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Brown v. Board Of Education: Landmark Court Case At 65 Years

Studies Show Students Benefit From Tolerance and Cross-Cultural Understanding, Yet Denver Schools More Segregated Than Ever 

By Laura Lefkowits, For the GPHN

Circa 1970, students standing in line waiting to board the bus as part of the Denver Public Schools desegregation busing system. Credit: Denver Public Library/Western History and Genealogy

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional, turns 65 this year. Denver’s own desegregation case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, turns 46. 

While these court cases were hailed as the beginning of the end of state-sanctioned discrimination of students of color, court-ordered desegregation was highly unpopular and white flight was rampant. In Denver, 30,000 mostly white students fled the district in the first decade of busing.

And yet, longitudinal research studies have shown that students of color in desegregated schools score higher on standardized tests than their segregated peers and demonstrate greater critical thinking and complex problem-solving ability. The reverse is also true. Black and brown students in intensely segregated schools have lower test scores, graduation rates and can expect to earn lower wages as adults. 

Demonstrators demanding quality integrated education and social balance during a 1968 boycott at Smiley Junior High. Photo Credit: Denver Public Library/Western History and Genealogy

And, more important, students of all races who attend desegregated schools have more tolerance, empathy, and cross-cultural understanding than children in segregated schools. They also have less bias and prejudice and are more likely to grow up and live in integrated neighborhoods and hold jobs in integrated workplaces. 

At this point in our social and political life, it seems clear that we need more people with the characteristics gained from experience in diverse settings. And yet, schools in the United States and Denver are more segregated today than ever. Why is this and is there anything we can do about it?

The history of resistance 

Resistance to the ruling in Brown was powerful. In 1956, after the ruling, 101 Southern senators and congressmen signed the “Southern Manifesto,” claiming desegregation was unconstitutional and urging a reversal of the decision. Three years later, Virginia closed its public schools rather than allow black children to attend white schools. 

It was a full decade after the Brown decision before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 compelled states to follow the law. But starting only a decade later, administrative, legislative and judicial policies began to reverse the progress made. By 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that race could no longer be used in school attendance policies, efforts to integrate schools had all but disappeared across the country. 

Here in Denver, the story of Keyes is similarly rife with resistance. As the case wound its way through the courts between 1969 and 1973, Denver Public Schools persisted in discriminating against students of color. The district refused to change school boundaries and used mobile classrooms and a new building to keep black students in their own schools. These tactics, and others, were seen by the courts for what they were – continued attempts to ignore the fundamental finding in Brown that separate is not equal. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the school board stopped resisting and started to address the real inequities in the system. Using federal grant monies to open magnet schools, upgrading facilities and addressing funding and staffing inequities, along with the shift in social priorities away from desegregation as a tool for equity, the judge finally terminated the court order on September 12, 1995. 

Achievement gap cut in half 

In spite of the resistance, where desegregation occurred around the country, the results were positive. By 1988, the achievement gap between black and white students was cut in half, funding disparities between urban and suburban schools were eliminated, and for a brief period in the mid-1970’s, black and Latinx students attended college at the same rate as whites – the only time this has ever occurred. 

According to education researcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, “. . . had the rate of progress achieved in the 1970s and 1980s continued, the achievement gap would have been fully closed by the beginning of the 21st century.” And, as noted above, significant social benefits accrued to all students, regardless of race. 

Although the Supreme Court in Brown declared separate to be unequal and unconstitutional, it did not provide specifics about how to remedy the problem. 

As states reluctantly began to adhere to the law, desegregation became a numbers game in which districts, including Denver, assigned students to schools to achieve the court-ordered racial balance without addressing the instructional and cultural changes that were necessary for a truly integrated school experience. 

In the South, districts allowed children of color to attend white schools, but refused to send white children to non-white schools. As a result, black schools were shuttered and black teachers, deemed unacceptable for white children, were fired. Indeed, an entire generation of highly qualified black teachers were forced to leave the teaching profession. That contributed to the dearth of teachers of color today, as well as the loss of their skills and expertise in teaching black children. 

In Denver, as the share of white children declined, the burdens of desegregation were felt more acutely by communities of color. And, as the district focused on complying with the letter of the court order, rather than its spirit of ensuring equal access to education for all, these communities began to reject desegregation as well. 

Return to segregation 

Segregation has resurged since the termination of court orders all over the country. Denver has regained the enrollment numbers it lost during busing but the demographics have changed. Currently, the majority of students in DPS are Latinx, roughly 25 percent are white, 13 percent are black, and 8 percent claim another or two or more races. 

But the decision to return to a neighborhood school system led to an almost immediate resegregation of the district. The resegregation has only worsened as our magnet schools have been allowed to ignore their origins and our school choice policies have favored those with privilege. (Of note: That decision was made by a board of which I was a member at the time, in response to overwhelming demands from all sectors of the community.)

Today about 40 percent of schools have black and Latinx enrollments exceeding 90 percent. White students make up the majority in about 20 percent of our schools, despite being less than a quarter of total enrollment. Only about 18 percent of schools have no single racial group in the majority. 

Our own schools in Park Hill mirror this district-wide segregation. About 85 percent of students at Smith, Hallett and Roots elementaries are black or brown, whereas about 70 percent of students at Park Hill Elementary and McAuliffe Middle School are white. Odyssey School also has a majority white enrollment, at 53 percent. Stedman is currently the only school with a racially balanced enrollment, with about 30 percent of each major racial group. 

Can we fulfill the promise of Brown?

Rather than bemoaning the false narrative that desegregation didn’t work, or returning to models of desegregation that undervalue the importance of culture, we need to confront the ongoing resistance to desegregation with a vision of truly integrated schools. 

With longitudinal evidence that integration, not segregation, best prepares children for success in our global society, how can we build schools that reflect and welcome the rich diversity of our society? We need schools that are inclusive, that celebrate the backgrounds of all the students, and in which power is shared equally among all racial, ethnic and economic groups.

The divisions in our society today could be healed with more tolerance, empathy and civic participation. We need to give our children the chance to become the change we want to see in the world.

Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (PHNEE) is working to address inequities in our neighborhood elementary schools, many of which are caused by segregation. We have the opportunity here in our historically integrated Park Hill community to create a foundation for moving forward with respect, understanding, and appreciation for our common humanity. 

Laura Lefkowits is a nonprofit management consultant to educational organizations. She served on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education from 1995 to 1999 and is an active member of PHNEE. For more information, go to https://phnee.org, or send an email to info@phnee.org


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