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Education Next: School choice, charters propel student achievement in Denver

To better meet the needs of unique students, Denver Public Schools is expanding choice and offering school leaders increased autonomy. In a new article for Education Next, David Osborne, director of the project on Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, finds that Denver’s strategy has produced impressive gains in student achievement.

In the spring of 2007, less than 39 percent of students graduated on time, but by the spring of 2015, 65 percent graduated on time. Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in reading, writing, and math increased from 33 to 48, far faster than the state average. DPS has more than doubled the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses, and black students now take advanced math classes at the same rate as whites (Hispanic students lag by only 1 percentage point). In Denver 1 in 7 low-income students enrolled in college in 2014, compared to 1 in 20 in the rest of the state.

Osborne attributes increases in student achievement to expanding school choice and charters, as well as an equitable school choice system. Of Denver’s 223 schools, 55 are charter schools, up from 17 in 2005. In addition to charter schools, students can enroll at one of 38 innovation schools, district-operated schools pioneering new school models with more autonomy than traditional district schools. Together, DPS charter and innovation schools educate 39 percent of DPS students.

DPS’s new SchoolChoice enrollment system minimizes favoritism, fosters integration, and increases demand for high quality schools by using the same process to place students in most schools, including charters and district-operated schools. In the first three years using the system, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five choices.