'fault lines'

A stark income divide along the border of two Colorado school districts

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

The Sheridan School District is small but proud, serving a community that grew up around the Fort Logan military installation southwest of Denver. Nine in 10 students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Though there have been glimmers of hope academically, the district sits on the state’s watch list for low academic performance and faces sanctions.

The bordering Littleton school district is bigger and better-off. Far fewer students live in poverty, with just 18 percent qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches. The district is the only in metro Denver to have won the state’s “accredited with distinction” recognition for five years running, and its three high schools regularly make “best of” lists.

The stark socioeconomic contrast between the two Arapahoe County districts earned a dubious distinction this week.

In a report that got a lot of people in the education world talking, the border the school districts share was spotlighted for having some of the largest differences in child poverty rates from one side to the other.

Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” produced by the nonprofit group EdBuild, found that the gulf separating the haves and have-nots along the Sheridan-Littleton border qualified as the ninth largest in the U.S.

To put that in context, the report examined 33,500 school district borders.

The study’s architects used U.S. Census Bureau income and poverty estimates to build their comparisons, not subsidized lunch rates. By the report’s measure, 49 percent of school-age children in Sheridan’s boundaries live in poverty, compared to 9 percent in Littleton’s.

“In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” the report says. “… We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal.”

To get their read on the disparities called out in the report, Chalkbeat spoke with the superintendents of the two Colorado school districts spotlighted: Sheridan’s Michael Clough and Littleton’s Brian Ewert.

Neither were surprised the border their districts share would be framed in such a way. Nor do they think the report provides enough context about their districts or how school choice and school finance work in Colorado.

Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).
Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).

Ewert’s resume includes time at low-income school districts. He took the top job in the roughly 16,000-student Littleton district after a stint in higher-poverty Englewood Public Schools, and after working in San Bernadino, Calif., one of the nation’s most impoverished areas.

“The bottom line is, there is an absolute disparity between school districts with regards to boundaries, poverty, things like that,” Ewert said. “Those are the kinds of things we can’t control.”

One important wrinkle Ewert says the report missed — Colorado’s system of open enrollment, which allows students to attend schools in other districts if there’s room (and families are able to transport their children across district borders).

Ewert said that while open enrollment does a lot of good, it can also have unintended consequences. That includes “affluent flight,” or families bolting from schools in their home districts as neighborhoods change and poorer students move in.

Having pockets of poverty, like the Littleton district, makes it easier to devote more money to schools with the greatest needs, Ewert points out. His district has poured resources into high-poverty Field Elementary School, which has posted big gains in state test scores. That is a luxury not enjoyed by districts with high proportions of poor students, he said.

As the EdBuild report notes, chiseling away at income disparities along school district borders is extremely difficult.

A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case challenging segregation in Detroit Public Schools, Milliken vs. Bradley, found that desegregation efforts cannot be enforced across district borders, cutting off one avenue. Then there’s the fact that district boundaries — unlike, say, congressional districts — are not redrawn as a result of changing demographics.

Consolidation of school districts is one possible answer. The report suggests that the larger the district, the lower the chances of socioeconomic segregation. Van Schoales of the advocacy group A-Plus Colorado floated it as justifiable in this case:

Merging with a high-performing district is one option available to state officials considering consequences for districts such as Sheridan that are chronic low performers and about to run out of time to improve.

The prospect is pretty much a non-starter, however, given the sensitive politics involved and Colorado’s long history of cherishing local control, among other factors.

“I get this question (about consolidation) a lot,” said Clough, the Sheridan superintendent. “Sometimes people are bold enough to say, ‘Why are you still here? Why haven’t you been swallowed up?’ My answer is the same — We were here first.

“This is a community with a longstanding historical tradition of being here to support Fort Logan, the military base that was here a long time. (It closed after World War II). It’s a community with its own identity, its own government. When I took the job, I was told it feels much more like a rural district than our urban counterparts.”

Michael-Clough-239x300
Clough

Championing consolidation is based on the false premise that “bigger is better,” Clough said. Some families choice-in to the 1,500-student Sheridan district because of the family feel, he said. (By the way, 117 students living in Sheridan’s boundaries attend Littleton Public Schools).

Not surprisingly, both Clough and Ewert say fixing school funding in Colorado would help with inequities. The state regularly ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil funding, and superintendents have fought long and hard to change that.

Although property values are much higher in the Littleton district, Sheridan receives more in state per-pupil funding ($8,220, compared to Littleton’s $6,765) after a number of factors including poverty is taken into account. Higher-income districts like Littleton do have a leg up in passing bond measures and tax increases to support schools.

Ewert argues that the state first needs to adequately fund each student first, then have a conversation about how to provide equitable funding.

“I don’t think tearing down arbitrary community boundaries around school districts solves the problem without a funding solution,” he said. “People say, ‘Well, you can’t solve a problem by just throwing money at it.’ Well, if you throw adequate money at a problem, we can make significant headway.”

Education on screen

School segregation at center of new documentary from collective founded by Ava DuVernay

PHOTO: ARRAY

Sixty years to the day after the Little Rock Nine integrated a high school in Arkansas, a documentary chronicling how many of America’s school systems have segregated again is set to debut at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The film, “Teach Us All,” is the basis of what first-time filmmaker Sonia Lowman hopes will be a national student-led movement to integrate schools. The film is being released with a social action curriculum meant to help students gather information about their own school systems and push for change.

“We are at a point where we are regressing, where we’re at risk of eroding the gains of the civil rights movement,” Lowman said.

In the film, Lowman looks at Little Rock schools separated by race and class, both when the Supreme Court cut down school segregation laws and more recently. But it’s not just the South: the film explores segregation in New York City and Los Angeles by race, class and language.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. where nine students integrated the then all-white school in 1957.

It also touches on the challenges schools face in attempting to integrate, and the complicated choices parents have to make about where to send their children for school.

Read our Q&A with Ruby Bridges, who at six years old was the first black student to integrate New Orleans schools.

The documentary is being distributed by ARRAY, a collective founded in 2010 by producer Ava DuVernay, an award-winning filmmaker who produced the movie “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “Teach Us All” will be shown in 12 cities and be released on Netflix on Sept. 25.

The National Civil Rights Museum, where the film will premiere in Memphis, has taken an active role this year in hosting events that delve into issues of educational equity. Museum President Terri Freeman recently said she sees education-focused programming as a key part of their mission.

“For the museum not to have conversation about education, with the museum being an institution of education in an informal way, would be for the museum to not do what it’s supposed to,” Freeman said at a panel discussion on school segregation. “If people come to look at photographs, but there’s no change involved, then in my estimation we failed as an institution.”

You can watch the trailer below. RSVP to register to attend the Memphis screening:

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.