Well, it’s that time of year and I’m not talking about racing around looking for cranberries or figuring out how many pounds your bird should be. I’m talking open enrollment.

Six years ago, this was my situation: I franticly sought all the information I could on Boulder elementary schools. I analyzed their websites, loading them with way too much import: “Oh, that one is nicely designed and creative – they must have fabulous parent volunteers and the school must be top-notch, too”….or, “Geez, what a crappy website, don’t they care enough to present a positive image to the world?”

As much as I say I don’t care about test scores, I looked at those, too. As a former K-12 education reporter in Boulder, I had a distinct advantage. I had already visited many of the schools I was now considering for my precious daughter. I knew which ones aced the CSAPs, which ones focused on the arts, which ones were struggling.

My husband and I faithfully showed up at the open enrollment tours and school visits for parents. We dutifully took notes and scrutinized children’s art on the school walls as if we were art brokers. “Wow, they must have a really good art teacher here…or, is the teacher guiding their work too much, so it looks too professional?”

Of course, all this happens smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. I remember getting really sick, but still feeling like I had to show up at these open enrollment venues. At one visit, my ears were completely clogged, I felt rotten and I had to wonder what the heck I was doing. Still, I was there, checking out the parent volunteers who escorted us around the school. “Hmmm…they seem nice, and very well-dressed. Would I fit in?”

Open enrollment season is indeed a crazy time. How can you not participate in the dance? I mean, it’s your child, and you want what’s best for him or her, right?

A false promise

But choice also is a false promise. We like to pretend that we all have abundant choices about where our children attend school, but the fact is, we don’t. If you saw “Waiting for Superman,” the lottery analogy is dead on. I won’t pretend to compare my situation in Boulder Valley – one of the state’s top school districts – to the plight of inner city families surrounded by failing schools. But the end result is often the same. You can’t always get what you want.

We settled on a few schools we really liked for our daughter. One was small, in a historic building downtown, and had a well-developed International Baccalaureate focus. We knew our chances were very slim, but we submitted an application anyway. Then, as our second choice, we selected an elementary school known for its outstanding academics and its focus on music and math.  I think we even picked a third.

Luck of the draw

The result? We didn’t get in any of the schools. So, we enrolled at our neighborhood school. Now, we’ve only got one year left before middle school. Things have turned out all right (for the most part), but sometimes I wonder if our daughter would have had a more enriching experience in a different, smaller, more nurturing setting. Who knows?

Turns out, in Boulder Valley, 60 percent of the 30,000-student district’s students attend their neighborhood school; 32 percent are enrolled in a focus school or neighborhood school outside their home boundary; and 8 percent attend charters, according to BVSD Assistant Director for Student Enrollment Mike Wilcox. But the numbers are constantly shifting. Wilcox reports that more people are submitting open enrollment applications every year – topping out at more than 6,000 applications last year – or roughly 20 percent of all students.

Of those applicants, 43 percent get their first choice school – a percentage that has declined in recent years because demand is growing while the number of open seats is not.

Improving your chances

So, is there a strategy to improve your chances of getting in the school you want? Wilcox says the single best strategy for families is to make sure they feel very strongly about their first choice school – don’t pick a school “you may be iffy about.” And, be patient.  It’s a lengthy process.

Charter school advocate and EdNews Parent expert Karin Piper says it’s vital to talk to people at the school you’re interested in to understand what you can do to improve your chances. Some focus or magnet schools may bump neighborhood kids up higher on a list, for instance. Many schools put a priority on siblings of enrolled students.

She notes that one core knowledge school in Parker had only 436 enrolled students last year; but 2,000 still on the waiting list to get in. She said even if parents put their child on the wait list when he or she was an infant, he or she may not get into kindergarten there.

“You end up being held hostage by your zip code,” Piper says.

The only certain way to get into a school you want – if it’s a neighborhood school – is to buy or rent a house within the boundary of that school, she says. For many people, that’s clearly a pretty big challenge.

As for charters, “founding families” or employees often get first dibs on coveted classroom slots. So, Piper says if you are aware of a charter opening in your area that you’re interested in, consider taking a more active role by volunteering – or working – for the school.

Charter schools cannot handpick students. So, making a cash contribution to a school won’t increase your chances – but it doesn’t stop over-zealous parents from trying to gain favor any way they can, charter school observers say.

So, is it really a choice where your child goes to school? It seems the only answer is to continue the push to improve all schools by whatever means necessary so that all children and families have a real choice – not just a chance – at a great education.

2012-13 open-enrollment deadlines and links for Colorado’s largest school districts

  • Jefferson County Public Schools – First deadline is Jan. 24 – More info
  • Denver Public Schools – First deadline is Jan. 31 – More info
  • Douglas County School District – First deadline is Jan. 5 – More info
  • Cherry Creek School District – First deadline is Feb. 1 – More info
  • Adams 12 Five Star District – First deadline is Feb. 1 – More info
  • Aurora Public Schools – First deadline is May 1 – More info
  • Boulder Valley School District – First deadline is Jan. 13 – More info

Learn more about the choice process in Denver by watching this EdNews Parent video. The tips are good for any parent involved in this process. Note that the open enrollment deadline referenced was for 2011, so please disregard that part.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.