Neighborhood Schools Sacrosanct in Denver, but Critical Questions Arise

Over the years, the phrase “neighborhood schools” has become perhaps the must frequently uttered phrase in Denver school board elections.

Candidates across the political and ideological spectrum regularly voice their support for the concept. At first blush, it’s like apple pie and motherhood. Who doesn’t like the idea of children attending schools close to and preferably within walking distance of where they live?

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But a growing number of researchers and education advocates are questioning whether assigning students to schools based on geography is the most equitable approach.

What if, they ask, neighborhood schools in a largely segregated city like Denver cause more harm than good? What if their very existence does as much as any other single factor to contribute to inequities and achievement gaps in our public schools? What if doing away with neighborhood schools would improve the odds for low-income kids of color?

“The neighborhood school is a good deal for children whose parents can afford to live in good neighborhoods, but it’s a terrible way to allocate educational opportunities,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and author of several books on education equity issues.

Researcher David Rusk summed up this argument succinctly in his 2003 study, “Denver Divided:”

“Where a child lives largely shapes the nature of the child’s educational opportunities – not in terms of how much money is spent but who are the child’s classmates.”

According to Rusk, “Housing policy is school policy.”

In other words, these researchers say, making neighborhood schools the top priority in a racially and socio-economically segregated city all but consigns low-income kids of color to an education inferior to what their more affluent peers get in wealthier parts of town.

But these voices remain in the minority, and neighborhood schools have strong support among parents and many community advocates.

A different perspective

Jeannie Kaplan, a former Denver school board member (2005-2013) who regularly clashed with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor, now U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, said she is sympathetic to arguments about segregation and inequity. It’s unrealistic, however, to expect a school district where fewer than a quarter of students are white to integrate all of its schools, Kaplan said.

Further, Kaplan said, DPS has spent the last decade neglecting neighborhood schools. Turning attention to them might help mitigate the “housing policy is school policy” conundrum, she said.

“When you have thousands of parents of elementary school students who still really want to walk their kids to school every morning, it is incumbent on the district to provide a really strong education in every school,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said the district should promote more robust partnerships with businesses in every school enrollment zone to take advantage of business “personnel, funding, and expertise.”

“If we could get everyone in a neighborhood working toward the same goal in a concerted way, we could make progress,” she said.

Poor neighborhoods, struggling schools

But there’s a long way to go fulfill Kaplan’s vision, as a recent study by the advocacy group A+ Denver illustrates. Only 8 percent of Denver’s Hispanic students and 5 percent of its black students attend DPS’ 31 majority-white schools. Most of those schools are affluent as well.

Meanwhile, 49 percent of the district’s white students attend majority-white schools, even though white students comprise just 22 percent of the district’s students.

And in addition to being mostly white, these schools are uniformly among the highest performing in the school district: 94 percent of the majority-white schools earned Denver’s top two school performance ratings. The other 6 percent are too new to have ratings.

Conversely, A+ found, 70 percent of Hispanic students and 52 percent of black students attend concentrated nonwhite schools, where between 90 and 100 percent of students are minority.

And among those 104 schools, just 36 percent earned blue or green, the district’s highest two ratings. Nearly two-thirds ranked as either sub-par, on the road to failure, or failing.

Another recent study conducted by the Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education shows that non-poor families and white families use DPS’ SchoolChoice system to find the best match for their children at “far higher rates” than low-income, minority families.

Conversely, more low-income and minority families stay put and attend neighborhood schools in low-income neighborhoods.

The findings of these two studies seem to suggest that affluent white families find ways to attend schools where there are a lot of affluent white kids. Often, that’s in well-to-do neighborhood schools. Low-income black and Hispanic families tend to stay in sub-par neighborhood schools, mostly in southwest, northwest, and far northeast neighborhoods.

One reason low-income families utilize SchoolChoice less often is that they face obstacles that more affluent families hurdle with ease. Transportation is one major factor; the fact that low-income parents often work multiple jobs and have limited time to seek out choices is another. Language can be an additional obstacle for some families.

“A tool for segregation”

DPS Superintendent Boasberg has made school integration and equity one of his top priorities. In a December interview he said that focusing disproportionately on neighborhood schools is problematic from an equity perspective.

“The simple point is that there are multiple values at play and when we let one value (like neighborhood schools) trump all others we get into trouble,” Boasberg said.

Because the city remains largely segregated, housing patterns “will override all your efforts to integrate schools if geography is your only value. And that’s not OK.”

Too often, Boasberg said, neighborhood schools are used as “a tool for segregation.” It’s understandable, he said that people want to attend schools with people “they’ve grown up with and with whom they have a lot in common.” However, he said, when that results in racially and socio-economically segregated schools, it undermines efforts to foster equity.

Laura Lefkowits served on the Denver school board in the mid-1990s, when the federal court order mandating busing for integrated lifted and DPS decided to return to a system of neighborhood schools. She supported that shift at the time, but now, with the benefit off 20 years’ hindsight and her work as an education researcher, she sees it as a major mistake.

Almost every argument in favor of neighborhood schools has a stronger counter-argument, Lefkowits said. For example, she said, “people argue that neighborhood schools promote a sense of community, that they in fact become the center of the community. But that’s not a reason to keep them in place” when they create such inequities, she said.

“People find community in other ways that aren’t as geographically based, like churches, book groups, health clubs,” she said.

Shifting political rhetoric away from neighborhood schools will be difficult, Lefkowits acknowledged. “It appeals to the middle class, who pay attention to school board races and vote in high numbers, and whom the district wants to attract back into its schools.”

Some possible solutions

In a study released last September, Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation advocated for alternatives to neighborhood schools and better fair housing policies as a way to foster education equity. Not all of Kahlenberg’s remedies are fully applicable in Colorado, because a state law mandating open enrollment allows parents to choose, within loose limits, where to send their children, both within and among school districts.

Among Kahlenberg’s suggestions:

  • Promote socioeconomic school integration policies for traditional public schools, including: Magnet schools using attractive programs to draw a diverse set of students to a school, and providing transportation; inter-district choice between city and suburban districts, and “controlled choice” programs, in which districts assign students to schools to promote socioeconomic diversity.
  • Approve charter schools that overtly promote socioeconomic integration, as does the DSST Public Schools charter network in Denver.
  • Strengthen inclusionary zoning policies, which require developers to set aside units in new developments throughout the city that are affordable to low- and middle-income residents.

Lefkowits has her own proposal, more tailored to Denver. The school board should adopt a policy, she said, barring the district from “taking any new schools into its portfolio,” whether charter or district-run, if the student body deviates by 15 percentage points from the district’s overall percentage of low-income students. Currently, 70 percent of DPS students qualify for subsidized school lunches, a proxy for poverty.

While it would be logistically impossible to bring all existing schools into this kind of balance, requiring new schools to be more integrated is feasible, Lefkowits said. And as Denver grows and gentrifies, creating mixed-income schools should become a less daunting task, if the district continues to view this as a top priority.

Enrollment zones: solution or symptom?

Since 2010, DPS has made efforts to foster integration by creating enrollment zones. Under enrollment zones, students are assigned to one of several schools within broader boundaries than those surrounding traditional neighborhood schools. Families can list their preferred school but aren’t guaranteed a spot in that school.

The rationale behind enrollment zones, Boasberg has said, is that the larger an enrollment area’s boundaries, the more diverse the population living within it.

DPS has focused most of its enrollment zone attention on secondary schools, though more recently the district created the Stapleton neighborhood elementary zone and one in the far southeast section of the city. Lefkowits said the district would have a major fight on its hands if it tried to expand the elementary enrollment zones across the city.

But Kaplan argued that the district should do exactly that. Currently, she said, the enrollment zones have a disproportionate impact on low-income kids of color, and affluent white families for the most part aren’t affected.

“Enrollment zones are incredibly inequitable as implemented,” she said. “To do this equitably, get rid of all school boundaries. Do it citywide. Include the wealthy schools like Bromwell, Steck, Slavens, Carson. Then I’ll know you’re serious.”

Neighborhood schools won’t be disappearing from Denver anytime soon, if ever. But having an open conversation about their merits and flaws would be a good start, advocates and educators say. And, Boasberg said, such discussions would reveal people’s hidden fears and biases.

“It’s vitally important that we begin to have these hard conversations about race, income and equity,” he said.

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This story is part of Rocky Mountain PBS’ ongoing project 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 rmpbs.org.

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