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It's OK to be choosy



When Andy Morris considered his daughter's education, he was able to shop around, without worrying about spending a dime.

"KC attended a District 11 school, but her friends were all going to Manitou [Springs District 14] for middle school," says Morris. "And the sports programs [in Manitou] would allow her to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond."

Indeed, Manitou includes fewer than 1,500 students, district-wide; District 11 regularly hovers around 30,000. But Morris is quick to add that their neighborhood D-11 school, Holmes Middle School off Mesa Road, would have been a great choice, as well.

"I was always impressed with both schools," he says of Manitou and Holmes, "so either would have been a good choice. But they're about the same distance away, so we went with what KC wanted."

Windows of opportunity

In 1990, Colorado passed the Public Schools of Choice Act, a forward-thinking bit of legislation allowing students to attend schools outside their neighborhood, or even outside the district in which they live.

"Colorado is an open enrollment state, so the reality is if there is space available, and a parent is willing to provide transportation, a student can go to school anywhere," says Nanette Anderson, public information officer for Academy School District 20. (Disclosure: I, too, work in D-20.) The administration and application of the act was left open to individual districts, and has led to wide interpretations. From the application process to ongoing paperwork to deadlines, each of the 160-plus districts in Colorado runs things a little differently.

In D-20, the rules are fairly uncomplicated, and its website contains the information a parent needs to start the process. After filling out an online application, parents are asked to bring verification of address and other vital information to the district office. In addition to the application, parents and students are encouraged to contact the school they are interested in, to find out more.

"Our schools each offer a Choice Enrollment Information Night so that parents can explore all of the options available," Anderson says. "The choice window is not first-come, first-served," she says. Instead, students in D-20 are selected by lottery, "so parents are encouraged to learn more about the programs they want to consider."

That "choice window" term is one to watch out for because it refers to the deadlines most districts enforce. In D-20, that window opens Jan. 6, 2012 and closes Feb. 24. Anderson explains the need for strict timelines: "Last year, our district received 700 applications from out-of-district families and 1,700 applications overall." Of those applicants, 1,607 were accepted.

Practical to personal

According to Anderson, the percentage of students who live in D-20 and use the choice option is about 10 percent of the total student population. She explains that the reasons parents choice their kids vary from the logistical — such as enrolling their child in a school closer to where the parent works — to the philosophical. "The philosophy is that parents might want to choose a school or program that fits their child's particular interests or talents," says Anderson.

While smaller districts often don't have the breadth of options for in-district movement that is available in larger districts, and some administrations give priority to in-district transfers, there are still many reasons for students to consider an out-of-district transfer from one to the other. A different district might offer a preferred teaching philosophy or additional technology opportunities. Consider D-14's most recent initiative, providing an iPad to each student in fifth through eighth grade.

KC, now a senior at Manitou Springs High School, gives her take. "At first it was about the friends and sports, but I also wanted a place that was smaller. A place where the teachers would know me and I wouldn't be just another kid in the hallway. ... I like the feeling of community I get at Manitou, too. There are lots of clubs, and the teachers and counselors always have an interest in how well you do."

Whether transferring to a large district or a small district, parents not only need to keep in mind the differing application processes and deadlines, but the matter of transportation. In-district choice students usually receive transportation options, but districts do not have to provide transportation to out-of-district students.

All that said, no one is a bigger fan of choice than Andy Morris.

"It works," he says, proudly. "KC just scored in the top 99th percentile on her ACT [college entrance exam]. I don't know if that's because we let her choice into Manitou, but it certainly didn't hurt."


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