An Open Conversation about Merits and Flaws of Neighborhood Schools

Last Updated by Alan Gottlieb on

Over the years, the phrase “neighborhood schools” has become a predictable mantra in Denver school board elections.

Candidates across the political and ideological spectrum regularly voice their support for the concept, and no wonder. Who doesn’t like the idea of children attending schools close to and preferably within walking distance of where they live?

So here’s a jarring question: What if neighborhood schools in a largely segregated city are, in fact, a lousy idea? 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?

Would elected officials, parents, educators back away from them?

Probably not. But those are questions that frame the debate against neighborhood schools.

“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 it up nicely 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.”

And, Rusk adds, “knowing the percentage of low-income pupils (in a school), one can predict a school’s percentage scoring proficient or advanced on (state standardized) tests and fall within 10 percentage points of the actual percentage about 95 percent of the time.”

Even more succinctly, Rusk stated: “Housing policy is school policy.”

In other words, 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.

A recent study by the advocacy group A+ Denver puts this in stark perspective. 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 here’s the kicker: 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 non-white schools, where between 90 and 100 percent of students are minority.

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

Another recent study conducted by the 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.

Combine the findings of these two studies, and the conclusion is clear: Affluent white families find ways to attend schools where there are a lot of affluent white kids. Often, that’s in wealthy neighborhood schools.

Conversely, low-income black and Hispanic families tend to stay put in sub-par neighborhood schools in poor parts of town, mostly in southwest, northwest, and far northeast neighborhoods.

It’s not that low-income families don’t want the best for their children. But they face obstacles to exercising choice 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.

Helping to ameliorate these challenges, some charter schools aimed at educating low-income kids have set up shop in the most challenged neighborhoods. Despite the rapid growth of networks like STRIVE Prep and DSST, however, the schools cannot always keep up with demand from families who want to send their kids there. And some families prefer a more traditional educational model.

“A tool for segregation”

Tom Boasberg is the first DPS superintendent in recent memory who has made school integration one of his top priorities. He acknowledges 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 in a recent interview.

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 integration 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, 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.

The reflexive support for neighborhood schools reeks of nostalgia, Lefkowits said. “It harkens back to a time that no longer matches the reality of Denver today,” she said.

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

Some possible solutions

In a study released in 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.

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 broader 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 DPS 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.

“That’s far less palatable to the public than converting failing neighborhood elementary schools to high-performing charters,” she said.

Neighborhood schools won’t be disappearing from Denver anytime soon, if ever. But having an open conversations 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 coverage, 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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