or state. More often, their families are forced to relocate from one neighborhood to another because of circumstances such as eviction or rising rent, a common occurrence in the gentrifying city.
In the past, the district reserved 250 seats for late-arriving students. The seats aren’t for students who move and enroll at their nearby school, which is required to take them.
Rather, seats are saved for new arrivals who don’t want to go to the school down the block because it has low test scores, or because they want to attend a school with a special focus, or for some other reason. The district encourages families to choose the school that’s best for their child, and its common enrollment system allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver.
Families start choosing schools in February for the following fall. If the district doesn’t reserve seats at popular and high-performing schools, there’s a good chance those schools will fill up – and students who arrive in the spring or summer would be shut out.
The reserved seats are also for students living in “enrollment zones,” which are geographic groupings of schools. The district created enrollment zones in part to increase integration by mixing students from different neighborhoods together. Students who live in zones rank their top school choices within the zone and are guaranteed a spot at one of them.
But not all schools in every zone are equal academically. If three schools in a zone are high-performing and two are low-performing, the high-performing schools are likely to fill up first. District officials want to make sure students who moved into a zone over the summer aren’t funneled into the low-performing schools simply because they have room.
The reservation system has worked, but when district analysts began digging into the data, they discovered 250 seats weren’t nearly enough, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, which oversees school choice.
District officials had heard anecdotally that a huge number of students arrived over the summer each year. But the data allowed them to quantify that number, Eschbacher said. Analysts also discovered the students were more likely to have high needs.
For example, 70 percent of students who choose schools in February come from low-income families, a percentage that closely mirrors the district as a whole. But among students who wait until the beginning of August to enroll in a school, 79 percent come from low-income families. The percentage goes up the later students enroll: A whopping 90 percent of students who show up in September or afterward come from low-income families.
Students living in poverty are more likely to be behind academically. That’s true of the late-arriving students, too. Whereas 37 percent of students who enrolled in February met expectations on state literacy tests, only 13 percent of students who enrolled in September did.
District officials believe that one of the best ways to accelerate those students is to ensure they have access to high-performing schools where, for instance, they’re more likely to make two years’ worth of reading progress in a single year. Officials also want to prevent lower-performing schools from getting more than their fair share of late-arriving students.
“That caused equity concerns, as well, around a limited number of schools having that greater responsibility to serve a higher number of our highest-needs students,” Boasberg said.
So this year, the district is drastically increasing the number of seats it reserves for late arrivals. It’s also spreading those seats among schools in what officials consider a more equitable way. Instead of each school reserving 5 percent of its available seats, schools will reserve a number of seats based on how many students have historically moved into that neighborhood or zone.
Also new this year: Schools will reserve seats proportional to their size. For instance, the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone in northeast Denver contains five schools with a total of 2,700 seats. But nearly half of those seats are at one school: high-performing McAuliffe International, which is the district’s most popular middle school. So, hypothetically, if historical data shows 30 students move into that zone over the summer, McAuliffe will reserve 15 seats for them. The other 15 seats will be spread out proportionally among the other four schools.
Of course, reserving 15 seats at McAuliffe for late arrivals would mean 15 students who requested to attend the school back in February may not get in. Boasberg acknowledged that the new system is a balancing act between honoring the requests of families who participate in school choice in February and not penalizing the children of families who don’t.
It’s also a sacrifice for popular schools because it means they won’t know who all their students are before the start of the year, a delay that makes it more difficult for educators to plan.
“What you saw here,” Boasberg said, “was all the schools saying, ‘We recognize this is going to take sacrifice and harder work, but that’s the right thing to do.’”
Charter schools are participating in this new seat-reservation system, too. Charters are publicly funded but independently run, and Denver has a lot of them. The district is known nationwide for collaborating with charter schools, including on student enrollment.
Heather Lamm, the communications director for Denver’s largest charter network, DSST, which will have 14 schools this fall, said the network was willing to reserve additional seats because the idea of better serving high-needs students fits with its mission.
But she said the new system needs to be part of a larger conversation about district enrollment practices. District officials say they’re committed to increasing socioeconomic integration. Reserving seats for late-arriving students, most of whom are poor, is a step in that direction.
The district also believes strongly in school choice, which can perpetuate segregation in some instances. Lamm said she believes district officials need to convene a serious discussion about whether integration efforts trump school choice, or vice versa.
“Our agreement was to absolutely do this, with the understanding that this needs to be much better thought-out,” Lamm said of reserving additional seats. “If we want to be a school district that has high-quality options for every kid, then we still have a lot of work to do.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.