Students across Denver have now put aside their summer games and trotted off to school. Where they head, however, is often decided by how well their parents play the games afforded by the public education system.
The most egregious example of gaming the system came to a head last spring, when parents for more than 10 percent of Bromwell Elementary School’s students were asked by DPS to verify their claimed residency under the threat of perjury. The majority did not do so. It is unlikely only one school has this issue.
Why lie about where you live? Because the differences between district schools are immense. Bromwell holds DPS’s highest rating of “distinguished” with an overall academic proficiency rate of 90 percent and less than 10 percent of its students in poverty. By contrast, just 1.5 miles away sits another district elementary school, with DPS’s lowest rating of “on probation,” an overall proficiency rate of just 30 percent, and 80 percent of its students in poverty.
These two schools demonstrate a central conundrum of public education in Denver. The vast majority of public schools are far worse than most people know. But Denver’s public schools are not quite bad enough, as savvy middle-class parents can still game the system to get their kids a decent education. This paradox perpetuates a failing system and inhibits meaningful reform.
How do some families successfully navigate a failing school system? Unable to afford a home in an affluent neighborhood, many parents choose a game of hopscotch, shifting and shuffling their children between schools with selective admissions policies — including magnet, international baccalaureate, gifted and talented programs, and advanced academic tracks — in order to avoid the squares of general admissions at their local school.
One can hopscotch between more than a dozen selective and elite programs scattered across the city, from entire schools to smaller groups embedded within a larger school corpus. Indeed, many of the most prominent advocates of public education in Denver have their kids safely tucked away in an elite program. If one were to eliminate the safe squares of expensive real estate or selective admissions programs, Denver’s public education quickly becomes untenable.
How bad are most Denver public schools, especially for poor kids? Not a single district middle or high school without a selective admissions program either received DPS’s highest rating of “distinguished” or scored either “excellent” or “high” on the 2007 Colorado School Accountability Reports. The DPS dropout rate is 52 percent and student proficiency in 10th grade averages about 30 percent. Now imagine these statistics after subtracting the students hopscotched to safe squares. What remains are the schools that poor parents cannot avoid.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of hopscotch parents don’t falsify an address; they use whatever legal means they can to navigate a system where average is clearly unacceptable. Many people assume that if these affluent parents — both those who game the system and those who have long departed for private options — would simply return to their neighborhood district schools, public education would be reformed.
But with 66 percent of DPS’s 75,000 students in poverty, the district would need to double in size, adding another 75,000 non- poverty-level students just to reduce the overall poverty rate to 33 percent — which, at the school level, is about where one starts to see reasonable academic proficiency. There is no shortcut to the hard work of individual reform at our poorest performing schools.
At Bromwell, one group of parents sneaks kids in; another petitions the district to have their children’s classmates followed home. Denver’s efforts at education reform are likely to continue to creep at the petty pace of incremental halfstep and misstep, until the day when the parents who cannot get their kids into good schools and selective programs are as powerful as the parents trying to keep other kids out.
Originally published in the Denver Post on September 14, 2009