a look back

Two decades later, a school boundary decision that isolated poor students reverberates

It was September 1995 and Laura Lefkowits had served on Denver’s school board for just four months when suddenly and unexpectedly she and her colleagues were faced with making some of the most momentous decisions in Denver Public Schools’ 93-year history.

A federal judge had just released Denver Public Schools from a 22-year-old court order that had mandated busing kids across town to create racially integrated public schools in a largely segregated city. Now, with busing dead, it was up to the board to decide how to assign the city’s kids to schools. Should the district return to a system of neighborhood schools, which would mean a return to de facto segregation? Or was there some other alternative?

Neighborhood schools won in a landslide.

And in retrospect, Lefkowits and some of her colleagues now believe that one decision in particular that emerged from that process —  the attendance zone from which northeast Denver’s Manual High School would draw students — was a catastrophic mistake. And that mistake they say, is at the root of Manual’s subsequent history of academic struggles and upheaval.

The Manual boundaries approved by the board and recommended by DPS senior administrators created a school population isolated within an anvil-shaped chunk of north-central and northeast Denver. This transformed Manual into an overwhelmingly low-income school, its student population evenly split between African American and Latino students. Over the past 18 years the student population has become increasingly Latino and has remained overwhelmingly poor, while the school has undergone successive waves of failed change efforts.

Board members knew at the time they were making a momentous decision. They didn’t realize, however, that reverberations from that decision would still be felt almost two decades later.

“I almost think we could have been sued all over again for the kind of boundary that we drew,” Lefkowits said. “We really made serious mistakes with [Manual]. And that at this point I don’t know if it ever can be righted. I feel like it has been one disaster after another since 1995.”

“Two high schools no one wanted to go to”

As soon as the news hit that fall that busing had ended it was as if the lid blew off a pressure-cooker, Lefkowits recalled recently.

Former Denver school board member Laura Lefkowits
Former Denver school board member Laura Lefkowits

First came the phone calls. Dozens of them to her home, at all hours. Then, in those days before universal email, mountains of letters. The vast majority – and from diverse constituencies — urged the school board to return to the old days, when kids could attend their neighborhood schools.

The push to return to neighborhood schools made Lefkowits uneasy, given the city’s segregated neighborhoods. Ultimately, however, she succumbed.

“Frankly, as a brand new board member, I had not had enough experience in making tough decisions to be that noble and statesmanlike,” she said. “And you’re always conflicted. Should you lead if no one is following you, or should you represent what people are asking you to do as their elected representative? It’s a difficult balance.”

Other boundary lines proposed at the time would have created a naturally integrated school.

The most prominent alternative, proposed by board member J.P. Hemming, would have drawn the boundary between Manual and Denver’s flagship East High School along York Street from the city’s northern border south to where York becomes University Boulevard and intersects with East First Avenue (where the Cherry Creek Whole Foods sits today). Kids living west of York would have gone to Manual and those east of York to East.

Those boundaries would have sent to Manual a large number of more affluent students from the Capitol Hill and Country Club neighborhoods who had historically attended East. But residents of those neighborhoods pressured board members not to make that change, thereby leaving East’s historic boundaries largely intact.

Former Denver school board member J.P. Hemming
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Former Denver school board member J.P. Hemming

District officials also balked at changes that would have affected East as well as Manual. East’s boundaries didn’t change much under court-ordered busing because the school’s central location meant it drew from diverse neighborhoods and resulted in an integrated school. So why change them as busing ended, officials reasoned?

New East boundaries could have resulted in “two high schools no one wanted to go to,” said Wayne Eckerling, DPS’ planning director when busing ended. “The district was in a very different place then than it is now. Enrollment was way down. We were worried about losing more people.”

But it wasn’t just affluent white folks who opposed the York Street boundary line. So did African American clergy and vocal Manual neighborhood residents, among them then-Mayor Wellington Webb, himself an African American and Manual alum.

Under the federal court order, Manual, which before busing had been a predominantly African American school, was integrated because a large section of the affluent, mostly white east Denver Hilltop neighborhood became a Manual “satellite” and was bused there. Manual’s neighborhood boundaries were small — just a mile north to south and three-quarters of a mile east to west of northeast Denver immediately surrounding the school, located at 1700 E. 28th Ave.

As high school attendance boundary debates progressed in late 1995 and 1996, school board members and DPS senior staff knew that Manual would pose the thorniest challenge. The school sat in the center of what had once been Denver’s African American community. By the mid-90s, the neighborhood’s population had become increasingly Latino, but many prominent African American families, including Webb’s, still regarded Manual as their school. Busing had deprived them of their school since 1973, and they wanted it back.

“Everyone wants neighborhood schools,” as Webb told the Rocky Mountain News early in 1996.

Through a spokesperson, Webb declined to comment for this article, saying “Manual is a painful subject.”

“In education our actions often don’t match our platitudes”

Layers of mythology have accreted to Manual over the years, but the school has never served all its students well. During the busing era of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, Manual’s top graduates regularly gained admission to Ivy League schools and elite, small liberal arts colleges. But most of those top graduates were the Hilltop kids. Enormous achievement gaps existed between mostly white, affluent kids and lower-income African American and Latino students.

In 1994, Manual gained notoriety when just six of its black male students received diplomas. Fifty-eight black males had been freshmen four years earlier.

Aaron Gray served as school board president as the board determined DPS’ post-busing landscape. Gray is African American, and a Methodist minister. He remembers with some bitterness the role his fellow black clergy played in the debate over Manual’s boundaries. They and their neighborhood followers were, he said, “the loudest voices in the room.

Former Denver school board President Aaron Gray
Former Denver school board President Aaron Gray

“We were somewhat intimidated because of those loud voices (that were) often putting the board down and putting the superintendent down,” Gray said. “Guilt was important. They made it clear that you should really feel bad about what has happened and what you have done.”

Hemming, who proposed the York Street boundaries, still seethes at the lack of consideration his proposal received from other board members. “In education our actions often don’t match our platitudes,” he said. “The Manual boundaries are a case in point.”

And he scoffed at the notion that pressure from all sides proved too much to bear. “Oh, yes, the pressure was intense,” Hemming recalled recently, sitting in a cluttered back room of the fire suppression business he owns. “I received threatening phone calls from all sides. But come on. We were volunteer elected officials. There is a lot of power in being a volunteer. What are they going to do, fire us? Pressure shouldn’t have been a major consideration.”

But the pressure was real, and at times if felt both intense and personal. Lefkowits proposed that instead of an attendance zone for Manual, the district create a magnet school at Manual – a specialized program that would attract a diverse array of students from across the city. The reaction to that proposal typified the kind of blowback the board faced from people in the Manual neighborhood.

“If you’re saying we need magnets to attract whites to make the schools superior, then I accuse you of racism,” Gregory Conners, an African American father said during a public hearing, according to The Denver Post.

An evolving racial and socio-economic mix

Indeed, much of the debate that occurred during boundary discussions centered on whether a post-busing school needed to be integrated to succeed. Or could a high-poverty high school be designed that would produce college- and career-ready students?

Historic gaps between Manual’s white and black students may help explain why, as busing ended, influential African Americans pushed hard to have Manual returned to the community through boundaries that excluded whiter neighborhoods. What apparently went unrecognized during the debate was that the neighborhoods within Manual’s new boundaries had become increasingly impoverished and Latino.

But few Latino voices were raised or heard during the boundary debates, former school board members recalled. Court-mandated busing had been a black-white issue for the most part, and the post-busing decisions were made within that same frame.

Eckerling, the former DPS planning director, said that influential African American Manual alums like Webb who pushed for the boundaries that prevailed also failed to recognize how much the neighborhood around Manual had changed since they grew up there, not just racially but socio-economically as well.

Before the civil rights movement and fair housing laws, Eckerling said, African Americans of varying socio-economic status and education levels lived in the neighborhood because housing discrimination and red-lining prevented them from living elsewhere.

By the mid 1990s, however, the black middle class had largely fled the area for suburbs or more affluent neighborhoods, leaving behind a very different, more challenged student population than they remembered from their school days.

Gray said the debate was almost tribal in nature, with “people who call themselves progressives” suddenly backing away from their professed belief in integration when they saw how it might affect their own kids. And African American community spokespeople advocated only for their own people.

“My dream when I was on the board was that at just one board meeting, just one, African American leaders would come and say ‘I am concerned about what’s happening to Hispanic kids,'” he said. “That kind of dialogue would have set a whole different tone. I never heard it once.”

One neighborhood African American pastor, however, said the 1996 school board and district leadership deserve most, if not all, of the blame.

Rev. Frank Davis, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in the Manual neighborhood since 1994, said he never supported the boundaries that made Manual a high-poverty school. “They talk about ‘no child left behind’ but in the case they left a whole school behind,” Davis said. “They didn’t do their due diligence in weighing out the grave impact that decision would have on the citizenry of the area.”

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reins of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.