More District 51 students choosing schools

Parents like flexibility, control over kids' education

Jessica Downing-Ford knew the first time she visited Scenic Elementary it was where she wanted to send her son to school.

Despite living downtown in Chipeta Elementary’s attendance boundaries, Downing-Ford’s son, Elijah, is about to finish his fifth year at Scenic.

That’s possible because Colorado is one of 15 states with a “school of choice” law. That means each year his mother fills out and submits to the district what’s called a school of choice application. It allows him to attend a school of his choice anywhere in the district as long as there is room and he doesn’t take a school bus across town.

Going to school away from the neighbor kids is growing in popularity. Six percent of District 51 students, or 1,306 kids, participated in school of choice this year. In all, 1,534 students applied for the opportunity.

This year, 1,665 students are hoping to attend a school of their choosing. Parents fill out school of choice applications each spring and submit them to a school or district office by an April 1 deadline. Some parents already have been notified if their student’s application was approved. Others may have to wait as long as another four months, according to District 51 Executive Director of Middle Schools Mary Jones.

“Within the first five days of school, we want to let parents know” if their school of choice application will be approved, she said.

School of choice applications can be denied if a school cannot accommodate a student’s special needs or if a student has been expelled, but rejection mostly comes down to whether there is space for another student in the school. Local public schools try to leave room for 25 kids per classroom. If a school is stuffed with students, like Rim Rock and Shelledy elementary schools in Fruita, the district is unlikely to find extra space for a new student unless more classrooms and/or teachers are added.

Even a school with room for plenty more students, such as Broadway Elementary, might have to turn a child away if there aren’t enough teachers. The school is expected to have enough classroom space to accommodate an extra 213 students this fall, according to the district’s demographer, Shannon Bingham. If the school is staffed for the current population and Broadway teachers already have 25 students per class, though, some of the 34 students vying for a school of choice spot at Broadway may not get in, according to Broadway Principal Sharon Kallus.

“Sometimes at one grade level I can take them all, but sometimes at another grade level I can’t take any,” Kallus said.

Kallus said she does expect many of this year’s applications to go through, though, especially because so many are for kindergarten, meaning more demand for a teacher at that grade.

GJHS tops choice tally

Every traditional school in the district has choice students this year, except for East, Fruita and Grand Mesa middle schools. Jones said that’s due to how full those schools are already and that only two students at any of those three schools picked school of choice to go to a different school this year.

All other schools have anywhere from one to 294 choice students. Grand Junction High School has the most choice students, something Principal Jon Bilbo attributes to the school’s 100-year history, Advanced Placement programs, downtown location, and opportunities for off-campus lunch.

“Some parents work in Grand Junction and want to be able to pick up and drop off their kids every day,” Bilbo said. “Some come here because their parents are graduates and they want to come here too.

Bilbo said the school has gotten a bit crowded with extra students and the district may consider cutting back on how many choice applications the high school accepts. But Bilbo said the school benefits from the presence of choice students, too.

“A lot of the time they’re at the top academically and leaders in the school,” he said.

Tope Elementary had the highest portion of choice applicants this spring at the elementary level with 131 students vying for spots in the school in 2012–13. The school has 87 choice students now, one behind Taylor Elementary’s high at the elementary level of 88.

Tope Principal Jeannie Dunn said the school has extra room for choice students because expansion at nearby St. Mary’s Hospital and Colorado Mesa University has depleted some of the housing in Tope’s attendance boundaries. Those two institutions also contribute to Tope getting so many school of choice applications, Dunn said.

“Some years we have them (choice students) from every attendance area in the school district because if parents work at the hospital or the university they want to have their kids close-by in case they need to pick them up,” Dunn said.

Having so many non-bused students can create a glut of cars before and after school outside Tope. But Dunn said most of that problem has been mitigated by a before- and after-school care program that opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. at the school. A nonprofit organization runs the fee-based program.

“A lot of working families drop off early, so that has helped some,” Dunn said.

Jones said some schools with reputations for good test scores, such as Redlands Middle School, Taylor and Tope, receive a hefty portion of choice applications. But some schools with the same reputation but an out-of-the-way location, such as Wingate, only get a handful, and often fewer applications than schools less-well-known for their scores but possibly more convenient for working parents or equipped with special programs.

“I think our numbers would indicate huge discrepancies” if people were flooding more prestigious schools, Jones said. “It’s not about people escaping. It’s about preferences.”


Schools picked for convenience, programs

New Emerson, R-5 High and Dual Immersion Academy aren’t technically choice schools because they have no attendance boundaries. But they have the same application process as choice schools. Heather Tobin, who sends her son, Patrick, to Dual Immersion to get an education in Spanish and English, said she likes the school’s small classes and bilingual experience.

“The teachers are awesome but the classes sizes (in District 51) are getting out of control,” Tobin said. At Dual Immersion, “the classes stay at 22 to 23, which is spoiled rotten these days.”

Fellow Dual Immersion parent Scott Mercier said he can see why some schools may be in demand because they have better test scores or one particular program that appeals to a student.

“I think it’s nice to have that flexibility. Some schools have a good band program or a teacher who excels in one subject a student is interested in,” he said.

Students who get into a choice school have to re-apply yearly but are likely to get in each consecutive year after having their application approved once. Siblings of students who choose to attend an out-of-boundary school are also more likely to have their application approved to attend the same school.

Downing-Ford said she wants to send her daughter to kindergarten at Scenic this fall. She said she doesn’t want to move to the Scenic attendance area because her house is paid for and she doesn’t mind the drive, She said she doesn’t have a problem with Chipeta, she just feels more welcome at Scenic.

“I think school of choice is one of the best things that District 51 offers,” she said. “I think the face of public education is changing and a lot of parents are starting to take advantage of that option.”


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