In 1995, Laura Lefkowits, then a Denver Public School board member, was in the district’s office when a staff attorney came with some news: The district was no longer bound by a 22-year-old federal court order to desegregate its schools.
“It’s over,” Lefkowits remembers the attorney saying.
In a lecture at the History Colorado museum in Downtown Denver Tuesday, Lefkowits begged to differ.
“It’s not over,” she told a crowd.
Lefkowits, who has been studying desegregation efforts in the city for two years, traced the evolution of the district and city’s approach and attitude toward desegregation over time in an hourlong talk called “Segregation in Denver Public Schools: The 1960s and Today.”
Keyes v. School District no. 1, a lawsuit aimed at forcing the district to integrate its schools, led to the first federal desegregation order outside the southern states. From 1973 until 1996, Denver students were bused across the city in an effort to create racial balance of black, Latino, and white students in the schools. (A consent decree that stemmed from this case still governs how Denver works with its English language learners.)
Its impact was profound. More than 30,000 students left the district in the wake of busing, and though enrollment in DPS has been surging in recent years, it has still not returned to its 1969 level. The district’s demographics have also almost flipped: While white students were a majority in the late 1960s, Hispanic students make up more than half of the student population now.
Lekowits said the decision to remove the order in 1995 was emblematic of cultural attitudes toward integration at the time.
But almost 20 years after that court order was lifted, Lefkowits said, many Denver students attend schools with high levels of racial isolation, and schools that have high concentrations of students of color and low-income students are more likely to be lower-performing — the very issue the initial cases aimed to address.
At one point, DPS was required ensure that each school’s racial mix was within 15 percent of the district’s overall demographic profile. Lefkowits found that in 2014-15, just 15 percent of the district’s 186 schools meet that goal for Hispanic students, while 20 percent of the district’s schools are more than 90 percent Hispanic.
Most schools that earn low ratings by the district have higher concentrations of students of color and students who live in poverty.
Lefkowits praised the current board for specifically including improving the academic performance of students of color and closing the “opportunity gap” between white students and their peers” in the most recent version of the Denver Plan, the district’s strategic roadmap.
Lefkowits’s talk covered much more of the political and cultural context surrounding the issue, including changing public attitudes toward integration efforts, the advent of school choice systems (which, she said, had been dismissed by a federal judge as a way to ensure integration in schools), and funding issues.
At the end of the event, a History Colorado researcher took an informal poll of the audience to determine how many had been directly affected by busing, either as parents, decisionmakers, or children. Close to a third of the mostly elderly crowd raised their hands.
Lefkowits told Chalkbeat last year that she believed the attendance zones created during her tenure on the district’s board concentrated low-income students in Manual High School, leading to a series of challenges for the school.