The diversity of Denver's school portfolio

As school districts across the nation realize that one-size-fits-all models are outdated, interest is growing in portfolio style districts made up of high-quality, diverse, and autonomous public schools. One such district is Denver Public Schools (DPS). In a recent report, A+ Colorado, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, took a closer look at how diverse the district’s options are, examining whether its portfolio model provides an equal variety of options for students in all areas of the city. The report also examines option diversity by grade band, and considers whether specific school models correlate with higher or lower performance. Though specific to Denver, the analysis serves as a good model for other states and districts that wish to examine the diversity of their school portfolios, as well as locales looking to increase the diversity of their school offerings.

The data examined for the study was publicly available from DPS. The materials included 2018 enrollment guides, including enrollment projections; school websites; and the district’s new School Finder tool. Researchers used the Shannon-Wiener Diversity Index to give a quantitative value to relative diversity of a given community by calculating a maximum possible level of diversity and comparing it to the actual level. Most commonly used in biological studies, the index as used in the report provides a look at both the number of school models (“richness”) and how evenly available seats are distributed across the various models (“evenness”). School models were categorized by thirteen different tags, with some schools fitting into multiple categories. Researchers used up to three labels to classify each school. For example, a school might be both “college prep,” having an explicit focus on preparing students for four-year colleges, and “single gender.”

The study found that each region offers a unique set of options for students, but some regions have more diverse offerings than others, and no one region has seats in every school model. The Northwest region is the most diverse, while the least diverse regions are the Southeast and Southwest; every region has seats in at least ten of the thirteen school types. School types are distributed unequally, meaning some students cannot attend the schools that most align with their needs and interests. For example, the Near Northeast region has no single-gender-based or early-education schools, while in the Northwest region there are no schools that emphasize the arts, and only 9 percent of schools in the Southeast are labeled “college prep.” While the majority of seats in DPS are considered comprehensive, fewer than one in ten comprehensive seats are in the Far Northeast, while over a quarter of comprehensive seats are in the Near Northeast and Southeast regions. The diversity of the school models also varies across grade bands; many models are not represented at the middle or high school level.

Results also show that no one model is consistently high-quality. Out of the thirteen models analyzed, only seven have over 50 percent quality seats, as defined by the 2016 DPS School Performance Framework, and in six of the models, including comprehensive schools (which comprise the majority of DPS seats), fewer than half of the seats are high quality. Quality also varies by grade band: In early education models, 90 percent of the seats are high quality.

One limitation of the report is that school location does not match perfectly with accessibility. Students may have access to the school of their choice in a different region, and researchers mention that their measure of “available seats” does not mean seats are accessible by all nearby students, as some schools have admission requirements or a waitlist. Additionally, A+ Colorado defined these schools into thirteen categories, but note that these categories are not inclusive of all of schools’ unique characteristics. This means that “richness” is under-reported across the school district.

Although DPS schools are diverse across the district, there is still room for more improvement. Further research on this topic should consider the socioeconomic statuses of students in the schools; doing so would allow researchers to see if social class has an effect on where these schools are placed. DPS’s goal for 2020 is that at least 80 percent of students should be attending high-performing schools. For this to happen, it must approve new schools in a manner that increases diversity. And this analysis ought to help.

SOURCE: “Unequal Choices: School Model Diversity in Denver Public Schools,” A+ Colorado (May 2018).