diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

school segregation

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Kindergarten students from Park Hill and Stedman elementary schools meet between the two schools in January 2017 to march together in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr's visit to Denver's Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church.

Eagleton Elementary is a block and a half away from where Brian Hilbert lives with his wife and two young children in west Denver. It’s a largely Latino working-class neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, and Hilbert said he values the diversity of the area.

But when it came time for the family, who identify as white and middle-class, to choose a public preschool for their 3-year-old daughter, Hilbert said their first instinct was to look at schools in wealthier parts of the city, where the test scores are higher.

“I don’t want her to lose privilege, as weird as it is,” Hilbert said of his daughter. “My pre-parenthood politics, I hate the idea of saying, ‘I want my kid to be privileged.’ On the other hand, it’s hard to say, ‘I want my kid to be disadvantaged.’”

That tension is one reason many Denver schools continue to be segregated by race and income, even as gentrification creates more diverse neighborhoods.

Unlike schools in more homogeneous neighborhoods, schools in these areas have the potential to be naturally integrated. But district data shows that’s not always happening. Instead, wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools that are not in their neighborhood. The result is that the schools in some gentrifying parts of the city look much like they always have.

That matters because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students of color and students from low-income families without lowering the scores of students from wealthier ones – and because wealthier parents bring more resources to the schools their children attend.

Denver Public Schools officials want to see those benefits in the district’s 200 schools. But officials also believe strongly in school choice – that is, allowing the district’s 92,600 students to “choice out” of the assigned school in their neighborhood and “choice in” to another school they feel is a better fit. Allowing families to choose can be at odds with the desire to integrate.

Interviews with white, middle-class parents provide some insight into how they’re making school choices. Some worry their children will feel isolated if they’re the only white students in their class. Others are nervous about sending their kids to a high-poverty school with low test scores. Those fears sometimes persist even when the high-poverty school has a good academic rating.

A task force of community leaders assembled by Denver Public Schools recently came up with a list of recommendations to increase school integration, including that the district should launch a communications effort to inform families about the benefits of integration.

All types of families in Denver use school choice, and the recommendation doesn’t specify which parents would be targeted by the effort. About 76 percent of Denver Public Schools students are children of color, and 24 percent are white. Two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, while one-third do not.

But some parents of color doubt a communications campaign will increase integration. Antwan Jefferson, a black parent and University of Colorado Denver education professor who served as co-chair of the task force, said the parents opting their children out of high-poverty schools don’t seem to be making those decisions based on a lack of information.

In fact, he said, it seems to be the opposite.

“Ignorance might not be the issue,” he said. “I think educating parents about the benefits of integration, it may be a veiled attempt to respond to their fear of being in these schools.”

‘I’ve heard it’s different now’

Chalkbeat sent out a survey earlier this year asking Denver parents how they choose schools for their children. It included this question: What role did student demographics of potential schools play in your decision?

We followed up with several parents who were willing to talk more. Of those who responded to our interview request, all identified as white and middle- or upper-middle class. They all said they wanted their kids to go to diverse schools.

But they acknowledged that for many parents, other factors like test scores trump diversity.

“In the abstract, everybody wants schools to be more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse,” said Elisabeth Ihler, a Denver doctor and mother of two. “But the only control you have over that as a parent is to send your child there. Everybody wants the best for their child. I think that those ideals sometimes take a hit when the rubber meets the road, so to speak, of, ‘Am I going to send my child to this school where the test scores are not as good?’”

Ihler is pleased to have found a school she believes provides both diversity and academic rigor. Her son goes to Denver Language School, a charter school that offers full immersion in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. The school is racially diverse, but not socioeconomically diverse. While half of its 750 students are white and half are children of color, the school’s poverty rate is only 18 percent. That’s far below the district poverty rate of 67 percent.

When Ihler began searching for a school, she said people kept recommending Bromwell and Steck. Both are district-run elementary schools where the overwhelming majority of students are white and less than 15 percent are living in poverty. Test scores are high, especially for white students, and Steck is the top-rated public school in Denver this year.

“I found myself thinking, ‘Is it really the school that’s so good? Or the kids who go to that school have all these advantages going in?’” Ihler said. “That led me to widen my search.”

Robyn DiFalco had a similar experience. After moving to Denver, DiFalco said she was hoping to find an integrated school for her kids. Instead, she said she found schools where nearly all students qualified for subsidized lunches and schools where almost none did. She scratched the latter off her list and worried about the former.

“It was hard when I saw it was like 90 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” DiFalco said. She said she wondered whether students who were living in poverty might have experienced trauma that would affect their behavior and, in turn, her children’s learning environment.

She ended up sending her kids to their neighborhood boundary school, Bradley International, a highly rated school where 34 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches. But with her oldest going into middle school next year, DiFalco found herself on the school hunt again.

One of the schools she considered was the boundary school for her neighborhood, Hamilton Middle School. When she spoke to a neighbor about the school, where a majority of students come from low-income families and identify as children of color, DiFalco said the neighbor told her, “That was not a fit for us, but I’ve heard it’s different now.”

Opting out

In the early 1970s, Denver Public Schools became the first district outside of the South to be ordered by the Supreme Court to racially integrate its schools. When busing ended more than 20 years later, in 1995, the district reverted back to a system of neighborhood boundary schools. The move was cheered at the time, but it meant a return to a familiar problem. Because Denver neighborhoods were segregated by race and income, so too were its schools.

The district has taken steps in the past decade to encourage integration. In addition to universal school choice, it created “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries designed to cross neighborhood lines. Three years ago, the district quietly began a pilot program to prioritize filling open seats at affluent district schools with students from low-income families who want to opt in. The pilot expanded this year. And some schools in changing neighborhoods are becoming more integrated without explicit nudging from the district.

But many Denver schools remain segregated.

To help the task force understand how school choice and segregation intersect, district staff made a list of schools with the biggest gaps between low-income and wealthier families opting out. Unlike in the 1970s when the integration conversation was focused on race, the district now focuses on socioeconomic status, which sometimes correlates with race, though not always.

With the exception of one school on the list, the percentage of wealthier families who leave their boundary schools is much higher.

Many of the schools are in gentrifying neighborhoods. A recent national study drew a connection between school choice and gentrification. It found that wealthier families are more likely to move into mostly black or Hispanic neighborhoods if they can opt out of the local schools.

Marina Guerrero lives across the street from one of the schools on the list: Cheltenham Elementary. Seventy-six percent of wealthier families who live in the northwest Denver neighborhood surrounding Cheltenham chose other schools last year, while only 37 percent of lower-income families did, resulting in a 39-percentage-point gap.

Guerrero’s twin boys are in third grade at Cheltenham. She’s watched as other families have been pushed out of the neighborhood by rising rents or wrecking balls. Many of the people moving into the brand-new townhomes sprouting up around her duplex don’t have children – and if they do, Guerrero said, they’re not sending them to Cheltenham.

Academically, the school is improving after a new principal ushered in much-needed changes, Guerrero said. But it’s also caught in a vicious cycle. Because Denver schools are funded per-student, the withering enrollment is sapping Cheltenham of the resources it needs to add the type of enrichment programming she feels would attract more families.

“It makes me feel powerless,” she said.

Another elementary school with a big gap is Trevista at Horace Mann, located a few miles north of Cheltenham. That neighborhood is also home to a mix of families. The city’s biggest public housing project is there, but the median price of a non-subsidized house was more than $400,000 last year, according to city records. Once a predominantly Hispanic, working-class area, it has seen an influx of wealthier, mostly white families in the last decade.

Trevista, however, is homogenous. Nearly all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Out of 351 students, 260 are Hispanic, 50 are black, and just 29 are white. After years of low school ratings, Trevista has reached “green,” the second-highest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, for the past two years. The color ratings are largely based on state test scores and heavily weight year-over-year academic progress.

But Trevista’s high rating hasn’t accelerated integration.

That may change next year. Trevista is adopting a dual-language curriculum in its lower grades that it plans to roll up to the entire school over time. Starting in the fall, preschool and kindergarten classes will be taught in a combination of English and Spanish.

It’s something English-speaking parents in the neighborhood have wanted for years, said Principal Jesús Rodriguez, and the reaction has been overwhelming. Whereas in the past the school had to cancel family tours because no one showed up, every tour this year was packed. Rodriguez said he saw more white families than in the six years he’s been principal.

“I can’t make any assumptions about household income, so I won’t,” he said of the families on the tours. “But racially and ethnically, the groups have been pretty diverse.”

The move to dual-language is also an effort to better serve the 33 percent of Trevista students who are English language learners, Rodriguez said. Trevista used to have more, which allowed for a classroom at every grade to be taught in Spanish, a model known as “transitional native language instruction” that gradually shifts instruction from students’ native language to English.

But the number of English language learners at Trevista is shrinking, and this year Rodriguez had to combine 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds into one class. Dual-language classrooms will allow Spanish-speaking students to learn alongside their same-age peers, he said.

“Hopefully it provides two ends for us: One is we are able to serve our current families well,” Rodriguez said. “And two is that we are interested in growing our school enrollment to a place where it reflects the demographics of the community at large.”

Leaving after preschool

At schools in some gentrifying Denver neighborhoods, the key to increasing integration isn’t getting local families to come to the school but convincing them to stay.

Principals of high-poverty schools where most students are children of color have noticed a pattern. White, middle-class parents who live in the neighborhood will enroll their kids for preschool, a grade for which there tend to be fewer options.

But they don’t keep them there for kindergarten. Instead, parents pull their children out and send them to schools that are whiter and wealthier – and where the test scores are higher. One place that’s playing out is in the Park Hill neighborhood, which has four elementary schools: Park Hill Elementary, Stedman Elementary, Smith Elementary, and Hallett Academy.

Ninety-six percent of Hallett students are children of color and 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is rated “red,” the lowest of Denver Public Schools’ color ratings, though Principal Dominique Jefferson was hired to turn things around.

A parent of a student in Hallett’s preschool program – often referred to as early childhood education, or ECE – recently said something Jefferson thought was profound.

“She said, ‘It shouldn’t be considered courageous for me to have chosen to send my child to Hallett. You are in our neighborhood,’” Jefferson said. “It’s interesting that she would say that. What would be more courageous would be that you chose to stay beyond ECE.”

Andrew Lefkowits followed the pattern for his oldest daughter. For a year, she attended an “advanced kindergarten” program at Stedman Elementary. Sixty-two percent of students at Stedman are from low-income families and 71 percent are children of color.

But for first grade, the family, which identifies as white and middle-class, sent her to Park Hill Elementary, which is actually their boundary school. It is also wealthier and whiter: Just 17 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches and 30 percent are children of color.

Part of the reason, Lefkowits said, was that Stedman’s low “orange” rating made them wonder if the district might eventually close it. Park Hill Elementary is rated “green.”

“It didn’t feel like it was the time to give up our seat at Park Hill,” Lefkowits said. “I struggle with it all the time. It was not an easy choice, and I’m not sure it was the right choice.”

Lefkowits grew up in the neighborhood, attended Stedman as a child, and supports integration. He said the family is considering making a different choice for their younger daughter, who is now in the dual-language preschool program at Stedman.

Michelle Quattlebaum, a black parent who served on the district’s integration task force, doesn’t actually think integration is the best way to ensure all students get a good education – although she said children of color do benefit from integration in some ways.

When wealthier white students start attending a school, Quattlebaum said, “then money appears, and the textbooks are updated, and we get new painted walls, and the gym gets refurbished, and, oh my goodness, now there’s a computer lab.”

But she doesn’t think it should be like that. She’s also experienced the downsides of integration. Her three children attended Denver’s George Washington High School. On paper, the school looks integrated, but there has long been a divide between students in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and students who are not.

Quattlebaum said her family chose George Washington because her oldest child was interested in the IB program. But when her daughter showed up on the first day of school, a white classmate told her she was in the wrong classroom.

“My daughter says, ‘I am in the right class,’” Quattlebaum said. “He said, ‘No, you’re black. You don’t belong in this class.’ You tell me, did integration benefit my daughter?”

Quattlebaum believes in school choice, and her family took advantage of it. And she said she doesn’t fault parents for making choices in the best interest of their kids, even if she suspects those choices may be driven by hidden biases.

But she disagrees with using choice as a way to increase integration. Instead, Quattlebaum said, the district should strive to ensure all of its schools are good schools.

“If you want integrated schools, you make every school a quality school. And then it happens.”

‘The first step’

Five days after having their second child, Brian Hilbert and his wife toured Eagleton Elementary, the neighborhood school they’d worried might not serve their 3-year-old as well as a school in a wealthier part of the city. Eagleton is “yellow,” a notch below “green.” Ninety-four percent of students come from low-income families, and 95 percent are students of color.

Hilbert and his wife were impressed. The preschool classroom was full of activities that looked fun and enriching, he said. A group of not more than 20 young students were playing together happily. The kids appeared to be from a variety of different racial backgrounds. The teacher had a master’s degree in education and two teacher’s aides to assist her.

“It looked just like a normal school and mirrored what we remember going to,” said Hilbert, who grew up in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch. “It put away a lot of fears we’d had.”

That was different from the feeling Hilbert’s wife had when she toured a school in a wealthier neighborhood where 70 percent of the students are white and the majority are middle-class. That school was crowded, he said, and they got the impression it’d be hard for their daughter to get in. The experience soured Hilbert on the concept of school choice.

“It’s a way of distracting from general school quality and saying to parents, ‘You have choice, so pick a better school,’” Hilbert said. “I do feel like our school is going to be an OK school.”

Hilbert found out this spring that his daughter got into the preschool at Eagleton. He’s optimistic, and yet he said that when he re-reads the school rating information, he gets nervous. Parents and students report being satisfied with the school and many students are making academic progress, but fewer are meeting expectations on state tests.

“It’s still kind of hard for me,” Hilbert said. “A lot of things, they’re not doing well on. I don’t know how to square that. Where we left off is, ‘This is the first step in our daughter’s education. And if it’s a huge problem, we’ll look at something else.’”

5 step plan

If Carranza wants to take on screening in New York City, here are 5 things he could do

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

Tracking is pervasive in New York City from kindergarten through high school, with 28 percent of all schools sorting students based on grades, test scores and other factors.

That’s why Chancellor Richard Carranza’s comment that screening is “antithetical” to the mission of public schools was so surprising. But the question is, what can he do to change the system?

Any action will be contentious and difficult. On the one hand, advocates argue that screening creates divisions along racial and socioeconomic lines. However, others say it has produced some of the most popular, even iconic schools in the city and helps keep middle class families in the public school system.

If Carranza is serious about tackling problems with screening, here’s a list of five areas he could tackle.

1.) Eliminate District 2 priority

New York City’s high school admissions process is based on the idea that students can apply to any school in the city, regardless of their zip codes. But one of the wealthiest school districts in the city has essentially cordoned off certain schools for students who live within the district’s boundaries

District 2, which encompasses the Upper East Side and downtown Manhattan, is home to some of the most popular high schools in the city, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch College Campus High School and N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

These schools have near-perfect graduation rates, and thousands of students rank them as one of their top 12 schools each year. However, they are so competitive it is nearly impossible for students outside of the district to snag a seat.

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, said it’s heartbreaking to tell students that the rules effectively prevent them from attending a great school.

“I have to sit with kids in the Bronx who are more than qualified for Eleanor Roosevelt and I have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t get into that school. It’s impossible,’” Frumkin said.

These schools enroll a disproportionately low share of black and Hispanic students. For instance, 15.5 percent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s student body is comprised of black and Hispanic students. Citywide, about 67 percent of students are black and Hispanic.

2.) Change the admissions rules at five specialized high schools

At the red-hot center of this fight are eight elite high schools that admit students based on a single test. These schools have drawn intense scrutiny after only about 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students this year.

The city’s official position has long been that admissions at specialized high schools are codified in state law. But in fact, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are written into state law. Experts say the city could change admissions at the remaining five schools with a vote from the city’s school oversight board.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said he will “revisit” the subject. Carranza has also seemed receptive to changes, saying that he is not in favor of single-test admissions.

Without a single test, the city could pick new admissions methods that would likely lead to a more diverse student body. They could select the top-performing students at middle schools across the city, or admit students based on factors such as grades and attendance.

3.) Create one common application for all screened schools

Since New York City’s screened schools have latitude to craft their own admissions criteria, students may have to submit test scores, grades, examples of their work, and attendance records. Or they may have to sit for tests at the schools, interviews, write essays, or complete artistic auditions.

The set of requirements is dizzying and disadvantages students without the time and savvy to  navigate the system. Those learning English might find it difficult to navigate school websites. The High School Directory, a large book of school options intended to help students sort through admissions requirements, has historically left out information. Some of the open houses that explain this information are nearly impossible to get into and affluent families can pay for a service that tells them when to be near a computer to sign up.

Additionally, fulfilling some of these requirements is easier for families preparing years in advance. For instance, one of the city’s most prestigious schools, Beacon High School, asks students to submit a sample of their work. However, that is only possible if students know in advance to save their best work. Many parents from more affluent areas of the city start preparing for high school admissions early — sometimes in elementary school.

If the city instituted one, centralized set of admissions requirements for screened schools, the process would be simpler to navigate. That may help students from low-income backgrounds who have difficulty sorting through the process now.

City officials are aware that applying to high school can be difficult for families. Officials have tried to tackle the problem by providing more information to students and parents. For instance, they launched a tool that helps students search information about schools and provide more translated copies of the High School Directory. They also promised to improve access to open houses.

4.) Reduce the share of screened schools throughout the system

Advocates who believe any screening mechanisms, including test scores, attendance rates, or auditions, are inherently biased, say the city should either eliminate screening or seriously reduce the share of schools allowed to pick their students.

Nearly a third of high schools in New York City today have some screen for academic success or artistic talent — but it wasn’t always that way. During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the share of screened schools shot up around the city. In 2002, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools have multiple programs.)

Further sorting takes place far before high school. When students are as young as four they can sit for a Gifted & Talented test. These G&T programs are starkly segregated by race and class. Additionally, students are screened in one quarter of middle schools.

Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said he believes middle schools screens should be eliminated. “Especially for 9 and 10-year olds, it’s kind of ridiculous to put kids through this process,” Gonzales said. “We’re actually just screening for families and not kids.”

City officials said they are trying to eliminate the use of screens when possible, but so far have not set a target for reducing the share of screened schools in the city.

5.) Require that screened schools set aside seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Some of the city’s Gifted & Talented programs and Bard High School in Queens are already prioritizing admissions for some students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a proxy for poverty. The city could expand the number of schools doing the same.

Gonzales said it would make sense to start with a set aside program. Ultimately, he would want to see some type of “controlled choice” formula that takes a student’s background into account when assigning a school. (In this scenario, the formula could include both academic success and socioeconomic status.) But in the meantime, it might make sense to start smaller, he said.

“Whatever we do is going to have to be iterative,” Gonzales said. “Starting off with some priority system or set aside system, I think that would actually be a very good, methodical way to start tinkering with the way we do admissions.”