What can be done about Denver school district’s segregation?
For Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Summit Daily News brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news.
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 from 1973. 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The district started using enrollment zones in 2010 as a tactic toward more diverse schools by giving parents a wider geographic area in which to choose. 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.
“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,” Boasberg 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 struggle to integrate schools will be an ongoing one, but it’s a worthy fight, said Bill de la Cruz, director of DPS’ office of equity and inclusion. “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.”
“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 project coverage, 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.
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