Illustration Riki Takaoka

Marketing School Choice: A look at how Pueblo City Schools markets their schools

Pueblo City Schools, for the past few months, has been working to sell parents on schools with specialties.

As a district that’s evolving in the face of an accountability clock, Pueblo City Schools is emphasizing schools with niches ranging from the arts to science, technology, engineering and math.

Advertisements in the movie theater, on billboards and even in last month’s print issue of the PULP all promoted specialty schools in District 60. The ads, in large part, encouraged parents to consider the district’s niche schools with when they filled out their school choice applications.

“Each year we have a window that’s called school choice,” said Dalton Sprouse, director of communications for Pueblo City Schools. This year, that window lasted from Jan. 18 to March 1.

The concept school choice, which was introduced in Colorado in 1990 as part of the Public Schools of Choice Act, means that parents have the option to choose which school their child attends, regardless of its distance from their home.

With more schools in the district marketing a special emphasis, parents have more options when it comes to choosing a school.

For parents, Sprouse said, it’s “a great opportunity for them to learn about the wide variety of programs we have available in our schools.”

“It’s a very simple process,” he said. “They can select their top three choices of schools they would like their kid to attend.”

Pueblo City Schools offers school options such as those emphasizing International Baccalaureate, innovation and STEM programs. Much of the district’s emphasis, in advertisements, has been placed on STEM schools.

The district’s IB schools, according to the 2016-2017 Pueblo City Schools school choice information packet, emphasize critical thinking and encourage students to work toward postsecondary schooling.

Innovation schools were introduced in the district three years ago as part of an effort to turn around some of its low-performing middle schools. Those schools have perhaps the widest variety of niches, including art schools.

The STEM magnet schools offered by the district emphasize knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Charter schools became publicly funded by the state of Colorado in 1992, giving parents more options.

“We know that in this day and age that students learn differently,” Sprouse said. “Each student learns differently. And some students may excel in science, engineering, mathematics and technology.”

Other students, he said, might benefit from schools that emphasize postsecondary education or the arts.

For a handful of District 60 schools, filling out a school choice application is the only way to enroll.

Fountain International Magnet, Corwin International Magnet, Bessemer Academy, Highland Park, Roncalli STEM Academy and Central High School are not considered neighborhood schools, even for kids who live in their boundaries.

The application process for District 60’s IB and magnet schools is more competitive. For those schools, the district uses a third party lottery system, a Washington, D.C.-based company called Washington Square Works, Inc. to fill spots in the schools.

“They go into a lottery system,” Sprouse said, “because we only have two IB schools.”

For the other schools, the district prioritizes applications based on six criteria.

“We want to make sure that parents have the opportunity to send their kid to the school that most appropriately fits their children’s needs,” Sprouse said.

The top priority, according to the information packet, applies to “students with a rating of unsatisfactory in one or more academic areas who attend a public school required to implement a turnaround plan.”

The selection process then considers, in order, students with siblings who already attend the same school of choice, residents who attend a charter, private, online or private school in Pueblo, students who live outside of District 60’s boundaries, kindergarten students who attended preschool in the previous year at the choice school and, last, students who don’t meet any of that criteria.

District 70, Pueblo’s rural school district, also offers open enrollment and requires that students complete an online application form before receiving approval. Factors such as class size determine whether or not students are accepted into schools.

On a national basis, the concept of school choice is controversial. Critics of the policy, including the National Education Association, argue that school choice only benefits affluent and mainly white and Asian families.

Part of this concern comes from the actual logistics of getting kids to school. In Pueblo City Schools, and other districts across the country, parents are required to provide transportation for their kids if they attend school outside of their neighborhood boundaries.

In District 60, an exception applies to students with disabilities and those who attend the district’s innovation middle schools, who can ride buses to school, the school choice packet said.

But for every other student who lives in the city, transportation isn’t provided unless they attend the school located in their neighborhood boundary. And after a contentious debate last year about busing students between District 60 and District 70, this idea was even further enforced.

In May, the District 60 board of education voted against allowing District 70 to bus city students into the rural district for school.

So, in any scenario where city parents want to place their students in schools outside of their home boundaries, they have to provide transportation themselves.

Shortly after District 60’s vote, the District 70 school board voted to allow Pueblo City Schools to bus students from Pueblo West to Chavez Huerta Preparatory Academy.

In other cities in Colorado and across the nation, different issues plague the model of school choice. Voucher systems, for example, don’t exist in Pueblo, but they’re one of the most debated issues surrounding school choice elsewhere.

In June, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a voucher system introduced in Douglas County, asserting that it directed public funds to religious schools.

Other school districts in the U.S., including the New Orleans Recovery School District, rely heavily on lottery systems to determine which schools students are placed in.

A study released in December by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that New Orleans voucher recipients did worse on state testing when they won lotteries that directed them to private schools.

Not every conclusion reached about school choice on a national level is negative, though.

In February, the Brookings Institution credited Denver Public Schools with having the best system for school choice in the nation among larger school districts. The program, which features a relatively new application website, allows parents to choose their top five school options.

The district also expanded its boundaries to include multiple schools in Denver neighborhoods.

The New Orleans school district also ranked highly in the institution’s report.

Sprouse said Pueblo City Schools has been using the ads to publicize the different education options offered in the district.

“I think statewide, with school of choice, this is an opportunity for parents,” he said. “We want to do our best to showcase all of our great schools.”

Correction: A previous version of this report said magnet schools became publicly funded in 1992. It is charter schools that began receiving funding in that year.

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