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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 6 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.