Schools cannot afford to squander another year because of tepid leadership and political squabbling; they owe students a chance to gain back the learning opportunities they were denied last year.
How Denver Is Working to Improve Its Portfolio of Schools
CRPE recently analyzed Denver’s portfolio of public schools—the curricular themes, instructional approaches, and extra programmatic offerings—as part of a new report (it also looked at New Orleans and Washington, D.C.). In this blog, Brian Eschbacher, Executive Director of Planning and Enrollment Services at Denver Public Schools, shares the district’s goals and progress using enrollment data to increase the diversity of options available to Denver families.
For Denver Public Schools (DPS), our top goal is to ensure that 80 percent of our students are in high-performing schools by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal for the country’s fastest-growing urban district, but building on the successes of the Denver Plan thus far, and with new strategies to drive improvement, we’re well on our way to reaching it.
Early Successes: Unified Enrollment and Data-Driven Changes
We launched SchoolChoice, our unified enrollment system for all the city’s public schools, for the 2011-2012 school year. Not only have we increased access to high-performing schools, we’ve also reduced segregation and built equity of access to magnet and charter schools.
Further, the rich data we gather from SchoolChoice informs our annual Strategic Regional Analysis, which assesses regional gaps in school quality, choice access, facility utilization, and programmatic offerings for student groups such as Early Child Education, off-track for high school graduation, English language learners, and special education services. Even more important, the analysis enables our Call for Quality Schools program to authorize new schools, both district-run and charter, to meet our community’s needs. By using actual choice data, we’ve been able to identify long waitlists that indicate demand for certain school models, such as STEM or IB, and then prompt new and existing school leaders to design the programs their students are looking for.
How We Know We’re on the Right Track
In 2017, 82 percent of students transitioning grades (K, 6, 9) were matched with their first-choice school. Additionally, 90 percent of high-performing seats were filled, while only 66 percent of the lowest-performing seats were filled. The intersection and continued improvement of these two data points show that families are choosing high-quality schools, and by focusing our portfolio options on proven providers with community demand, access to performance is increasing with a high percentage of families matching with their most preferred option.
Five Areas We’re Targeting Now
While we are proud of the progress DPS has made, there are several areas we are exploring to increase our diversity of school options:
- Increasing community voice in the placement of new schools to best align with each area’s needs: CRPE’s report highlights the importance of creating a community-driven supply strategy by not only leveraging existing choice data, but also by instigating authentic engagement with the local community on what types of options are lacking for their children. This includes not only launching new schools, but supporting existing school leaders in hearing from their community on how to better align school models with the interests of students, which could lead to enrollment increases.
- Supporting school leaders to better articulate their program models: CRPE’s report states that more than 40 percent of K-8 programs in DPS don’t differentiate themselves in ways that are meaningful for families choosing schools. In a city where families have more than 200 schools to choose from, usually with several in walking distance, the ability for schools to appeal to students is key. This includes honest conversations about the program model and culture so families can make an informed choice about which type of school is right for them. Without program articulation, families may over-emphasize academic outcomes at the expense of a program model that may actually be a better fit for their children’s learning needs.
- Furthering access to our highest-performing schools for our most at-risk students: Denver must continue to identify the hurdles that make it difficult for any student to attend any school. This includes evaluating how students are prioritized in the lottery process, how seats are reserved for students experiencing housing mobility (and are therefore unable to participate in a lottery seven months before the start of school), and how to build awareness of different school options, even for students who arrive in the middle of the year.
- Implementing new online, mobile-friendly, multilingual tools: We’ve heard from families the importance of accessing easy-to-understand information in making choices, particularly in finding and evaluating schools. This fall, new systems will support families while also allowing principals to better articulate what makes their schools unique, a key gap cited in the CRPE report.
- Increasing community partnership in citywide efforts: This spring, DPS launched the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative to help form recommendations to the district on how to rethink strategies for increasing racial and socioeconomic integration of our schools in light of a rapidly changing city. We hope this partnership, which will continue on in the future as a working group, will allow DPS to evaluate school boundaries, system priorities, and other practices to increase equity of access into our schools.
Every student deserves to choose and attend a great school in their neighborhood. We know that when students are able to attend a school that meets their preferred learning approach, they will feel more engaged, challenged, and supported. Using unified enrollment has been a key strategy in managing our portfolio of schools and making progress on the Denver Plan. We’re building on that success: linking student learning needs with the right school offerings and fulfilling our vision of Every Child Succeeds.
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