changing city

The thorny problem of segregated schools and Denver’s newest plan to address it

Denver schools are more racially segregated today than they were a decade ago, even with the district’s share of white students growing over that time.

That finding, from the KIDS COUNT report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign today, highlights a problem that has dogged officials in Denver and across the nation for decades and will soon draw the attention of a new Denver Public Schools committee charged with addressing school diversity in the gentrifying city.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Denver schools are more segregated today, citing some city schools such as Skinner Middle School that are better integrated today than 10 years ago. Still, he acknowledged that race- and income-based segregation is a major challenge for the district.

“We have very significant housing separation and segregation in this city as we see in so many communities across the country … so then you also see that in our schools,” he said.

Data provided by the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but not included in the 2017 KIDS COUNT report — shows a slight downward trend in Denver Public Schools “segregation index” since the measure’s high-water mark in 2014-15. Even so, that index today is higher than it’s been in the district for most of the last 13 years and higher than in any other Colorado district.

Despite a surge in the city’s population, enrollment growth is slowing in DPS and low-income families are being pushed out. This year, about three-quarters of students districtwide are students of color and two-thirds are low-income — both lower figures than five years ago.

In Colorado, segregated schools aren’t unique to Denver. Suburban and rural districts, including St. Vrain Valley, Eagle County and Greeley, also have highly segregated schools, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Highly segregated schools, where poor children of color are often concentrated, typically lack the financial resources and more experienced teachers that can be found in less segregated schools. The report also cites recent landmark research from Stanford University that shows segregation is a significant predictor of achievement gaps — differences in achievement levels associated with students’ race or socioeconomic status.

Boasberg said the district’s new “Citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods” committee, which will have about 30 members and kick off in June, will discuss possible changes to the district’s school boundary, enrollment and choice systems “to drive greater integration in our schools.”

He acknowledged that race, class and segregation can be highly sensitive topics.

“Will there be concerns on all sides? Yes,” he said. “Will there be any one set of proposals that will make everyone happy? No.”

Still, he noted that he hears both parents and students say they want to see Denver’s diversity reflected in their schools.

Plus, he said, “There’s lots of research that says integrated schools are win-win for all kids, for all economic backgrounds and races.”

Lisa Flores, a school board member who represents the rapidly gentrifying northwest Denver, said she hopes the committee will focus not just on crafting policy but also examining the public perceptions that accompany ideas like desegregation and integration.

“We have in many ways evolved as a community and in many ways face some of the cultural challenges that we faced 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “I’m hoping for some short-term wins and I’m aware that this is long haul work.”

The district has made some efforts to increase integration, including the use of enrollment zones. Students living in such zones are guaranteed enrollment at one of several schools within the zone’s boundaries but not necessarily the one closest to their home. The idea is to pull students from a larger, more diverse area, thereby lessening the effects of highly segregated neighborhoods. So far, the zones have had mixed success. 

Seven of the district’s 11 enrollment zones focus on middle schools and two on high schools. Two others, one encompassing the upscale Stapleton neighborhood, and a smaller one in far southeast Denver, target elementary schools.

Still, segregation at the elementary level can be stark. For example, the KIDS COUNT report highlights two schools with vastly different demographics: Valverde and Steele elementaries.

At Valverde, which has the lowest of five quality ratings, 95 percent of students are children of color and 96 percent qualify for free or discounted meals, a proxy for poverty. Two miles away in the pricey Washington Park neighborhood is Steele, which has the second highest quality rating. There, just 17 percent of students are children of color and 6 percent qualify for free or discounted meals.

But evening out such imbalances is a tricky proposition given the fraught history of integration efforts. In Denver, court-ordered busing in the 1970s sparked massive white flight to neighboring suburbs and more recently, enrollment zones have stirred worry among some parents. Contentious battles over integration are in full swing elsewhere, too, including in New York City where wealthy white parents have relentlessly fought school boundary changes that would lead to integration.

Despite the potential for acrimony, Flores draws optimism from her own experience as a Denver student during the era of court-ordered busing.

Her white, affluent classmates “were children of progressive parents who wanted to walk the talk around integration,” she said. “You will still find those parents today that share the value of socioeconomic and racial integration and want their children to experience that type of learning environment.”

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline, and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14, and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”