Colorado

More students choicing out of district

A growing number of Colorado students are enrolling in schools outside their home districts, a trend fueled by the rise of statewide online and charter enrollment.

Nearly one in ten students this fall are attending a school either not located in, or not run by, the district in which they live, according to state figures released last week.

That includes thousands of students flocking to online schools based out of faraway districts and to nearby schools operated by the state Charter School Institute.

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This fall, 66,296 students are “choicing out” of their home district. That’s 8 percent of the state’s 843,316 pupils; in 2001, the comparable figure was 3 percent.

Colorado law allows parents to enroll their children in any public school with available seats so long as they can get them there. That’s led some to call the law unfair to poor families unable to provide transportation.

But increasingly, distance doesn’t matter as national online programs set up shop in rural communities such as Julesburg, at Colorado’s northeastern tip, and draw students from as far as Alamosa in the state’s southwest corner.

Julesburg exemplifies online growth

Julesburg had the highest enrollment growth of any Colorado district this fall, with a surge of 45 percent. The breakdown:  260 students attend classes on site in district buildings and 1,527 take classes through the online Insight School of Colorado, run by the same company that operates the online University of Phoenix.

Most of Insight’s online students live in Front Range districts. This fall, 150 are from Jefferson County, 120 live in Denver and 118 have Aurora addresses.

“It’s not the small-town, rural school districts that are losing all their kids to online schools,” Julesburg Superintendent Shawn Ehnes advised wary neighboring superintendents when Insight opened three years ago and began growing at a clip of 500 kids a year.

Fastest-growing districts

“That’s what I told them at the time – your fear of losing kids is, in my opinion, ridiculous – and that’s exactly how it turned out.”

In a state where student counts determine state funding, enrollment is far more than a popularity contest. Most of Julesburg’s state education funding this fall – or $10 million of the total $12 million – is following the online students.

After passing a percentage to Insight and covering expenses, the superintendent said the arrangement nets Julesburg about $500,000 annually for extras such as hiring a second music teacher. And Julesburg students can select from Insight’s array of elective offerings.

“When we decided to go online, it was with the realization that small rural communities are dying and slowly losing kids and jobs and people,” Ehnes said. “We wanted to begin the process of identifying alternative, outside-the-box ways of generating revenue and maintaining curriculum resources here.”

There is a cost. The state’s new rating system gives high marks to Julesburg’s on-site schools but a failing grade to the online program. So the district was placed on “priority improvement” status and must submit an improvement plan for state approval.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” Ehnes said of the on-site and online programs, noting most online students have been unsuccessful in traditional schools. “But we’ve kind of put that in perspective … truly without the curriculum options and the additional revenue, as a brick-and-mortar district, we’d be crippled.”

Increasing impact of Charter School Institute

Colorado’s total online enrollment grew 14 percent this year to 15,429 students, meaning they’re a small, if rapidly growing, fraction of students choicing out of district. In contrast, overall statewide enrollment grew 1.3 percent.

Statewide enrollment in online programs was up 14 percent this year.
Statewide enrollment in online programs increased 14 percent this year.

The majority of families choosing to leave their home districts are still physically traveling, typically to a nearby district as they seek a particular program or a more convenient or desirable location.  Nearly all Colorado districts lose some students, and welcome others, each year.

In some cases, the trade is fairly even – Denver lost 826 kids to Aurora this fall but pulled in another 1,020 students from Aurora for a net gain of 194. In other cases, it’s far more lopsided – Denver lost 2,536 students to Jefferson County and only attracted 1,114 Jeffco kids in return, for a net loss of 1,422.

By the numbers, the single biggest beneficiary of the open-enrollment law is the state Charter School Institute, which enrolls 7,981 students in the schools it supervises across Colorado. Students enrolled in CSI schools are categorized as leaving their home district, even if the charter is within its boundaries.

That’s because CSI charters are supervised by a statewide board, not the local district, and their state per-pupil funding flows first to CSI, rather than the local district, before being passed on to the school.

For some districts, the rapid growth of CSI enrollment – up 21 percent this year – combined with the lure of online programs and high-performing neighboring districts mean stiff competition for kids.

Consider Colorado Springs District 11, which serves that city’s urban core and which closed eight schools in 2009 after years of enrollment declines.

For years, the Springs district’s chief rival for students was Academy District 20, its affluent northern neighbor. And Glenn Gustafson, D-11’s chief finance officer, blames “suburban flight” for much of the district’s enrollment loss in the 1990s and the early 2000s as the student count dropped 10 percent.

But starting in 2005, state choice records show D-11 increasingly losing students to CSI, which now supervises six charters with Springs addresses, and to online programs. This fall, D-11, which enrolls 29,459 students, is experiencing a net loss – those entering the district vs. those exiting – of 3,548 pupils. It’s the district’s biggest net loss number since at least 2003.

Where are D-11 families going? State records show 1,377 students are enrolled at CSI, 1,306 pupils are in Academy District 20 and 606 students are attending six statewide online programs.

Gustafson doesn’t disparage school choice and he doesn’t see bolstering D-11’s own online program as a real solution.

“Online enrollment is a mask that covers the challenge,” he said. “The bigger challenge is, why are people leaving D-11? Why are they not satisfied with their neighborhood school?

“I think that’s the root question we have to ask ourselves. Sure, we could try to attract kids back through online enrollment. But that doesn’t solve the problem, kids are leaving the district.”

Winners, losers in district choice

Among sizable Colorado school districts, those with at least 5,000 students, D-11 is among the districts hardest hit by exiting families – its net loss of students is equal to 12 percent of its total enrollment.

Others include Adams 14 Commerce City, with a net loss equal to 16 percent of enrollment, and Adams 50 Westminster, with a net loss equal to 26 percent of enrollment. This fall, 2,734 students are exiting Westminster, with a total enrollment of just over 10,000, and only 90 are entering.

At the other end of the spectrum is Littleton, which gains three times as many students as it loses, and Adams 12 Five Star, home to the state’s largest online program, the 5,304-student Colorado Virtual Academy, known as COVA.

And then there’s Mapleton, the small Adams County district north of Denver, which reported the state’s second-highest growth rate this fall. Enrollment spiked 32 percent after the district added an online school, Connections Academy, and the New America School charter, which serves recent immigrants.

“We try to meet the very diverse needs of the kids in our community,” said Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. “These two schools serve a population of students that we haven’t previously been able to serve.”

The change quadrupled the number of students from other districts enrolling in Mapleton – from 394 last year to 1,648 in fall 2010. Instead of neighboring Adams 12 providing the most out-of-district students to Mapleton, it’s now Colorado Springs District 11.

Most of the new out-of-district students were already enrolled in Connections Academy, the online school which previously contracted with Denver Public Schools. Connections serves 1,372 students.

Ciancio pointed out both new schools were already operating with students last year via contracts with other districts. She also said her district values local control of schools and keeping Mapleton students in Mapleton schools.

“We also are advocates for, and believe in, choice for families,” she said. “We know that there are some families who choice out of Mapleton Public Schools to options we can’t provide, like a large comprehensive high school, and yet there are kids who choice into Mapleton because we offer small schools.

“So I think when you are a state that really promotes and values choice, you have to appreciate and value the choices that don’t necessarily match your schools.”

Students choicing into, and out of, the state’s largest districts

Jefferson County – Fall 2010 enrollment, 85,938

  • Total students choicing into Jeffco – 5,411
  • Total students choicing out – 3,424
  • Net gain or (loss) – 1,987
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 1,114; Littleton, 516; Adams 12 Five Star, 484
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 2,536; Adams 50 Westminster, 914; Adams 12 Five Star, 515

Denver Public Schools – Fall 2010 enrollment, 78,317

  • Total students choicing into DPS – 4,317
  • Total students choicing out – 7,732
  • Net gain or (loss) – (3,415)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Jefferson County, 2,536; Douglas County, 1,156; Aurora, 828
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Jefferson County, 1,114; Aurora, 1,020; Cherry Creek, 752

Douglas County – Fall 2010 enrollment, 61,465

  • Total students choicing into Douglas County – 3,407
  • Total students choicing out – 2,603
  • Net gain or (loss) – 804
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Littleton, 878; Cherry Creek, 387; Adams 12 Five Star, 289
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 1,156; Aurora, 575; Jefferson County, 335

Cherry Creek – Fall 2010 enrollment, 52,166

  • Total students choicing into Cherry Creek – 1,742
  • Total students choicing out – 2,160
  • Net gain or (loss) – (418)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 752; Aurora, 526; Douglas County, 256
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Aurora, 746; Douglas County, 387; Denver, 338

Adams 12 Five Star – Fall 2010 enrollment, 41,957

  • Total students choicing into Adams 12 – 6,412
  • Total students choicing out – 2,864
  • Net gain or (loss) – 3,548
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Charter School Institute, 1,157; Jefferson County, 515; Boulder Valley, 243
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Mapleton, 613; Brighton, 511; Jefferson County, 484

Aurora Public Schools – Fall 2010 enrollment, 38,605

  • Total students choicing into Aurora – 2,912
  • Total students choicing out – 3,218
  • Net gain or (loss) – (306)
  • Top three districts students are going to, how many – Denver, 1,020; Cherry Creek, 746; Douglas County, 575
  • Top three districts they’re coming from, how many – Denver, 828; Cherry Creek, 526; Douglas County, 256

*Source – Colorado Department of Education spreadsheets, “Districts serving non-resident students” and “Students attending public schools not in parent’s district of residence.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”