Blog: The Educated Reporter

On School Choice, Denver Grapples With Equity

Students at the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a Denver charter campus, begin their day with yoga. School leaders say transportation issues pose a significant hurdle for prospective families. (EWA/Emily Richmond)

Denver Public Schools has made strides in creating educational choices for families in the city, but still has work ahead to make those choices accessible to everyone, experts and a district leader agreed during a panel discussion last week in Denver.

The district, with nearly 90,000 students, has a variety of school options and a single, uniform application process for attending any of the city’s public schools.

But that access is only a starting point, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the chief academic and innovation officer for DPS, at a seminar on charter schools and choice put on by the Education Writers Association and hosted by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. To ensure equitable access, she said, the district still must look at how to replicate good programs across the city and find ways to make those choices easier for parents to make.

“I don’t think choice unto itself is the game changer,” Whitehead-Bust said. “But I think access and choice are precursors for equitable access and choice.”

Sharon Bailey, a former DPS board member who also was on the EWA “Eye on Denver” panel, said she sees choice and access to high quality schools unevenly distributed across the city, and so far, unable to have an impact on closing the achievement gap.

“I don’t think we kept an eye on equity,”said Bailey, who also is a leader at the Colorado Black Round Table. “Even though there’s choice, choice is not enough. We have not really taken a look at those schools that are quality and taken those lessons and turned them into anything, but some good talk. I really think if we can glean those qualities from DSST, we can create that quality in other settings.” (DSST is the Denver School of Science and Technology, a top-performing charter network in the city.)

Van Schoales, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group A-Plus Denver, said the problem is that there aren’t enough of the charter schools that are high-performing and inclusive.

“The choice process is better than it’s ever been,” Schoales said. But he added, “At least in Denver, the growth of the charter sector looks good. We don’t have enough of that, though. That’s the problem.”

Sole Charter Authorizer

The Denver district currently has almost 200 public schools of which 46 are charters, and another 37 have innovation status — a designation that gives district-run schools more autonomy and a pick of waivers from state, district or union rules. Unlike in many cities, the school district is the sole authorizer of charter schools in Denver.

As the Denver school system DPS diversifies, district leaders are also looking for new ways to analyze the performance of schools. In the most recent report, almost 60 percent of all DPS schools fall into blue or green rankings — the two highest ratings in the district’s performance scale.

“That’s an enormous range,” Whitehead-Bust said. “What is enough quality?”

Among possible “hidden” issues panelists discussed that complicate the evaluation of quality are discipline structures that some charter schools are accused of using to push lower-performing students out, as well as issues around having enough diverse teachers, or having high rates of teacher or principal turnover.

Bailey pointed out that quality needs to work for students of different backgrounds. She said having her grandson attending a DSST charter school, for instance, requires a high level of parent engagement that for some families might be difficult.

“I would hope, and will be talking to DSST about that, that they can make the school a little bit more user-friendly, and still maintain the academic success,” Bailey said. “I think the students need the structure, but at what point do you draw the line?”

Schoales mentioned a recent paper he reviewed that looks at parent experiences with school choice. He notes that Denver families are “more bought into the choice system” than families in New Orleans, for instance.

Related findings have been made in other reports, including one published recently by A-Plus Denver. That report found that families across all segments of the city are trying to enroll in higher-rated schools, but such schools are unevenly distributed in the city.

Expansion Plans

Panelists also addressed recent news of expansion plans by the DSST charter network that eventually could have that organization run about one-quarter of the district’s schools.

“I’m not sure I would choose any school [network] to be one-quarter of the choice within a large district,” Schoales said. “We don’t have enough good schools.I don’t think the charter proposal as it was originally envisioned has lived up to creating really innovating and interesting options.”

But having choice has already made some difference, Whitehead-Bust argued.

“Families now have the right to vote with their feet. I think that’s actually meaningful,” she said. “As importantly, we now have access to ‘demand data’ so we can tell you there are three times more students that want to go to McAuliffe International than there are seats. That matters as we think about whom we replicate and how do we borrow from those success stories.”

This year, she said, two of the schools in the process of replicating in the district, McAuliffe International School and Grant Beacon Middle School, are popular district-run programs being replicated through what the district is terming “innovation management organizations.”

“I see that we will continue to expand based on quality, not on governance,” Whitehead-Bust said.