2016-03-09
Story

Students in a music class at a Denver school.

Photo by Seth McConnell/Getty Images

By Alan Gottlieb

Colorado’s largest urban center suffers from the same segregation of students of color in high-poverty schools as cities across the country, a new analysis of federal data shows.  

The analysis by The Atlantic comes from an impressive tool called the National Equity Atlas, produced by the nonprofit PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

The Atlantic’s analysis takes a fresh look at conditions that school integration advocates have long protested. Not only are children of color disproportionately found in racially isolated schools, they’re also overwhelmingly located in high-poverty schools.  

Multiple studies have shown that socioeconomically integrated schools benefit low-income students academically, without holding back their more affluent peers. But as busing falls out of favor with federal courts, public schools nationwide have fallen back into familiar patterns of racial and socio-economic segregation—and in some cases, segregation today is worse than it was before courts imposed busing plans.

Denver is one such case. Although Denver Public Schools (DPS) has made integration and equity main focal points of its latest strategic plan, DPS schools today are arguably more racially segregated than they were in the early 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a mandatory busing plan to integrate schools.

According to the Equity Atlas, DPS is also the 26th most socioeconomically segregated urban school district in the country out of the top 100 districts.

The Equity Atlas shows that in Denver, 72 percent of minority students attend high-poverty schools, where at least 75 percent of the students are poor (as measured by eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches). Just 20 percent of white students attend high-poverty schools. (To find this information, click the above link and then search for Denver, and click on the “over time” option. As a side note, it is well worth the time to explore this site, which has a treasure-trove of great data.)

Latino students are the most disproportionately affected group. More than 79 percent of Latinos attend high-poverty schools, and just 2 percent attend schools where fewer than 25 percent of students are poor.

In an analysis conducted last year for Rocky Mountain PBS as part of its Standing in the Gap documentary series, I reported that more than 80 percent of the district’s Latino students attended majority-Latino schools.

African American students are less segregated than they were before busing, but they comprise just 14 percent of the student body, while Latinos make up 57 percent of DPS students.

DPS officials are keenly aware of these issues, and are taking some steps to address them. Their hands are somewhat tied by the Public Schools of Choice Act, a 1990 state law that allows students to attend any public school in their home district or another district if space is available.

Some districts in other states have implemented “controlled choice” plans. Under those plans (which vary from district to district), students list several preferred schools. Districts determine school assignments by considering a number of factors, socioeconomic diversity being one of the most heavily weighted.

But the 1990 law means controlled choice is not a tool available to Colorado school districts.  

In DPS, however, Superintendent Tom Boasberg (currently on a six-month sabbatical) has put in place a series of enrollment zones, in part to foster diversity in Denver schools. Under enrollment zones, families are assigned to one of several schools within broader boundaries than those surrounding traditional neighborhood schools. Families can list their preferred school but wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot in that school. They do, however, get a spot in one of the schools within their zone.

Race and socioeconomic status are not used in assignment decisions, district officials said. Still, wider boundaries will lead to more diverse student bodies, and DPS will stick with the strategy, Anne Rowe, president of the Denver school board, told me recently.

“Data shows that segregation in Denver Public Schools has not materially changed in the last 10 years and is highly influenced by neighborhood demographics,” Rowe said. (Records from the Colorado Department of Education confirm that segregation has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade.) “Over the last several years, we’ve worked really hard to create more integrated schools by establishing enrollment zones, increasing access to transportation and working to improve schools in all neighborhoods.”

Some parents have complained about enrollment zones depriving them of their neighborhood school, but to date the district has held firm and has even expanded the number of zones. And the program has plenty of defenders as well, not least among students, according to Boasberg.

“Our kids tell us how much they want to be in schools that reflect the diversity of the community they’re a part of,” Boasberg told me in a 2014 interview for Chalkbeat Colorado.

Then, with a wry smile, he added: “Most of our parents support that—some with greater degrees of enthusiasm than others.”

The Atlantic analysis singles out Colorado Springs for having fewer students of color in high-poverty schools than all but a handful of cities nationwide. But that finding is confounded somewhat by the fact that the Equity Atlas combines data from several school districts that lie at least partly inside the city’s boundaries.  

There’s reason to believe the Equity Atlas numbers do somewhat apply to District 11, the largest school district in the Pikes Peak region. District 11 covers the central section of Colorado Springs. In part because of the large number of military personnel living in Colorado Springs, it is less residentially segregated than Denver.  

“There is no area known as the Latino part of town, or the African American part of town,” said Janeen Demi-Smith, the district’s executive director of educational data and support services. “Minorities are distributed throughout our community, unlike many other cities.”

Alan Gottlieb
Writer, editor and consultant
Denver, Colorado