As the sun was setting on Friday, January 17, parents of Denver Public School (DPS) students received an email from Discovery Link, the system’s before- and after-school program. It began: “Your voice has been heard!” and went on to announce changes to how and when parents can register their children for Discovery Link starting for the 2020–21 academic year. 

Problem is, parents say, the changes could leave them without childcare. 

Discovery Link serves thousands of DPS students by providing early-morning and after-school care for children—most of them in kindergarten through fifth grade—at 44 of the district’s elementary schools. The program, managed by the DPS Department of Extended Learning and Community Schools and funded by tuition and grants, currently allows parents to register their children for extended care for the entire academic year—key to its value for families, parents say. 

However, the trade-off for guaranteed coverage is minimal flexibility: Each family can submit a single request for a schedule change each year without incurring additional costs; for each subsequent request, Discovery Link charges a slight fee: $10 for the second, $15 for all changes thereafter. (Sites funded by grants do not charge these fees.) Families must also enroll a minimum of two days a week and pay for all enrolled days in a month, even if students don’t end up using them. If a family moves out of the city or no longer needs care, they must pay for the full month even if they use just one day of care.

The new approach—called family-managed calendars—offers increased flexibility, according to the letter, by allowing parents to log into the web-based system and choose (and pay for) only the days they need care for their children each month. It also makes provisions for last-minute sign-ups, if space allows, has no minimums, and credits families for last-minute cancellations, such as if a child gets sick. 

“We get a ton of feedback [from current families]: ‘Why should I pay for a day when I’m not using it?’” says Mary Varveris, director of the Department of Extended Learning and Community Schools. She adds that the current system doesn’t easily accommodate a family who needs extended care every once in a while—say, if Dad has an unexpected early-morning meeting.

While the new system may sound like a preferable shift, the changes confused parents, whose takeaway was that instead of securing childcare for the full year at the outset, they will have to log in every month to select the days their children will attend after-care—with no guarantees that space will be available. “My initial response was panic,” says Brian Jackson, a pediatrician with a six-year-old student at Park Hill Elementary. “I figured we’d be in a free-for-all scramble with a bunch of other parents also trying to get spots for their kids every month,” he says. 

Matthew Roberts, whose nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter go to Teller Elementary in Congress Park, says he felt the same way. “When we got that letter via email, [my wife and I] both had identical reactions: We’re two working parents. If this is now a month-to-month sign-up and there’s no guarantee [our kids will have spots], we can’t rely on Discovery Link,” he says. “It blows up our entire after-school schedule.”

Varveris points out that when a parent initially registers his children for Discovery Link under the new program (which they can do starting June 1), he will pick a single site which has been allotted a specific number of spots for students based on the capacity permitted by state licensing—plus a little more, based on data the program has collected for several years about how many students actually show up each day. (It’s a little like the approach the airlines use when they oversell a flight and bet that not everyone who buys a ticket will show up to catch the plane.) Once a family is approved for the site—the program will award spots to all siblings in a family—parents can access all available dates for that site each month.

For example, let’s say University Park Elementary has 75 licensed spots. Discovery Link might approve 95 students who can enroll in Discovery Link for that site each day. Parents of those 95 children can then choose from the 75 daily spots for care. “Week after week, year after year, we never have 75 kids in that program on a single day,” Varveris says. Only families who get approved to send kids to Discovery Link at U Park, then, have access to that site’s monthly calendar, so they’re not competing with all Discovery Link families for spots, just with the families who have been approved for that site. “The data suggest that there’s more than enough room to accommodate all of those kids.”

However, the new approach can’t quite guarantee childcare for every family who’s approved for the site. Discovery Link acknowledged this challenge in a second communication sent to parents on January 22: “We understand there are frustrations among some families as we move away from the practice of guaranteeing spots.” Varveris emphasizes that the data suggest they’ll be able to accommodate every family who has been approved for the program at each site, but admitted that it could be possible that there may be days where some families aren’t able to get the care they need. 

One of the issues that Discovery Link is attempting to address with the new system is equitability for families. The way the current system works, new families or families who experience “a change in circumstances”—such as a new job or change in schedule— aren’t able to access care through Discovery Link if their child’s school site is full. Varveris says that the Discovery Link leadership believes the family-managed calendars will “be more equitable” and “create flexibility based on the needs of families enrolled in Discovery Link.” What’s more, Discovery Link will no longer be “grandfathering” in parents who’ve used the program in the past, which gives new and/or previously waitlisted families a shot at securing spots at their desired locations.

Equitable access is a bit of a sticking point: The letters from Discovery Link suggest the new system is fairer for all families in the DPS system, but parents like Roberts wonder if that’s true. “What happens if some parents don’t have easy access to the Internet [when the monthly sign-ups open]?” Roberts asks. “Discovery Link is a really great program—we’ve loved it—and I’d really hate to see families excluded because they can’t get online easily.” For example, parents who do shift work month-to-month might not be able to access the Internet at the same time each month, which could lead them to miss the window when they have the best shot at securing spots for their kids.

Varveris points out that the program is “accessible from your phone”—which “most parents have,” she adds—and each site has computers and staff to help parents with scheduling. (Note: Discovery Link’s leadership hasn’t yet decided what time of day monthly sign-ups will open and welcomes parent input, she says.)

Jackson says he would have appreciated a chance to offer feedback on the change earlier on: “I wish Discovery Link had more proactive involvement of parents—hosting focus groups, maybe—instead of just announcing that this is what they’re doing,” he says. “I’m not sure the district needs a one-size-fits-all policy. I wonder if they could have let the school choose [which type of enrollment process] fits the school’s needs.”

Unless that changes, he’s gearing up for what he expects will be a frenzied registration process in June, the first step in accessing Park Hill’s Discovery Link calendars. He sighs: “I’m afraid it’s going to be like trying to get a seat on a Southwest flight.”

For more information, visit Discovery Link’s online video tutorial about the new system.

Hilary Masell Oswald
Hilary Masell Oswald
As the former editor for two of 5280’s ancillary publications, Hilary Masell Oswald split her time between the vibrant design-and-architecture scene in the metro area for 5280 Home and the always-changing field of health for the annual 5280 Health.