Colorado

DPS’ SchoolChoice worked – for most

Editor’s note – This story was revised Tuesday to include updated data showing additional students, mostly preschoolers, who did not get into their schools of choice.

Nearly 70 percent of the 23,000 families who participated in Denver Public Schools’ new streamlined enrollment process got into their top choice schools, DPS leaders announced Monday.

Kids on school busMeanwhile, 80 percent got into their first or second choice school and 83 percent got a spot in their first, second or third choice.

It was unclear whether the participation in school choice increased this year over previous years, but several parents interviewed said the system seemed more fair and easier to navigate – with less gaming of the system by well-connected parents.

Christine Walvarens, 45, who lives in southeast Denver, succeeded in getting her son into popular East High School.

“For us, it actually was a very smooth process, but I did read everything pretty carefully,” Walvarens said. “It was easy and transparent. I feel it is actually much more fair this way.”

Still, the system didn’t work well for everyone. And many parents whose children didn’t get into schools their siblings attend said the system was anything but fair.

393 families fail to get into top five choices

Some 393 Denver families – 224 at the preschool level and 108 at the kindergarten level – didn’t get into any of the five choices they were asked to place on their applications. Several parents interviewed also reported siblings not getting into the same schools as their brothers and sisters.

Gabriella Cavallero has one little girl who will be going into kindergarten next year. She took mornings off from work to tour schools, attend open houses, talk to principals and observe students in class. She settled on five schools she believed would be good fits for her daughter, and set about ranking them. Then, she submitted her form.

“I know I was choosing schools that didn’t have a lot of slots … but isn’t that going to be the case if you’re researching good schools?”
–Gabriella Cavallero, whose daughter didn’t get into any of her top five choices

“I know I was choosing schools that didn’t have a lot of slots … but isn’t that going to be the case if you’re researching good schools?” she said.

Her daughter didn’t get into any of them.

Miguel Oaxaca, parent of two DPS students and a member of the education committee of Metro Organizations for People (MOP), said he had one parent complain that her son had been enrolled in a school she didn’t choose. A few other parents griped about not getting into coveted East High School.

He also said not all schools did everything they could to get the word out to Latino families about the new choice process.

“In the beginning, there was a little confusion, but after a few weeks, it was getting better,” Oaxaca said.

Not everyone will be happy with the unforgiving nature of a lottery, and there are bound to be snafus in a new system serving an 80,000-student urban district. But district officials said they were pleased with participation in SchoolChoice.

“We’re seeing enrollment increases all across the city and are thrilled to be serving more Denver families and seeing the high level of participation in SchoolChoice,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “Now we need to work hard with the community on ways to invest in creating more early childhood offerings and in further strengthening our schools all across Denver.”

In Cavallero’s case, the district told her to consider listing a new batch of schools and go through the second round of SchoolChoice. But Cavallero doesn’t see the point.

“The process – I don’t know what it’s been like in the past – was incredibly stressful, and time-consuming and work-intensive,” Cavallero said. “I do freelance work, and get paid for the time I am working. I had to take off a lot of time because I wanted to be an informed parent.”

Non-sanctioned DPS choice Facebook page pops up

Stories like Cavallero’s are flooding neighborhood list-serves and mommy blogs. A mom in Highlands, Lauren Wolf, even set up a Facebook page as a place for DPS parents to vent about their choice experiences. By Monday afternoon, it had 118 “likes.”

Proponents are still trying to determine whether the new, one-stop-shop SchoolChoice system, which included several information sessions in English and Spanish citywide and was supported by a coalition of community partners led by Get Smart Schools, drew more families into the process.

But DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong cautioned there is no way to compare participation to that of previous years.

“The main reason we did SchoolChoice is that it was such a complicated system,” Armstrong said. “There were literally 62 different forms and time-lines. This year, it was one process.”

Across the district, 82 percent of current students who will be entering “transition” grades next year – kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades – participated in SchoolChoice this year. And, in general, 40 percent of the district’s 81,500 students attend a school that is not their neighborhood school.

District spokesman Mike Vaughn said the district has received positive feedback on the new system, but  acknowledged frustration by parents of younger children.

“We’ve heard about families wanting to get into preschool programs and full-day kindergarten,” Vaughn said. “We have limited funding for preschool, and the state only pays for a half day of kindergarten. We are not near close to where we need to be to meet demand.”

A supply and demand problem

The fundamental problem is there just aren’t enough seats in the most sought-after schools. Yet there are openings at other, often lower-performing, schools.

The answer, according to Boasberg, is for parents to get involved now in their neighborhood schools – through high school – even if their kids are toddlers or preschoolers. The other answer is money: Money for teachers, new schools and expanded capacity at popular schools.

A committee is meeting now to determine whether Denver voters might be willing to open their wallets for this purpose again in November. Boasberg shared these options with Wolf and another mom Thursday in a meeting arranged by 9NEWS.

That’s all good, Wolf said, but she – and other parents – believe the choice process itself needs to be tweaked. For instance, siblings should get the same priority ranking in a choice as a neighborhood student, Wolf believes, since a child who enrolls in a choice school forfeits his or her neighborhood school slot.

“This is the first year there wasn’t room to capture the siblings,” Wolf said. “We have 10 families at Brown (Elementary) with siblings in (early childhood education) who got on a wait list.”

She also doesn’t believe the district is doing enough to handle the population boom in northwest Denver, largely made up of young families.

Wolf says the new choice system, which is now operated entirely through the district’s choice office, didn’t work as well for parents in her neighborhood. Previously, each school handled its own process and deadlines. And while it was still the same lottery system, it seemed parents were able to work with principals to come up with solutions.

Wolf said Brown’s principal, Suzanne Loughran, requested additional kindergarten seats and it looks like that will happen, so it seems her younger daughter will be able to stay at Brown with her big sister. Loughran could not be reached for comment. Even though her situation may be solved, Wolf said that was not the case for many other DPS parents.

“With the district taking control out of local schools, and putting it in a centralized office, it led to a lot more confusion and questions,” Wolf said.

There is still a chance for families to participate in SchoolChoice through the second round, which is ongoing and offers enrollment spaces on a first-come, first-served basis. Families may visit their school or schools of interest to submit a second-round SchoolChoice form through Aug. 31. More information is available at http://schoolchoice.dpsk12.org or by calling (720) 423-3493.

Top choice preferences in Denver Public Schools

These numbers reflect how many students picked each school as their top choice.

High schools

  • East – 869
  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch* – 310
  • South – 308
  • George Washington – 284
  • Thomas Jefferson – 238

Middle schools

  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch* – 510
  • Denver School of the Arts – 391
  • Denver School of Science and Technology at Stapleton – 351
  • Hamilton – 289
  • Morey – 233

Elementary schools

  • Swigert International School* – 505
  • Knight ECE Center – 469
  • Escalante Bridge ECE Center – 340
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval – 310
  • SOAR at Green Valley Ranch – 270

Note: Elementary counts may include duplicates. Students may be counted more than once if they selected multiple programs at the school, such as full-day and half-day kindergarten. Asterisks denote schools in enrollment zones, or those with shared boundaries.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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