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News Analysis: Coming Full Circle

Busing is our history; the problems it attempted to solve remain

By Laura Lefkowits, Special to the GPHN

“We believe that high-quality, integrated schools not only offer the best educational outcomes for our children but also serve a vital function in promoting and sustaining vibrant neighborhoods.”

Demonstrators demanding quality integrated education and social balance during a 1968 boycott at Smiley Junior High.

So says the Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education in a recently passed resolution launching the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative. The initiative established a citywide committee charged with evaluating the impact of Denver’s changing demographics on its neighborhood schools and making recommendations to the board that will “drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.”

I, along with about 40 other district, city, and community representatives, was appointed to serve on the committee. Now I am suffering from a serious case of déjà vu.

It’s been nearly 22 years since federal district court Judge Richard Matsch ended two decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation in DPS. At the time of the Sept. 12, 1995 ruling, I was a newly elected member of the Board of Education. As a Park Hill resident, I was very familiar with the Keyes v School District No. 1 desegregation suit brought in 1969 against DPS for its neighborhood school policy relegating African-American students to inequitable schools.

The plaintiffs were able to show a deliberate and unlawful pattern of student assignment that resulted in the almost total isolation of black students in overcrowded, low-quality, under-resourced schools. The district argued that it was merely following the Board’s policy of assigning students to their neighborhood school, a “color-blind” policy with no intent to discriminate.

After a long court battle, in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and ordered DPS to change its student assignment policy, which included the use of busing to desegregate the district’s schools. The response of the city was similar to many other cities that were ordered to desegregate in those years.

By 1980, DPS had lost approximately 30,000, mostly white, students to the suburbs and private schools (the term coined to describe this phenomenon was “white flight”). By 1995, only 27 percent of DPS students were white.

The new reality

The decision to end busing was influenced by a brief filed in 1992 by then-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Webb claimed that busing had outlived its usefulness and minorities now had sufficient power to ensure fair treatment for their children, regardless of where they went to school. Vocal Denverites agreed and urged a return to neighborhood schools that promised to boost white enrollment and allow communities to take an active role in school improvement.

It is ironic that, in 1995, both minority and white families viewed the “neighborhood school” policy that had caused the district to lose in court in 1973 as the solution to improving schools. Even though Denver’s neighborhoods were still segregated, the Board of Education thought potential inequities in a neighborhood school system could be mitigated through creative policymaking.

We adjusted the school resource allocation formula and remodeled schools to improve equity, provided transportation for children who wanted to continue attending their current, integrated school, and allowed students to choose any school in the district with capacity (but without transportation).

Twenty years after busing ended, DPS enrollment has increased to almost 1969 levels. But the hope that neighborhood schools and choice would result in an enrollment that better reflects the demographics of the city as a whole has not panned out.

Segregation has (again) become the new reality. Today, only about 22 percent of students in DPS are white in a city that is over 80 percent white. More than 40 percent of schools have a Latino or African-American enrollment that exceeds the district average of 70 percent, including dozens in which the population of students of color is greater than 90 percent.

These schools are also predominantly low-income and many are failing, according to DPS’s School Performance Framework. At the same time, there are many high-performing neighborhood schools in which the percentage of low-income students is negligible and the majority of students are white. We seem to have come full circle.

Experiences shape lives

My own children attended Stedman Elementary School in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and were among the roughly 26 percent of white students enrolled there. Their tenure at Stedman exposed them to diversity and gave them the experience of being in the minority, an experience that has shaped their lives and one that they now hope to pass on to their own children.

Today, only about 8 percent of students at Stedman are white. One of them is my granddaughter.

The Greater Park Hill neighborhood surrounding Stedman, at 2940 Dexter St., is one of the many “gentrifying” areas that have given rise to the need for the school board’s recently passed Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative.

Housing prices in the Stedman boundary have skyrocketed, and more and more middle-to-upper income, mostly white, families are moving in. But they don’t send their children to Stedman. Instead, more than 300 students in the Stedman neighborhood currently “choice out” to attend charters and other neighborhood schools, or select among many private options.

By contrast, Park Hill Elementary, on the neighborhood’s south side at 5050 E. 19th Ave., has always been a high performing neighborhood school. It was once naturally balanced both racially and economically, but the school now reflects the changing demographics of its boundary area and is a popular choice option.

In 2012, more than 40 percent of students at Park Hill Elementary were minority and 29 percent qualified for free or reduced price lunches, which is a proxy for poverty. Today, only about 30 percent are minority and 20 percent are low-income, a 10 percent decrease on these measures in just 5 years.

At Stedman, more than 87 percent of students are students of color, and over 85 percent come from low-income families, qualifying them for free and reduced lunches. Park Hill’s two other neighborhood elementary schools, Smith and Hallett, have minority student populations of over 95 percent, with about 90 percent coming from low-income homes. Both Smith and Hallett are also in the north and northeast areas of Park Hill.

Our schools are a poor reflection of the diversity of our neighborhood and the trends are not encouraging.  According to data submitted to the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee, in 2015 the population of the Greater Park Hill Community (including northeast, north, and south Park Hill) was 17 percent Latino, 50 percent white, and 26 percent African American. About 12 percent of families in our neighborhood live in poverty.

Since 2010, the percentage of white families living in Park Hill has risen 20 percent and many families of color have been forced to leave the neighborhood because of rising housing costs. This trend concerns me because the multicultural neighborhood in which I chose to raise my own children may not be available to my grandchildren, who live within a block of where their parents grew up.

Reigniting the fight for justice

Countless research studies show that an impoverished minority student in a school with a high concentration of similar students faces extraordinarily low odds of success.  Research also shows that integrated educational environments improve outcomes for middle class children as well as their lower-income peers.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative will be proposing solutions to address demographic changes across the entire city. But we in Park Hill have it in our power to come together to forge our own solutions for our own future.

The Greater Park Hill Community has a proud history of standing up for civil rights, fair housing, and school desegregation. As a community, we need to reconnect with this history and re-engage with one another in a deep conversation about our roots. Through our actions and choices we can create neighborhood schools that reflect our historical values of tolerance, inclusiveness, and equity so that our children grow into the kind of citizens we need.

Busing is part of our history, but the problems it attempted to solve remain. The fight for equity and justice is never over, it just reframes itself according to the times. Let’s find the right path for today and start the journey.

Laura Lefkowits served on the Denver Public Schools board from 1995 to 1999.  She is a nonprofit management consultant to educational organizations and has spoken and written extensively on the history and impact of the Keyes case.

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