Student count

How the face of Denver Public Schools is changing, explained in five charts

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students at Denver's College View Elementary.

Colorado’s largest school district continues to grow, though not at the same breakneck pace that saw Denver Public Schools gain 20,000 students in the past decade. This year, DPS has 902 more students in preschool through 12th grade for a total of 92,331 kids, according to officials.

That’s about a 1 percent increase over last year, when the district had 91,429 students.

There are several reasons why student enrollment is slowing even as the city’s population is surging.

As outlined by the district’s planning office in a presentation to the school board, housing prices are rising in the gentrifying city, pushing lower-income families out of Denver. New home construction is booming, but much of it is aimed at millennials, most of whom don’t have school-aged children.

Furthermore, birth rates are down since the Great Recession. And unlike a decade ago, when 25 percent of Denver kids didn’t go to the public schools, the district has recaptured many students through school improvement efforts, leading to decreased growth potential.

So who are the students who attend DPS? The presentation highlights several enrollment trends. Here are five telling pieces of data, illustrated:

The percentage of Latino students has decreased since 2012, as has the percentage of low-income students. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students is on the rise.

The percentages of black students and students characterized as “other” have remained steady.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Enrollment in DPS’s various special education programs — known as “center-based programs” — is decreasing, with the exception of the autism program.

Enrollment in the autism program has increased 117 percent since 2009. That trend is being seen across the country as autism diagnoses have risen, the presentation notes.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

More special education students are being served in charter schools.

Students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools: in both types of schools, students with mild to moderate disabilities make up about 9 percent of the overall student population. District-run schools still have more “center-based programs” than charter schools but the gap is narrowing.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

White students attend high-performing schools at a higher rate than students of color.

Seventy-one percent of white students attend a “blue” or “green” school — the two highest ratings on the district’s color-coded scale known as the School Performance Framework and schools the district considers high-performing — while only 44 percent of Latino and 45 percent of black students do.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Fewer low-income students attend high-performing schools than their wealthier peers, but the gap has narrowed. However, the gap has grown for English language learners.

In 2009-10, 36 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, attended high-performing schools. In 2015-16, 41 percent did. The percentage of non-low-income students attending high-performing schools stayed steady at 67 percent, meaning the gap between the two narrowed by 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the gap between English language learners and non-English language learners attending high-performing schools grew from 10 percentage points to 12 percentage points.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.

What's in a name?

State’s draft diversity statement addresses ‘segregation,’ a word the mayor’s plan avoided

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

Last week, the mayor’s drew headlinesand criticism — for his long-awaited diversity plan. Among the concerns — the mayor chose not to use words like “integration” or “segregation” to define the problem.

The state, on the other hand, isn’t mincing words. On Monday, the Board of Regents discussed its own draft diversity statement. “More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education,” it states in its opening paragraph, “New York is the most segregated state in the country.”

Language matters, notes Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY. “They called it what it was and that’s very important because if you want to address the problem well, it’s important to fully understand the problem,” he said. “And the challenges that we face are the challenges of integration and segregation.”

The state’s draft document, “Promoting Diversity: Integration in New York State,” is meant as an introduction to the problem and solutions. But it does name some strategies that could help schools integrate, including redrawing zone lines or providing transportation to ensure housing patterns do not cement segregation.

“I still have a hard time accepting the fact that we have the most segregated schools in the country,” said Regent Judith Johnson, likely drawing on a landmark 2014 UCLA study. “We don’t think that’s a place where New York should be.”

Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown expressed the urgency that many felt the mayor’s plan lacked. “Unless we tackle this monster, I’m afraid that we’re never going to get there for those that most need us,” he said.

It remains unclear which concrete strategies the board will choose to adopt. A workgroup will start the process of creating a path forward. The Board of Regents will discuss next steps at its July retreat.

Monday’s discussion is a continuation of a conversation the Board of Regents had in April about how to leverage the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to integrate schools. Those ideas, which involve creating a metric to measure diversity and using integration as a school-improvement strategy, were included in Monday’s Regents document.

Convincing school districts across the state to value integration could be difficult task. Several members of the 17-person board said they are worried about creating mandates — and fear that forcing the issue will not produce the desired results.

Regent Susan Mittler, who represents a district with rural areas, spelled out some pushback the state may encounter trying to integrate schools in her area.

“You can’t sit 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds on the bus for an hour for the sake of integration,” she said. She raised a different idea to overcome the challenge, one the city’s chancellor has also endorsed: pen pals. “I know a number of districts that actually find another school, like in the inner city, and they actually [become] pen pals and then do trips and begin to integrate,” Mittler said.

Since integration is a tricky subject to tackle, the Regents should ensure they are prepared, Brown said.

“We can’t come out with a BB gun,” Brown said. “We need cannons. This is a big issue.”