The overwhelming majority of Denver families get into their first-choice school.
This spring, 83 percent of students going into the transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades next year got accepted at the campus they listed No. 1 on their school choice form, according to data from Denver Public Schools. That’s up 2 percentage points from last year.
Denver Public Schools has a unified enrollment system, in place since 2012, that allows families to use a single form to apply to any district-run or charter school in the city.
School choice can be controversial, with critics arguing that it exacerbates segregation, and that independently run charter schools siphon students and funding from district-run schools.
A new report by A Plus Colorado, an advocacy group that supports equitable unified enrollment systems, found that Denver’s system has made the choice process fairer. Back when each school ran its own choice process, there were a large number of students — many of them white — who seemingly gained acceptance to certain schools outside the formal processes, the report says. The unified enrollment system is centralized and more transparent.
A Plus also found that more students from low-income families attend highly rated schools under the choice system than would if all students attended their neighborhood boundary school. However, the report notes that unified enrollment hasn’t erased all inequities. White students are still more likely than others to participate in school choice, and students from middle- or upper-income families are still more likely to attend highly rated schools.
Denver families submitted choice forms in January and February, and found out in March where their children were accepted. The charts below show how many students listed each Denver school as their No. 1 choice, how many students were accepted there, and how many are on the waitlist. There are several caveats to the data, which we detail below the charts.
We also asked Jim Carpenter, the district’s executive director of choice and planning, several questions about how to interpret this information. Read his answers below.
Now, the caveats. One is that not everybody fills out a school choice form. Students automatically get a space in their boundary school. Thus a school could appear unpopular based on choice numbers but be bursting at the seams with neighborhood students.
On the flip side, some schools don’t have attendance areas. All prospective students have to fill out a choice form, which could make these schools look very popular.
Similarly, students who live in “enrollment zones” are required to fill out choice forms. The zones are essentially expanded boundaries with several schools in them. The zones were created, in part, to encourage integration. Students who live in one of Denver’s 15 zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. So schools in zones may look popular because everyone is applying for a school.
Yet another caveat is that some schools or charter networks that span transition grades do not require students to fill out a choice form to continue attending. For example, an eighth-grader at DSST Stapleton Middle School would automatically be enrolled in ninth grade at DSST Stapleton High School. As such, the choice numbers at these schools may look low.
OK, on to the questions about the data itself. We’ve summarized Carpenter’s answers.
How does a student end up on a waitlist?
If a student doesn’t get into her top-choice school, she is put on the waitlist. If a spot opens up because another student moves away or switches schools, the waitlisted student’s family will be given 48 hours to decide whether to take the open seat.
Students can be on multiple waitlists. For example, if a student doesn’t get into her first-, second-, or third-choice school, she will be offered a seat at her fourth-choice school and waitlisted at the other three. (Students can list up to 12 schools on their application.)
A note about waitlists and enrollment zones: In some cases, the waitlist numbers at schools in enrollment zones can be deceiving. Take McAuliffe International School, which is the district’s biggest and most popular middle school. It is also in an enrollment zone.
McAuliffe has the longest sixth-grade waitlist in the district: 184 students. But according to Carpenter, none of those 184 students live in the zone. All of the zone students who wanted to go to McAuliffe got in, he said. The waitlisted students are from outside the zone.
Why is the number of students on the waitlist at some schools larger than the number of students who listed that school as their first choice?
Students on the waitlist could have listed the school as their No. 2 or No. 3 choice, for example. Students are waitlisted at all of the schools they ranked higher than the school they got into.
Why would the number of students accepted at a school be larger than the number of students who listed that school as their first choice?
The number of students accepted at a school could include students who listed that school as their second choice — or, for that matter, their third, fourth, fifth, or sixth.
What determines if a student is accepted at a school?
Two main factors determine acceptance at a school: the school’s enrollment priorities and a student’s lottery number. Denver’s school choice process is a lottery. But each Denver school sorts those lottery numbers differently. You can find each school’s priorities here.
For instance, a school may prioritize incoming kindergarten students with an older sibling at the school above students without a sibling who attend the school’s preschool program. Some schools prioritize students from low-income families in an attempt to increase economic diversity. Others prioritize students impacted by school closure decisions.
Why does the number of accepted students differ from school to school?
The number of accepted students depends on a school’s size, its program, and the demand for that program. Some schools have the capacity and demand to serve 100 kindergarteners or 500 sixth graders. At other schools, either the demand, the capacity, the design of the program, or a combination of those factors allow for far fewer students per grade.
What about families who didn’t fill out a choice form in January or February?
The school choice process that took place this winter is known as “round one.” A second round of school choice is now open. You can find more information here.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.