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.”

language learning

KIPP charter network launching biliteracy program at new Denver elementary school

A first grade student reading in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A high-performing charter network will run a biliteracy program at a new elementary school in southwest Denver this fall — a first for KIPP schools in Colorado.

KIPP officials said they designed the program in response to parent interest in bilingual education that starts from a young age. Many families had seen their high school students educated in two languages earning a seal of biliteracy upon graduation.

“Families said, ‘why can’t we start that sooner when kids are learning to read instead of waiting until high school to develop those skills,’” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado. “It was really driven by families seeing what was possible with their older students.”

Ellen Dobie-Geffen, KIPP Colorado’s director of English language development, designed the program and said KIPP is optimistic about the academic results it can have.

“We really believe in the power of biliteracy,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We’re not doing something that’s impossible.”

Several charter schools across the state offer dual-language or language immersion programs, but biliteracy programs, which focus on simultaneously creating a literacy foundation in both English and Spanish as a way to foster bilingualism and to help kids learn to read while they are still learning the language, are still rare in Colorado. While the programs are similar, they have distinct goals and can target different students.

In the case of KIPP, this program isn’t designed for students who have no English background, although they are welcome to take part. Rather, the biliteracy program is designed for students who are growing up in English/Spanish environments, which KIPP officials say describes the vast majority of the students in southwest Denver.

As the charter network works on expanding outside of Denver, officials said that if the program at the new KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary goes well, they may replicate it at a new school in the Adams 14 school district. Biliteracy education was a common request from parents there too.

For several years, a number of Adams 14 schools had been rolling out a biliteracy program from the University of Colorado. But this year, Adams 14 officials put the program on hold, claiming they were unsure of its effectiveness, and citing shortages of qualified teachers. Parents and advocates have held protests and community meetings, and continue to ask the board to reconsider.

Last month, several mothers who asked the board to support a KIPP charter school for their district cited its bilingual programming among their reasons.

One of those parents, Maria Centeno, told the board that she didn’t feel that her district school celebrated her Hispanic culture, but she said she saw students integrated and working together at KIPP.

In biliteracy programs, the amount of exposure students get to their home language and English can change by grade level, compared with dual-language programs that generally stay at a 50-50 split. At KIPP, students will start in preschool with 50 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 50 percent in English. The balance will shift so that students in fourth grade may be getting about 70 percent instruction in English and about 30 percent in Spanish.

“There are very few bilingual options in Denver at the middle school level,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We want to make sure we are setting students up to have the academic vocabulary to be successful.”

Dobie-Geffen said if the school in Adams 14 is approved, KIPP’s biliteracy program could be modified for the needs of that community.

Before designing the biliteracy program, KIPP also started a program last year, as mandated by a standing court order for the Denver district to serve English language learners, at its school at the other end of town in the far northeast.

That transitional program has accelerated students’ literacy growth, Dobie-Geffen said.

For southwest Denver, KIPP officials chose to create the biliteracy program, modeled upon other programs and based on research.

Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder created a biliteracy program used in many districts across the country, said charter schools may have some advantages when operating a biliteracy program because of their independence and flexibility.

Escamilla said one of the keys to success is to train and help teachers as they roll out any biliteracy program.

KIPP plans to train teachers for five weeks this summer. Dobie-Geffen said teachers who already have the state’s credential for teaching students who aren’t fluent in English are “a bonus.” KIPP is requiring its teachers be certified as early-childhood educators and as bilingual teachers – under standards set by the district’s court order.

Sia, KIPP’s CEO, said finding teachers who meet those requirements was difficult. It’s a challenge for all schools offering bilingual programming.

Teacher training will cover the biliteracy program, why KIPP chose it, and how to execute a good lesson.

After that, teachers will receive weekly trainings, which can focus on biliteracy if teachers or charter leaders feel teachers need it.

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.