‘strengthening neighborhoods’

Gentrification is changing Denver’s schools. This initiative aims to do something about it.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Antwan Jefferson speaks at the press conference. Jefferson is a university professor, former DPS teacher and current DPS parent.

A citywide effort to review how rapid gentrification is changing Denver’s public schools — and come up with ideas to combat the most pernicious effects — kicked off Monday.

City and school district officials shared the podium at a press conference at Denver Public Schools headquarters to talk about creating stronger schools at a time when rising housing prices are driving low-income families out of the city and many schools are segregated.

“The research is very clear that integration benefits all kids,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “…Our students tell us with such passion how much they want to be in integrated and inclusive schools, where all students celebrate and value their heritage and culture.”

A 42-member committee established by the school board will make recommendations to the board on how to drive racial and economic integration through policies on school boundaries, school choice, enrollment, academic programs and more. Its work is expected to take six months.

“This work is going to be hard, it’s going to be real, it’s going to get messy at times … but it’s such important work in the future of our kids,” said school board president Anne Rowe.

More than 100 people applied to serve on the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee, according to the district. DPS leaders chose the 42 members to represent “the ethnic, geographic and professional diversity” of the city. Over half are current DPS parents, and more than 60 percent are people of color.

The committee includes former DPS school board members Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Bruce Hoyt, Laura Lefkowits and Lee White. (See the full list of committee members at the end of this story.)

It also includes several Denver city staffers: Erin Brown, executive director of the Office of Children’s Affairs; Derek Okubo, executive director of Human Rights and Community Partnerships; and Rowena Alegria, who works in that same department.

Ismael Guerrero, executive director of the Denver Housing Authority, is also on the committee.

“We recognize that schools do not exist in a vacuum,” Boasberg said, emphasizing the importance of working with the city on such a wide-ranging issue.

A mother of three DPS students asked officials a question that captured that wide range.

“What is the main purpose of the committee? To stop the gentrification?” Gloria Borunda asked at the press conference. “I live in southwest Denver and I see a lot of my friends have to leave the area. … I think it is affecting our students in a negative way.”

School board member Lisa Flores responded that while it’s not the school board’s role to make housing policy, “we’re creating a space to have a dialogue with all these interested parties.”

Erik Solivan, executive director of the new Denver Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere and a member of the committee, added that the city is invested in working with DPS to think about how it can better support families living in changing neighborhoods.

The committee has four co-chairs: Janice Sinden, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and former chief of staff to Mayor Michael Hancock; Rick Garcia, a former city council member and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator; Diana Romero-Campbell, director of early learning and education at Mile High United Way; and Antwan Jefferson, assistant professor of urban community teacher education at the University of Colorado Denver. Jefferson is a DPS parent and a former teacher at Montbello High School.

Other high-profile members include Elbra Wedgeworth, chief government and community relations officer for Denver Health; Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos; and Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Denver’s Mile High Early Learning Centers and the mother of DPS school board member Happy Haynes.

Journalist and writer Alan Gottlieb, who founded Chalkbeat predecessor EdNews Colorado and co-founded Chalkbeat, is also on the committee, as is Jill Barkin, a vice president of board governance at Teach For America and a member of Chalkbeat’s board of directors.

DPS has already taken several steps to try to increase integration in its schools. One was the creation of several enrollment zones, which are essentially bigger school boundaries. Students are asked to choose one of several schools within the boundary instead of being assigned to the school closest to where they live. The zones for middle schools have had mixed results in fostering integration.

democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”