By Laura Lefkowits
In 1995, Federal District Court Judge Richard Matsch terminated the decades-old desegregation order for Denver Public Schools claiming that the district had “removed the vestiges of past discrimination to the extent practicable.”
As it turned out, the “extent practicable” in Denver was minimal given the exit from DPS of over 30,000 mostly white, middle class students during the first decade of busing. When the order was lifted, the district’s demographics had changed from a pre-busing level of 64 percent white to just 27 percent white students. There simply were not enough white students left to meaningfully integrate Denver’s schools.
Today, only 22 percent of DPS students are white. The majority is Latino and 70 percent of all students are low-income. The achievement gap in DPS between white, middle class students and their minority, low-income peers is one of the largest in the nation. The district has narrowed the gap somewhat but it has not been enough.
In my view, there is one factor contributing to the gap that gets far too little attention – neighborhood schools.
Denver’s neighborhoods are, and always have been, segregated, both economically and racially, and these demographics are reflected in our schools. Almost two-thirds of the district’s 211 schools in 2014-15 had an enrollment exceeding the 70 percent average free-and-reduced lunch rate (FRL) and over a third have enrollments exceeding 90 percent FRL. These schools also enroll the majority of the district’s minority students. White students, on the other hand, are most likely to attend schools that are majority white with very few poor students.
Why does this matter? Research shows that schools with high concentrations of minority and low-income students, known as “highly impacted,” face often-insurmountable challenges in meeting student needs. Almost all of the DPS schools “on watch” or “probation” on the School Performance Framework are highly impacted. Certain charter schools have begun to crack the code of the highly impacted school but traditional neighborhood schools have not.
Neighborhood schools have long been the norm in American education. But, like many established American institutions, neighborhood schools work for white, middle class students and against those who are low-income and minority. In a district in which students are assigned, by default, to their neighborhood schools, it seems pretty clear that one’s zip code may, in fact, determine one’s academic fate.
I was a member of the Board of Education in 1995 when the court order was terminated. The community sentiment at the time, among all racial and ethnic groups, was overwhelmingly in favor of returning to neighborhood schools. Communities felt they had been torn apart by busing and they wanted their schools “back.”
As a board, we knew that neighborhoods in Denver were segregated and we were reluctant to adopt a policy that was certain to create more highly impacted schools. But, as the demand for neighborhood schools became more insistent, we assuaged our fears with the hope that such a policy would result in the return of the middle class to DPS, thus increasing opportunities for integration throughout the district.
We also thought that we could mitigate the impact on students assigned to highly impacted schools by providing more resources. We revised the funding formula to ensure that schools with high populations of low-income students or English Language Learners would receive more resources.
Twenty years later, the middle class has not returned and extra resources have done little to improve the outcomes for Denver’s students most in need. Neighborhood schools appear to be no more successful in educating minority children than they were in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially outlawed them in DPS.
Of course, the district is not responsible for the city’s housing policy or where families choose to live. But, the reality of neighborhood segregation is not an excuse for a student assignment policy that relegates those needing the most help to the lowest-quality schools. Indeed, this was the excuse in the 1970’s that led to the ruling for the plaintiffs in the desegregation case. The policy is no more acceptable today than it was 50 years ago.
The district has already made some headway in addressing highly impacted schools by establishing enrollment zones that increase opportunities for voluntary integration. There is more that can be done. Here are some ideas worth considering:
1. As is done in some other cities, the choice process could be “controlled” by allocating a certain portion of the seats in each school to low-income students. Socio-economic integration is legal and can result in racial integration as well.
2. The Board could adopt a policy that prohibits adding new schools to its portfolio that enroll greater than or less than, say, 20 percent of the district average FRL. Education providers applying to operate a school in DPS should be required to balance their enrollments. And, when adding neighborhood schools because of growth, avoiding the creation of highly impacted schools should be a top priority.
3. President Obama is offering $120 million in grant money for school districts that de-concentrate poverty in their schools. DPS should assemble a group of creative thinkers to develop a winning proposal.
4. Finally, those neighborhood schools that have remained in the two lowest categories on the School Performance Framework for 2 years in a row should be transitioned to one of the charter models proven to work for our most needy kids. No child should languish in a failing school longer than that.
Abandoning the neighborhood school concept may be a radical idea (and probably as unpopular today as it was in 1995). But, when it comes to closing the gap, it may be an idea whose time has come.