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stories

Equity In the Driver’s Seat

BY Keesa Sung

This district is breaking down barriers and helping families navigate school choice by educating them about the options available for their students.

In many ways, Colorado’s Greeley-Evans School District 6 is a microcosm of our nation. It’s growing, steadily but surely, and a diverse population is at the core of what makes the community so special. With immigrants, English Language Learners and families of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, Greeley-Evans represents America — in all her beauty and with all the challenges she faces.

Much of the district’s growth has come in the last decade. Shifting populations in the larger community as a whole are reflected in current student demographics:

  • 1 out of 4 students’ first or primary language is not English
  • 79 different languages are spoken in the homes of the district’s 23,183 PK-12 students
  • 33% are active and former English Language Learners (ELLs)
  • 65% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch

Growth comes with challenges

In many diverse areas across the U.S., educators today are concerned with creating social inclusive school populations. On average, students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools—regardless of a student’s own economic status—have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty.¹ Classrooms in which students learn collectively alongside their peers whose perspectives and backgrounds are different from their own are beneficial to all students. This includes middle-class white students—because these environments promote creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Integrated schools produce better outcomes for all, in particular, students in integrated schools have higher average test scores. For example, on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth graders in math, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored roughly two years of learning ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools.²  The road to college becomes significantly more likely when comparing students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, those students at more affluent schools are 68 percent more likely to enroll at a four-year college than their peers at high-poverty schools. The benefits improved with inclusive schools.

Educators are also concerned about making sure everyone, including disadvantaged populations, can participate in choice. In the past,  access to it has mirrored privilege. Education leaders today can acknowledge that traditionally, to exercise choice about the school one’s child attends, parents/guardians needed free time or job flexibility (like a white collar position that offers personal days). Spending hours applying to multiple schools just wasn’t feasible if parents work shifts or multiple jobs or can’t afford childcare.

Research today overwhelmingly shows mobile web is most effective for extending choice to disadvantaged populations. An online enrollment system grants equitable access because it:

  • is available during all hours of the day, on-demand, via computer, tablet, phone, etc.
  • is more easily (and cost-effectively) translated into multiple languages
  • eliminates human bias about who deserves (or doesn’t) deserve special treatment

In Colorado, open enrollment is integral to the school landscape, dating back to the Public Schools of Choice Act of 1990.  Colorado is one of only 10 states today that allow parents to opt out of sending kids to their default neighborhood school in favor of a school of their choice, without restrictions.³ In District 6, this number has seen a steady increase in recent years, which can be attributed to additional options including six charter schools and three magnet schools. Families can also come to the district from outside district boundaries, which has accelerated both growth and changing student demographics.

Greeley-Evans has been proactive in protecting equity and driving integration. Early on, school leaders identified a need to redraw school boundaries in order to balance racial and socioeconomic diversity across the system and promote equitable access for all students. Today, 4,125 miles are driven by District 6 buses daily. Schools and classrooms better mirror the community and honor the district’s values and beliefs including viewing diversity as an asset.

The District 6 Newcomer Program is for newly arrived students from other countries who speak a language other than English as their primary language.  The program begins with an orientation for all families as well as an orientation for newly arrived high school students. It supports students at their home school during their first year of school in the United States, provides Family Engagement programming, and opportunities for families to connect to the community.4 Engaging families has been a hallmark of the district and, this is just one example of the care with which the district welcomes students and families who are new to the U.S.

Breaking down barriers to access school choice: a priority for District 6

How families become initially aware of their school options is complicated and even more so for non-native speakers. Paper enrollment processes have proven to be inequitable and require families to drive from school to school to submit the appropriate application forms, documentation, and complete many forms in duplicate for families with multiple school-aged children. This was a daunting endeavor and surely not easy to accomplish for dual working families nor those with limited work flexibility.

In District 6, the open enrollment process has evolved over the years from a paper-driven process, with school-specific timelines, deadlines, and processes to a once and done approach (for all district-run schools, charter schools are running on their own timelines*).

For the enrollment team at District 6, a paper process resulted in weeks of data entry to input the 1,500+ applications received each year. Managing priorities, offers, acceptances, waitlists and communications with families overtaxed the team.  Last year, the team evaluated the process they were using including most recently a process built using Google forms. While they concluded the process was more beneficial to families than paper (no more trekking across the district and putting in applications at each school), the digital forms were not much easier to glean data insights for district staff and managing the process proved to be very time consuming for the team.

They knew they could do better for all stakeholders. The quest began to secure a true online platform for the 2019-2020 school year open enrollment period (which just closed in December 2018) that would deliver a truly equitable experience. District 6 didn’t have to look very far for the answer, they found it in a neighbor — Denver Public Schools (who in the prior year had pioneered a similar solution).

Their search for a modern, easy-to-use, and accessible to families solution was over.  From the administrative perspective, they decided to partner with SchoolMint in order to:

  • Provide families with mobile access and translations to ensure fair and equitable access for all families participating in the school choice process.
  • Deliver real-time data to the enrollment team by providing data intelligence and streamlined administrative processes to eliminate burdensome data entry and time-consuming data analysis.

“We believe SchoolMint will help us build community trust with an equitable and transparent process and improve our channels of communication with parents,” says Andrew Palmer, Director of Student Information Services at Greeley-Evans Schools. “With a multilingual, mobile-friendly app that allows families to complete digital applications with their smartphones, we are leveling the playing field for all of our students and their families.”

And perhaps most importantly, moving to a system with dashboards and data reports are enabling District 6 ’s enrollment office to move forward with better data insights. Palmer is watching district enrollment numbers closely, designing and running test lottery scenarios with SchoolMint’s sandbox environment, and is looking forward to the ease with which his team will be able to communicate lottery results, offers, waitlist information with families in the coming months. This year is an especially personal one for him, too; Palmer’s 5 year-old daughter is part of the choice application process this year, and will go into the lottery for District 6’s K-8 Magnet School. This experience offers  a unique perspective: “I live just outside the district like so many of our families and so this is real for me too.”

Looking ahead to next year, some goals Palmer has tentatively set forth for his team would be to:

  • Expand on the centralized process they established this year by including all district schools and charters under one timeline.
  • Establish a plan for training school principals and leaders. This will ensure that they are comfortable with going into the SchoolMint system to view dashboards of their enrollment trends, their school applications, and enrollment activity, and be able to act as the first line of customer service for families.

Palmer so far feels confident in the district’s success: “In District 6, open enrollment is a driving force for promoting equitable access for all students. It allows students the opportunity to pursue individual goals and interests via academic pathways, specialized programs, and learning environments. As a result of equitable access via open enrollment, we are finding students benefit academically and social-emotionally and are prepared for life beyond the classroom.”

 

Greeley School District 6 was first established in 1870 by the founding fathers of the Union Colony. Evans had its own school district, also established in 1870. In 1962, Evans and Greeley merged school districts and established Greeley-Evans School District 6. District 6 has continued to grow over the years and is now the 12th largest school district in the state of Colorado. They serve more than 23,000 students in the communities of Greeley and Evans, Colorado and include twenty-seven district-operated schools and six charter schools. Charter schools account for educating nearly 30% of district students.

*It is worth noting that District 6 is hoping to soon streamline timelines across all schools in the district, including Charter Schools.