Decades of desegregation: Denver readers recall their own stories of ‘busing’

As Democratic presidential candidates debate “busing,” many Americans are revisiting the era when their cities desegregated schools by sending students to other neighborhoods each day. 

Those cities included Denver, where schools were shaped by crosstown busing for decades, until 1995. At first, families could choose to participate in a voluntary busing program.

Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order that the district desegregate its schools. The Keyes decision resulted in a broad, complex system of busing aimed at ensuring that no school’s population looked drastically different from the district’s as a whole.

Desegregation in Denver played out as it had in many places. Resistance, especially from white opponents, was fierce and at times even violent. More often, families with means — usually white families — simply opted out, moving to the suburbs rather than sending their children on long bus rides to schools they considered subpar.

After the student population had shrunk substantially, the district asked for — and received — permission to stop mandatory busing in 1995.

Yet busing accomplished what it was supposed to in Denver, as it did in so many places that adopted the policy. Schools became more integrated, and resources were more evenly distributed across students from different races — two conditions that benefit student achievement.

After the court order was lifted, schools quickly resegregated, fueling the inequitable outcomes for students from different racial backgrounds that characterizes the district’s performance today.

But that’s a history lesson. We asked our readers to bring busing in Denver into the present by sharing their experiences. We heard from more than 80 people who variously described feeling invigorated by exposure to new people and new ideas, frightened of classmates from different backgrounds, and regretful that their children go to schools more homogeneous than the ones they themselves attended.

Here, lightly edited for length and clarity, are some of the things we heard from you.

Many people who were bused as children say they are grateful for the exposure to different people and that it opened new opportunities.

Busing was perhaps the single most important and powerful aspect to my education as I grew up in a diverse world and diverse schools without knowing that the world was drastically different until I went to CU Boulder.

I attended Knight Fundamental Academy (one of the first magnets and highly successful in the ’80s with a diverse population), Hamilton Middle School (initial “bilingual” program) and Thomas Jefferson High School. In all these places, I learned to work with, create friendships, communicate with, and function and grow around all walks of life — economically, racially, family structure, etc. Every bit of it contributed to who I am, and I am grateful.
— Michelle Saab, who identifies as Lebanese American and grew up in southeast Denver. She’s now a middle school principal in the district.

My kids went to Bromwell in the 1990s. Bromwell was one of the best elementary schools in DPS (highest test scores). Black kids were bused in from the Clayton/Cole neighborhood, which was just a few miles north so they did not have a long bus ride. I thought it was so fabulous. My kids had black and white friends, and they didn’t know the difference about what neighborhood they were from.
— Linda Campbell, who identifies as white

It enriched my life because I became friends with many people from different cultures and socioeconomic statuses. I am still friends with many of these people today.
— Jayne’ Lewis, who identifies as African American/black, lived in northeast Denver and was bused to Ellis Elementary, Merrill Middle School, and South High School in south Denver

I was exposed to a broader segment of students in Denver, specifically white, upper middle-class and Jewish. I think the integration of white students bused into my schools with black (and some Latino) students who lived in the neighborhood was a tremendous opportunity to be with and learn about and from a mixed-income, mixed-race, and mixed-religious group of students. This experience has grounded me from a very early age to feel a comfort level with a variety of different, racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds.
— Theresa Peña, who identifies as Hispanic/Latina, grew up in northeast Denver and attended elementary and middle school with students who were bused to her neighborhood schools. She was a plaintiff in the desegregation lawsuit and later a Denver school board member.

Growing up in St. Paul and Denver, I went to six schools in seven years. In each school, I learned about race and relationships from the teachers and the children around me. I was immersed in a world of diversity that created connections and friendships that continue to add value to my life, 40 years later.

As a white man and school leader in our Denver community, my concern is that the experience of busing added to my life experience, but may have detracted from the experience of others. As an educator, I believe and have learned that acting to integrate the learning experiences of our students is vital to create the most significant levels of growth for every student. That is far from easy work.

Busing in Denver occurred as the result of de jure segregation and intentionally racist interests. While busing may not be quite the answer in our new day and age, as a largely segregated community with still heavily segregated schools, we need to act now with positive and proactive efforts that result in significant growth for every child in our city.
— John Youngquist, who identifies as white, and was bused as a student. He is now the principal at East High School.

I was an eighth grader living in Hilltop near Cramner Park. I was apparently squandering my white privilege by misbehaving at Graland Country Day School. Hoping to scare me straight, my mother arranged for me to visit Manual High School, the school to which I would be bused, though George Washington was closer. The visit was a revelation of freedom and diversity.

I called my mother’s bluff and enrolled at Manual immediately — a year before I was to graduate from a private school. I was a member of the class of 1986 at Manual. I am grateful to have been yanked from an all-white private school and exposed to the other side of Denver. The experience convinced me that we should all be in the same boat.
— Dixon Beaty, who identifies as white

I wouldn’t characterize either Merrill or JFK as top-notch schools at their grade levels at the time, but they both had good, dedicated teachers and staff and not a lot of students who were into drugs or gangs, which was important. I would go home to a neighborhood of almost exclusively working-class African Americans and Latinos, the vast majority of whom were quiet, hardworking people. But there was no escaping the gang tags on the fences behind my mother’s house, the occasional gang fights in the street, the people selling weed and even crack outside the corner store.

At school, I had friends, mostly white or Asian American, who, once they got to know me, pretty much accepted me for who I am. I got a better sense of life’s possibilities and was more willing to hang out with different types of people as a result.
— Reggie E. Scott, who identifies as African American/black, and lived in northeast Denver and was bused to Merrill Middle School and John F. Kennedy High School in south Denver

Before integration, black people were the people who waited on us at the swim club, the guy who cleaned the windows at our house, our cleaning lady, and the crew who mowed our lawn. After integration, black people were also my friends, the girl who became a doctor, the young man who went to Arizona State University, and so on.
— Todd Lederman, who identifies as white, and attended schools to which students were bused under a program called “voluntary open enrollment” that preceded court-ordered busing

I lived in a neighborhood with very little diversity. Busing expanded my world view and allowed me to know people I wouldn’t have met until high school and beyond. I invited a friend who rode the bus, who was African American, home after school one day, and it became this huge deal.

The assistant principal came to my classroom and took me to his office to explain what it meant to have her come home with me, and my mom ended up coming over to the school to explain that it was a playdate. My parents were livid with the school for putting me and the other child through all the drama, and my mother was not shy about defining it as discriminatory and wrong.
— Sheila McDonald, who identifies as white, and attended Bromwell Elementary, to which students were bused

Students of color didn’t always feel accepted in their new schools, and white students sometimes blamed black students for violence in school.

DPS kept changing school boundaries. I was like an Army brat in a stable house. From K-6, I went to four different schools while living at one address. Although I had some good teachers, others were embittered because of the changes busing brought, including lower scores and cultural shifts. Some of those years, my education was lukewarm at best.
— Calvin Williamson, who identifies as African American/black and grew up in City Park West

My children went to Smedley and were bused to Kaiser. They loved school until they had to be bused. It was a 45-minute ride. After, they just lost interest in school.
— Marie Torrez, who identifies as Hispanic/Latina

It had a big impact on my life. It opened my eyes to the inequities and inequalities that existed in Denver schools and neighborhoods. It made me more empathetic and sensitive to my white privilege (although we didn’t call it that back then). Importantly, it also helped steer me toward a career as a bilingual legal aid attorney advocating for the civil rights of the underprivileged.

Cole did not have the physical resources that Hamilton had — it was very obvious. However, the teachers I had at Cole, for the most part, were fantastic, and I received what I consider an excellent education there.

However, the first few weeks of being bused were scary: Our buses were stoned/attacked several times as we approached Cole, and some classmates were injured by broken glass. Also during this time, friends were randomly “jumped” and beat up in hallways and bathrooms. I along with many others were threatened and intimidated, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically.

But despite all the initial negativity expressed toward us bused-in kids, I personally thrived at Cole and arrived at high school fully prepared, and I believe the same is true for at least the majority of my white counterparts in the experience.
— Jena Matzen, who identifies as white and lived in southeast Denver and was bused to Cole Middle School in northeast Denver

It was tiring getting to the bus stop for 7 a.m. pickup so we could make the 30-45 minute commute. We knew the rich kids thought we lived in a bad neighborhood. They could never come to our houses for sleepovers or playdates. I began to understand racism and classism at an early age even though I didn’t know what it was called.
— Aracely Paz de Lara, who identifies as Hispanic/Latina and was bused from northwest Denver to Samuels Elementary in southeast Denver

I lived in Southwest Denver and went to an elementary and a junior high that had black students bused in from the City Park area. There was a lot of violence from the students who were bused in. On the last day of school one year, there was a rumor that there was going to be a big fight between the black students and the white students.

The police were called and they made sure all the bus students got on without any incident. I had a good friend whose family moved to Cherry Creek schools because she had been threatened in junior high so often that she didn’t want to go to school.
— Lori Rosenberger, who identifies as white and attended schools to which students were bused

Inside, many schools remained divided by race.

I am white and lived in the Crestmoor neighborhood growing up. My elementary school had kids of color bused into it, and I was “bused” (though I mostly drove myself or carpooled with friends) to Manual High School.

By the time I was at Manual — several years into busing — the inequity was apparent. Most of the accelerated classes, which were comprised of nearly all white kids, took place on the second floor. Regular classes were on the ground floor, and vocational classes and ROTC, comprised of almost all kids of color, were in the basement.

By the time I graduated, I was pretty aware of this inequity, but never addressed it personally. I did not know how. My education was great, but it was not an integrated experience by any means.
— Beckett Stokes, who identifies as white and was bused from southeast Denver to Manual High in northeast Denver

Some felt that court-ordered desegregation interfered with neighborhood integration that was occurring in some parts of the city and contributed to the departure of white families and middle-class families of all races.

My parents didn’t appreciate it because they chose where we lived for the better school, not the east side. Where we lived, it was diverse: black, white, Latino. Mitchell was mostly black and Latino. I got into a few fights because of the color of my skin. It was truly an eye-opening experience when you have to acclimate to a new environment.
— Erica, who identifies as Hispanic/Latina, lived in southwest Denver and was bused to Mitchell Elementary in east Denver

Busing in Denver started as a Park Hill fight. The need to be foolishly consistent took the fight out of Park Hill and spread it around all of Denver. In my opinion, this was a big mistake. Our North Denver neighborhood did not need busing. White anxiety only increased because of busing. As time went on, middle-class Mexican Americans joined their white neighbors and moved to suburbia.
— Marco Antonio Abarca, who identifies as Hispanic/Latino, lived in northwest Denver and attended Lake Middle School with students who were bused there from southwest Denver

It is very challenging to have to follow your children all over the city. I was not opposed to busing as I felt that it would give my kids exposure to all the people who really live in the city. I’m not sure that this had the intended result. The way it mostly changed our lives was that many of our children’s friends moved out of the neighborhood to the suburbs as soon as busing was looming over them.
— Sharon Pearson, who identifies as white, and was co-president of the University Park Elementary School PTA when cross-city busing with Columbine Elementary School began

Years after the desegregation effort ended, questions about the role of neighborhood schools and equal distribution of resources remain unresolved.

There were great inequities in funding for schools that reflected institutional racism; for example, George Washington High School’s old textbooks and library books went to Manual. Availability of college prep courses at high minority-enrollment schools was limited, and, of course, appropriate academic counseling and resources were appallingly lacking.

On the other hand, I don’t believe in using children as a social experiment. Equity in funding, staffing, and opportunities seem to be a better answer — then and now. Strong community support for neighborhood schools is indispensable, and I believe many communities, white and minority, lost that cohesion when their kids were bused.
— Bonnie Guggenheim, who identifies as white, and is a retired DPS teacher

I am concerned about the re-segregation of public schools. I now live in the Virginia Vale neighborhood again with my own kids. My daughter went to Carson Elementary, and when I compare her class photos with mine from Smith in the 1980s, it’s really striking. My classes were so much more racially mixed than hers.

My younger daughter will start kindergarten this fall at our neighborhood school, McMeen, which is a mirror image of Carson; Carson has a very low percentage of families who qualify for subsidized lunches and families of color, while McMeen has a relatively high percentage of both. Both are more or less segregated schools. The two schools are maybe a mile away from one another. It makes me sad, and makes me feel as if not much progress has really been made since Brown v. Board of Education.
— Hilary Smith, who identifies as white, and was bused from southeast Denver to Smith Elementary in northeast Denver

I currently work in Denver Public Schools and, despite the school choice program, see schools that are once again quite segregated by culture, race, language, and economic status. Because of busing and the positive impact it had on me, it pains me to think of sending my own children to a school that will not include the same exchange of culture, language, and background experience that helps create more compassionate, aware, well-rounded individuals.

Should the possibility arise again, I would choose to have my children participate in busing if it meant they would be able to go to a quality school with a rich, diverse student population.
— Alexis Matter, who identifies as white, lived in southeast Denver and was bused to Crofton Elementary in northeast Denver

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this article.