Five ideas to help Denver students get to the schools they choose

Denver gets national kudos for its robust school choice system, but the district has also been criticized for not doing enough to help some students get to their chosen schools.

The sun rises over Denver, as seen from Denver Public Schools' Hilltop Bus Terminal, the mothership of their daily logistics operation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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The sun rises over Denver, as seen from Denver Public Schools' Hilltop Bus Terminal, the mothership of their daily logistics operation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) sunrise; cityscape; skyline; school bus; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado;
The sun rises over Denver, as seen from Denver Public Schools’ Hilltop Bus Terminal, the mothership of their daily logistics operation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

Denver gets national kudos for its robust school choice system, but the district has also been criticized for not doing enough to help some students get to their chosen schools.

Now, as families begin submitting their school choices for next year, one of the most persistent local critics has offered a set of recommendations to improve what it calls the district’s “antiquated transportation policies.” Among them: Make more high school students eligible for transportation by shortening the distance they must live from school to qualify.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg had not yet seen the recommendations on Friday. But he noted that expanding bus service presents financial challenges. Colorado has among the lowest per-pupil funding of any state, he said, which “creates significant pressure on everything from class sizes to professional compensation for teachers … to transportation.”

The district already spends $26 million of its $1 billion budget on transportation, and Boasberg has said spending more on buses would mean spending less on something else. Plus, the district reports having a hard time filling bus driver positions in the thriving economy.

Some of the recommendations released this week by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation would cost the district money, while others would save money or even generate it. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The recommendations include:

Decrease the “walk zone” distance for high school students.

High school students now must live more than three and a half miles from school to qualify for transportation. Unlike for elementary and middle school students, they are not transported in  yellow buses. Instead, the district buys students Regional Transportation District passes.

But three and a half miles is too far to expect students to walk, said Donnell-Kay special projects director Matt Samelson, who wrote the recommendations. He’d like the district to change its policy to shorten that distance to two or two and a half miles. The recommendations do not include cost estimates, but this one would likely be expensive.

Remove a requirement that to be eligible for an RTD pass, high school students must attend the boundary schools that serve the neighborhoods where they live.

That policy doesn’t match the district’s position on school choice, Samelson said, adding that “school choice without transportation is not a choice at all.”

It also leaves out many charter schools, since boundary schools tend to be district-run. Denver has 59 charters that serve more than 21,000 of the district’s 92,600 students. Some charters spend their own money on transportation for their students. The result is an “unnecessarily complicated” system of who gets bus service and who doesn’t, Samelson said.

Take a hard look at whether ongoing attempts to expand transportation are working.

Since 2011, the district has run shuttle buses that make stops at several schools in certain areas of the city. The original goal of the Success Express shuttles was to provide more flexible transportation opportunities in neighborhoods where the school options were changing.

But ridership is low. For example, Samelson said, only about 11 percent of eligible students in far northeast Denver ride that region’s Success Express shuttle, which serves 24 campuses.

“The shuttle is certainly innovative, but it’s time to examine how the service can be improved, and that requires asking the community what mobility issues it is facing,” he wrote.

Hold a hack-a-thon to solicit ways to make the transportation system more efficient.

Boston Public Schools did this last year. The winning solution was developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggested a computer-based system of establishing bus routes that is predicted to save millions of dollars.

“A DPS-sponsored hack-a-thon has the potential to improve transportation efficiencies and reduce costs, which would allow the district to focus on how to provide transportation services to students currently ineligible for, but in need of, transportation,” Samelson wrote.

Ask voters to approve a tax increase to fund transportation.

The district has heard this one before. A committee of community leaders tasked with suggesting ways to increase school integration recently made the same recommendation.

The tax increase could be small, Samelson said. Raising taxes by $28 per year for the typical homeowner would have netted $14.7 million in 2016, he figured.

The district has already put some tax revenue into transportation: $400,000 of a $56.6 million tax increase voters passed in 2016 was earmarked for that purpose. But $400,000 is not nearly enough money to fund the more costly recommendations Samelson is making.

The money was supposed to be spent on high school students. When the district allocated $127,000 of it for special education transportation instead, parents pushed back and the district changed course, promising to spend the full amount on RTD passes.

Boasberg has repeatedly emphasized that Denver Public Schools can’t solve its transportation issues alone. The district must work with the city and RTD on a solution, he said.

Discussions are underway. An RTD working group is exploring the creation of a youth pass that would be offered to teenagers at a deep discount. City officials have also expressed interest in a youth pass, and last summer ran a pilot program that provided 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver teens to gather data on how students might use public transit.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.