The figures in the map speak for themselves, but for those who prefer words: segregation persists in Northeast Denver schools, even in 2018. But local educators are stepping up, leading Denver Public Schools to adopt new policies to increase integration at both the elementary and middle school levels, starting with next fall’s classes.
Examining the map, McAuliffe International School principal Kurt Dennis points to Smith Elementary, an elementary school in north Park Hill where 90 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch (FRL), a proxy for poverty. Then he points to Swigert International School, whose FRL population is only 6 percent.
“This has never been OK, and it’s certainly not appropriate in 2018,” says Dennis. “When you look at the course of history and housing policy and school boundary policy over decades, this is what you end up with. And it’s not OK to have schools within two miles of each other that can look that different.” Dennis believes that now is the time to change that pattern, and he and other local leaders are beginning to discuss the problem and implement new strategies to address inequities.
High-poverty schools are ones where more than 75 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch, like the schools noted in dark blue on our map and chart. Low-poverty schools enroll 25 percent or fewer students in that category, like the schools in light blue.
Studies show that, in general, students in high-poverty schools perform worse on measures of academic achievement and have lower graduation rates than those in low-poverty schools. High poverty is often correlated with lower overall school performance, such as in Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF) ratings.
And all too often, there is an overlap between poverty and race, where students of color disproportionately attend high-poverty schools. The charts included here show those correlations.
At McAuliffe, Dennis finds that the lack of social integration in elementary schools persists into middle school. “Students immediately self-segregate. You walk into a cafeteria on day one and you have black kids at one table and white kids at another,” says Dennis. “If students [of diverse backgrounds] are going to school together at age 4, would that still be the case at age 12?” And
academically, gaps that pre-date elementary school persist into middle school, says Dennis.
Recent studies show that students of all backgrounds benefit by attending diverse, integrated schools, says Kevin King, an instructional superintendent for elementary schools in the near northeast region. “Some of those outcomes are most prominent in colleges and job sites … students from all races and socioeconomics learn how to embrace differences,” says King. “The emotional intelligence that comes from working in multicultural settings—that’s what employers are looking for.”
One of the elementary schools under King’s supervision, Westerly Creek, is participating in a program to offer more culturally responsive education, understand its equity issues and to close gaps for underserved students. “All schools, all students can benefit from more integrated settings,” says King.
Local educators are committed to addressing the lack of integration in Northeast Denver, and schools have already begun taking some steps toward improving diversity and inclusion in partnership with DPS.
District-wide, some schools that have 40% FRL rates and lower are participating in prioritizing any open seats (after zone/boundary assignments) for FRL students, although many schools have few, if any, open seats.
One of the new policies that will be implemented is creating “floors”—that is, baseline enrollment requirements—for the percentage of FRL students enrolled at local schools.
Beginning in Fall 2018-19, DPS will institute three new requirements locally:
Implement an FRL floor at all Greater Park Hill/Stapleton Middle Schools, starting with 20% and ramping up to the zone average [about 30%] over 3 years.
Implement an FRL floor at High Tech and Inspire of 25% for kindergarten.
Introduce an FRL priority for all Stapleton zone schools with fewer than a given socioeconomic diversity level after zone students are assigned.
These new mandatory floor for FRL students should be fairly easy to achieve without impacting the enrollment of in-zone students in Stapleton and Park Hill, says Brian Eschbacher, the executive director of planning and enrollment services for DPS. For example, High Tech currently has a schoolwide rate of 13 percent FRL, well below the 25 percent floor for next year’s kindergarten. But in a class of 75 kindergarteners, that would only equate to including nine or 10 additional FRL students, noted Eschbacher.
Likewise, at McAuliffe, which currently enrolls about 17 percent FRL students, increasing that figure to 20 percent in a sixth-grade class of 480 means enrolling an additional 14 FRL students. Last year, McAuliffe accepted all in-zone students and had an additional 63 seats available for out-of-zone students, according to Dennis. By 2023, it would mean an additional 187 seats for FRL students.
Leaders at Swigert International are planning to implement a policy similar to that of High Tech and Inspire for its 2019 kindergarten class, which will increase in size to accommodate a new FRL floor and neighborhood demand for seats.
East High School has already begun prioritizing FRL students for open spots after zone students have been enrolled, which has helped it become more diverse. East’s goal is to reach 35 percent FRL enrollment. At 32 percent FRL and 53 percent students of color, East lags behind Northfield and George Washington in its diversity.
Long-Term Approaches to the Problem
DPS has been working with a large committee of stakeholders through the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI). Over the course of many months, teachers, parents, students and community members have been meeting to discuss how to increase integration and inclusion at schools across the district.
What has emerged from SNI are multiple recommendations and plans to begin implementing them. Overarching recommendations to increase integration include setting specific goals, supporting schools with resources, coordinating with the city and expanding community engagement, says Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of DPS.Cordova supports the initiative in part because “there’s a lot of research that when we create diverse and inclusive environments, everybody benefits from it,” says Cordova, “both in terms of educational outcomes for students as well as in terms of economic outcomes in the industry.”
SNI co-chair and community member Diana Romero-Campbell described specific goals that have emerged from the SNI: increasing access, focusing on equity, and improving design and sustainability. “There are so many benefits [to integration],” says Romero-Campbell. “It really does provide for not only the students but the teachers and the whole community to live not in a bubble but in the reality of what people will experience throughout their life.”
School leaders agree that ongoing conversations need to occur, even if they’re what Romero-Campbell calls “messy.” Implementation of further integration measures in Northeast Denver and beyond will be guided by the community. “It’s going to look different at different schools…We don’t have one model,” says Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “It’s about ensuring a strong community voice about what’s right for that school community.”
To learn more about the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, see www.dspk12.org/neighborhoods. Watch for opportunities at your local schools to participate in the conversation.