standing in the gap

Why Denver Latino students are more segregated today than black students were before busing

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes.

Despite two decades of court-ordered busing and more recent, less coercive efforts to foster school integration, Denver Public Schools today is the most segregated school district in the metro area, an analysis of enrollment data conducted by I-News shows.

Busing from 1974 through 1995 in some ways accomplished what it set out to do — integrate black students, who had been deliberately isolated in separate schools by DPS for decades before a federal lawsuit put a stop to the practice.

But Latinos were largely left out of the equation in the Keyes vs. School District No. 1 desegregation case. And today, Latino students are arguably more segregated in predominantly Latino schools than black students were in the pre-Keyes days.

Reasons for today’s patterns of segregation are different from those that caused racial isolations in schools 40 years ago. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Denver school board deliberately segregated schools through a series of policies that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately found violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, the return to neighborhood schools in a city where many neighborhoods are racially and socioeconomically segregated is the major cause of segregated schools.

In some cases, schools that are integrated today are in gentrifying neighborhoods, where the population is becoming more white and affluent. Those schools are likely to become increasingly white over time, as lower-income, predominantly minority families are pushed out by rising housing costs.

“It’s not that it’s a silo that the district has intentionally created these segregated schools, but it is a reflection of the housing demographics and how we have isolated people by income, and race, and ethnicity,” said Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member who attended DPS during the busing era.

“I think that’s very challenging both from an academic perspective, as well as this is not the life lesson we want to teach children who live in a great city like Denver to go to such racially and ethnically isolated schools.”

The case for integration

The case for integration is about more than the belief that people of various colors and creeds should learn and live together in our increasingly diverse society. There’s also an academic argument to be made.

Although the academic results from busing were mixed, numerous studies over the past decade show that socioeconomically and racially mixed schools boost the achievement of low-income students of color. More affluent students do not suffer academically as a result, the studies show. When schools tip to over half low-income, which in most cases also means over half students of color, the benefits of integration begin to diminish.

Under any measure, Denver has a long way to go to achieve integrated schools. And given the racial composition of students in the school district, an ideal mix of students in all schools would be impossible to achieve.

Back in 1970, when the Keyes case was first decided in U.S. District Court, white students made up the majority of DPS students — 62 percent, while Latinos comprised just 23 percent. Today, white students account for 22 percent of DPS students, Latinos 57 percent.

Still, few DPS schools reflect the overall racial composition of the district’s student body. One way to look at the magnitude of racial isolation in DPS schools is to calculate how many students of each race would have to move to another school to achieve in every school the same racial composition as the district as a whole.

The result: More than 57 percent of white students would have to move, 51 percent of Latinos, and 44 percent of black students.

More than 80 percent of the district’s Latino students attend schools where at least half the student are Latino, with most of those student in schools where between 70 and 90 percent of the students are Latino. Fully one-quarter of Latino students attend schools where nine of every 10 students are Latino.

By contrast, more than three-quarter of DPS’ black students now attend schools where 30 percent or fewer of the students are black.

White students tend to remain clustered disproportionately in predominantly white schools, though the distribution of white students is more proportional than it was in pre-busing days. Today, 40 percent of the district’s white students attend schools where at least 60 percent of the students are white. Given that white students comprise under a quarter of all DPS students, this clustering by race is striking.

In 1970, 84 percent of white students attended schools that were at least 60 percent white. However, the proportion of white students in the district back then was nearly three times greater than it is today.

By comparison, the black student population as a percentage of the total has remained relatively flat — 15 percent in 1970, 14 percent today.

Charters aren’t helping schools integrate

Some of Denver’s most racially isolated schools are charters. More than 96 percent of students are Latino at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy and three campuses of STRIVE Preparatory schools. These schools, however, pride themselves on working with high-poverty, minority populations and producing significantly higher-achieving schools than their traditional neighborhood school counterparts.

STRIVE was founded “under the belief that students from all backgrounds deserve a college preparatory education regardless of race, economic circumstance or previous academic achievement,” the STRIVE website says.
DPS-run schools with similar populations typically have lower test scores and frequent leadership changes, leading to a greater sense of instability.

In all, six schools in Denver have student bodies that are more than 95 percent Latino. Only one of those has a white population of more than one percent — Sunshine Peak, at 1.1 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, six DPS neighborhood schools have white populations over 80 percent. Five of these schools are located in affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of southeast Denver. The sixth, Polaris, is a gifted and talented magnet school located just northeast of downtown.

Only one of those schools has a student body that is more than 10 percent Latino — Cory Elementary, at 11 percent.

Looking for solutions

DPS officials say they are aware of these trends and are working to combat them.

“We care deeply about integration, about economic integration, about racial integration in our schools and our classrooms,” Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS. “Study after study has shown that all kids benefit when classrooms are integrated, that all kids learn more.”

In 2010 DPS began rolling out “enrollment zones,” under which families would be assigned to one of several schools within broader boundaries than those surrounding traditional neighborhood schools. Families could list their preferred school but wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot in that school. They would, however, get a seat in one of the schools within their zone. One of the motivating forces behind the zones, at least in the past two years, has been to create more diverse schools.

In a 2014 interview with this reporter, Boasberg said enrollment zones help break down neighborhood patterns of segregation by drawing from a larger, and therefore more diverse area.

“In Denver, in many neighborhoods if you put a compass point down on the map and draw a very small radius out from it a half mile, you will often find within that circle you draw, not a lot of racial and economic diversity,” he said.

“But if you take that compass and draw it out a little further, maybe a mile, mile and a half, so you have a three-mile diameter circle, there are many, many places that are very richly diverse.”

The main focus of enrollment zones is on middle and high schools. “Given the importance parents place on the school (for their elementary-aged children) being close to home, and the fact that elementary schools are traditionally much smaller than secondary schools, I think you’ve seen basically very little change there,” Boasberg said.

Bill de la Cruz, director of DPS’ office of equity and inclusion, said in some cases families need to overcome deeply ingrained fears to feel comfortable placing their kids in an integrated school.

“The crux of it is a pretty large misunderstanding about the impact of race in a student’s ability to get a good education, with the idea that if my white student is being educated with a group of students of color that they’re going to get less, or if my student is educated with a group of students that are not at grade level then the bar is going to be lower so that we can meet their needs,” de la Cruz said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS.

Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community organizing group, said it’s easy for families in high-performing, segregated schools to forget that not everyone has it as good. “No one faults parents for looking for the best for the children. The problem is if we don’t fight to improve the schools for all our children,” he said.

The struggle to integrate schools will be an ongoing one, but it’s a worthy fight, de la Cruz said. “We’re at a place now where racially, ethnically, we need to come together to realize that all students matter, and the success of all students is based on our ability to work together,” he said.

“This idea that we can educate students in isolation of other students, it’s not reality anymore.”

This is part of Rocky Mountain PBS’ ongoing coverage of Race in Colorado. Standing in the Gap examines race in public education in the state. To learn more, visit rmpbs.org/thegap and watch the four-part documentary series on Rocky Mountain PBS at 9 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.