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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.