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Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced the expansion of a pilot program to prioritize low-income students under the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative on January 23.EXPAND
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced the expansion of a pilot program to prioritize low-income students under the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative on January 23.
Nora Olabi / Westword

DPS Expands Pilot Program to Integrate Affluent Schools...but It's Optional

As Denver-area parents begin the annual ritual of shopping around for schools, a concerted effort is being made to racially, ethnically and socio-economically diversify public schools.

Denver Public Schools will expand a two-year-old pilot program that integrated high-performing affluent schools that participated in the district's school-choice program by prioritizing enrollment for low-income students, specifically those who qualify for free or reduced lunches. During the last school year, 486 low-income students received priority assignment.

The school integration program is part of what DPS calls the "Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative," and for the 2018-2019 school year, the district is expanding the program from its initial 25 pilot campuses. The number of new schools participating in the expanded pilot will be solidified on February 1, when parents can begin applying to schools of their choice.

"We've heard very strongly from our students, from our parents, from our educators about how important diverse schools are, that we've seen lots of research that has shown that diverse schools benefit all students," says DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. "I think it's fair to say that we're in a time period now where the demographics of this city are shifting and communities are acutely concerned that as demographics in this community shift, as we see more gentrification, that the diversity, which is such a source of pride and strength in our schools, is not lost."

All students will still have priority enrollment for schools within the boundaries of their school zones; its only outside of those boundaries where low-income prioritization kicks in. For a student to receive free lunches, his or her household income can’t surpass 135 percent of the federal poverty line or, for reduced lunches, 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

But the program has two drawbacks.

The first is that most students have to transport themselves to whichever school of choice they are selected to attend because of a significant shortage of school-bus drivers. Deep budget cuts and a teacher shortage means that whatever money is available is directed to classroom teachers. And a hot economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country — Denver's sits at 3.1 percent, a full percentage point below the national rate — means DPS is having a tough time attracting bus drivers at $16.69 an hour.

Without a means of getting to a school of choice, this expanded pilot would mean very little to low-income families who, by necessity, rely on their children to walk or bike to a neighborhood school. Because of the lack of funding and drivers, bus rides tend to be limited to students attending their boundary, or neighborhood, school, and to those living on the outskirts of the boundary. Elementary-school students living within 1.5 miles, middle school students within 2.5 miles, and high school students within 3.5 miles of a neighborhood school are ineligible for a bus ride.

"This sort of hiccup to that whole process is if you choose a school that is not your neighborhood school, then by and large, you have to figure out your own transportation, and that becomes a potential stumbling block for families and students," says Matthew Samelson, director of special projects at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, who oversees public-school infrastructure issues. Samelson added that while transportation is a barrier, it's not a "silver bullet" to making sure all students receive a high-quality education.

"At the end of the day, what the district needs is more high-quality schools," Samelson says.

DPS is currently in "intense conversation" with the Regional Transportation District to pilot a program for DPS families that may bridge the transportation divide. Although details are sparse, the program may include discounted bus fares for DPS students.

"We're ultimately not a transportation entity, and that's why the collaboration with RTD is so important, to have those economies of scale," Boasberg says. "That would be a collaboration with RTD and the city, but those are conversations that are under way now, and we would hope to see progress on those conversations this year."

The second drawback to the program is that individual campuses choose to opt in. DPS hasn't set a formal policy for opting in, citing the need to be flexible, given that the program is just emerging. But officials say that deciding to opt in would be a "bottoms up" approach: Parents and teachers would have to be consulted before a principal made the decision.

"There is an opportunity for the district to be even clearer about requiring schools to serve more diverse groups of kids and to promote socioe-conomic integration in schools, so I'd say this is a step, but it's not the final solution," says Lisa Berdie, policy director at public education advocacy nonprofit A+ Colorado.

While it may be a positive sign that central administrators allow communities to have a greater voice in new policies, it could take a while for every campus to adopt enrollment policies that favor integration — that is, if everyone gets behind the plan.

"That process might look different in different schools," Boasberg says. "We're here to support that and encourage them in that process. We're seeing schools having that discussion and, as a result of that discussion, coming to us with their desire. And our answer is: Hallelujah!"

DPS isn't writing out district-wide implementation. It's just being overly cautious not to implement sweeping changes. Once this pilot is over, which could take years, DPS could consider revising district policies.

For now, parents with their children in tow can register for their schools of choice during the DPS Great Schools Expo Week, which runs through January 25. Parents and children are encouraged to visit with school leaders and find the right fit for them.

School-choice applications open on February 1, and parents can choose their top five picks.

"School choice is critical to helping kids access high-quality programs, but there has to be high-quality programs available for students to access," A+ Colorado's Berdie says.

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