standing in the gap

Why Denver Latino students are more segregated today than black students were before busing

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes.

Despite two decades of court-ordered busing and more recent, less coercive efforts to foster school integration, Denver Public Schools today is the most segregated school district in the metro area, an analysis of enrollment data conducted by I-News shows.

Busing from 1974 through 1995 in some ways accomplished what it set out to do — integrate black students, who had been deliberately isolated in separate schools by DPS for decades before a federal lawsuit put a stop to the practice.

But Latinos were largely left out of the equation in the Keyes vs. School District No. 1 desegregation case. And today, Latino students are arguably more segregated in predominantly Latino schools than black students were in the pre-Keyes days.

Reasons for today’s patterns of segregation are different from those that caused racial isolations in schools 40 years ago. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Denver school board deliberately segregated schools through a series of policies that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately found violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, the return to neighborhood schools in a city where many neighborhoods are racially and socioeconomically segregated is the major cause of segregated schools.

In some cases, schools that are integrated today are in gentrifying neighborhoods, where the population is becoming more white and affluent. Those schools are likely to become increasingly white over time, as lower-income, predominantly minority families are pushed out by rising housing costs.

“It’s not that it’s a silo that the district has intentionally created these segregated schools, but it is a reflection of the housing demographics and how we have isolated people by income, and race, and ethnicity,” said Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member who attended DPS during the busing era.

“I think that’s very challenging both from an academic perspective, as well as this is not the life lesson we want to teach children who live in a great city like Denver to go to such racially and ethnically isolated schools.”

The case for integration

The case for integration is about more than the belief that people of various colors and creeds should learn and live together in our increasingly diverse society. There’s also an academic argument to be made.

Although the academic results from busing were mixed, numerous studies over the past decade show that socioeconomically and racially mixed schools boost the achievement of low-income students of color. More affluent students do not suffer academically as a result, the studies show. When schools tip to over half low-income, which in most cases also means over half students of color, the benefits of integration begin to diminish.

Under any measure, Denver has a long way to go to achieve integrated schools. And given the racial composition of students in the school district, an ideal mix of students in all schools would be impossible to achieve.

Back in 1970, when the Keyes case was first decided in U.S. District Court, white students made up the majority of DPS students — 62 percent, while Latinos comprised just 23 percent. Today, white students account for 22 percent of DPS students, Latinos 57 percent.

Still, few DPS schools reflect the overall racial composition of the district’s student body. One way to look at the magnitude of racial isolation in DPS schools is to calculate how many students of each race would have to move to another school to achieve in every school the same racial composition as the district as a whole.

The result: More than 57 percent of white students would have to move, 51 percent of Latinos, and 44 percent of black students.

More than 80 percent of the district’s Latino students attend schools where at least half the student are Latino, with most of those student in schools where between 70 and 90 percent of the students are Latino. Fully one-quarter of Latino students attend schools where nine of every 10 students are Latino.

By contrast, more than three-quarter of DPS’ black students now attend schools where 30 percent or fewer of the students are black.

White students tend to remain clustered disproportionately in predominantly white schools, though the distribution of white students is more proportional than it was in pre-busing days. Today, 40 percent of the district’s white students attend schools where at least 60 percent of the students are white. Given that white students comprise under a quarter of all DPS students, this clustering by race is striking.

In 1970, 84 percent of white students attended schools that were at least 60 percent white. However, the proportion of white students in the district back then was nearly three times greater than it is today.

By comparison, the black student population as a percentage of the total has remained relatively flat — 15 percent in 1970, 14 percent today.

Charters aren’t helping schools integrate

Some of Denver’s most racially isolated schools are charters. More than 96 percent of students are Latino at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy and three campuses of STRIVE Preparatory schools. These schools, however, pride themselves on working with high-poverty, minority populations and producing significantly higher-achieving schools than their traditional neighborhood school counterparts.

STRIVE was founded “under the belief that students from all backgrounds deserve a college preparatory education regardless of race, economic circumstance or previous academic achievement,” the STRIVE website says.
DPS-run schools with similar populations typically have lower test scores and frequent leadership changes, leading to a greater sense of instability.

In all, six schools in Denver have student bodies that are more than 95 percent Latino. Only one of those has a white population of more than one percent — Sunshine Peak, at 1.1 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, six DPS neighborhood schools have white populations over 80 percent. Five of these schools are located in affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of southeast Denver. The sixth, Polaris, is a gifted and talented magnet school located just northeast of downtown.

Only one of those schools has a student body that is more than 10 percent Latino — Cory Elementary, at 11 percent.

Looking for solutions

DPS officials say they are aware of these trends and are working to combat them.

“We care deeply about integration, about economic integration, about racial integration in our schools and our classrooms,” Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS. “Study after study has shown that all kids benefit when classrooms are integrated, that all kids learn more.”

In 2010 DPS began rolling out “enrollment zones,” under which families would be assigned to one of several schools within broader boundaries than those surrounding traditional neighborhood schools. Families could list their preferred school but wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot in that school. They would, however, get a seat in one of the schools within their zone. One of the motivating forces behind the zones, at least in the past two years, has been to create more diverse schools.

In a 2014 interview with this reporter, Boasberg said enrollment zones help break down neighborhood patterns of segregation by drawing from a larger, and therefore more diverse area.

“In Denver, in many neighborhoods if you put a compass point down on the map and draw a very small radius out from it a half mile, you will often find within that circle you draw, not a lot of racial and economic diversity,” he said.

“But if you take that compass and draw it out a little further, maybe a mile, mile and a half, so you have a three-mile diameter circle, there are many, many places that are very richly diverse.”

The main focus of enrollment zones is on middle and high schools. “Given the importance parents place on the school (for their elementary-aged children) being close to home, and the fact that elementary schools are traditionally much smaller than secondary schools, I think you’ve seen basically very little change there,” Boasberg said.

Bill de la Cruz, director of DPS’ office of equity and inclusion, said in some cases families need to overcome deeply ingrained fears to feel comfortable placing their kids in an integrated school.

“The crux of it is a pretty large misunderstanding about the impact of race in a student’s ability to get a good education, with the idea that if my white student is being educated with a group of students of color that they’re going to get less, or if my student is educated with a group of students that are not at grade level then the bar is going to be lower so that we can meet their needs,” de la Cruz said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS.

Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community organizing group, said it’s easy for families in high-performing, segregated schools to forget that not everyone has it as good. “No one faults parents for looking for the best for the children. The problem is if we don’t fight to improve the schools for all our children,” he said.

The struggle to integrate schools will be an ongoing one, but it’s a worthy fight, de la Cruz said. “We’re at a place now where racially, ethnically, we need to come together to realize that all students matter, and the success of all students is based on our ability to work together,” he said.

“This idea that we can educate students in isolation of other students, it’s not reality anymore.”

This is part of Rocky Mountain PBS’ ongoing coverage of Race in Colorado. Standing in the Gap examines race in public education in the state. To learn more, visit rmpbs.org/thegap and watch the four-part documentary series on Rocky Mountain PBS at 9 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.