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4 out of 10: A Shortage of Quality Seats in Denver Public Schools

This week, Nicholas and I have been facilitating workshops throughout Denver for parents and guardians who are preparing themselves to participate in the School Choice Process in Denver, which opens next week. This year, parents can choose up to 12 schools on their Choice forms. Understandably, navigating this process can feel overwhelming for many families.

We start our Parents Choose workshops with great conversations about the vision we have for our children. I want my son, Kayce, to be loved and nurtured in his school. I want a school that is an active member of the community. AND I want a school that can fulfill the promise of preparing him for a life of opportunity.

We then transition from what's possible to the current reality by giving parents school performance data. As soon as we give parents the data, the whole rooms’ mood shifts. I have watched, as parents realize that there are not 12 schools that they are willing to send their student to. I have collected uncompleted worksheets, with three schools listed because those are the only schools that parents feel confident about. I have watched mothers knees shake as if they are getting revved up to fight in a battle for their child because nothing in front of them is acceptable. Waitlists are real in Denver Public Schools and for a parent worried they will end up on one, that fear is palpable.

This is why we organize. I can’t watch that mom’s knee shake or let the grandma, who dragged her 4 grandchildren to a session because she doesn’t feel like they are being challenged enough at their current school, walk away without a genuine feeling that families can be partners in improvement- they can and we know that when parents are equipped to hold their schools accountable, they improve. Here is the thing though- we can organize parents toward school improvement, but we also need to be able to tell parents about the Call for Quality Schools, which much to our disappointment doesn’t live up to its name as it only happens if there is an enrollment need, NOT a quality need. Our vision for a Call for Quality Schools is that it's issued when there are not enough schools to write down on the choice form that you would feel comfortable sending your kids to, and I can tell you, there is not.

DPS’ 2018 Strategic Regional Analysis found that district wide, 5 out of 10 elementary seats are green or blue. 4 out of 10 middle school seats are green or blue. Just 1 out of every 5 high school seats is meeting district expectations. That means that the majority of school seats in our city are NOT meeting district expectations.

As we host these sessions with families, one thing has been abundantly clear: there is a shortage of high-quality seats in every neighborhood in Denver. In the FNE, only 33% of high school seats are blue or green on the SPF. The waitlists at the blue and green schools that have the highest rate of preparing students for college? Last year, they were as long as 400 students. In Central Denver and Northwest Denver, just 8% of high school seats are green or blue. In the entire district, only 1 out of every 5 high school seats is green or blue. Only 6% of middle school seats in NW Denver are green or blue- just to be clear, that means that 94% of students in Northwest Denver are attending a school that is not meeting district expectations.

Next year, a projected 6,776 kindergarten students will walk through the doors for the first time in Denver Public Schools with their families feeling hopeful about their future. We have to ask ourselves, every day, what our promise is to them- because right now, they are more likely to be entering a school that is not meeting expectations than one that is.


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