Denver Public Schools: Resegregation, Latino Style
The Denver Public Schools (DPS) provide a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of school segregation within the context of rapid demographic changes and key policy changes. In 1973, Denver became the first northern school district ordered to desegregate by the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers representing a group of Black, Latino and White families filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court charging that schools in the Park Hill neighborhoods were intentionally segregated to keep White students separate from minority students. Although efforts at ending official segregation of Latinos were made at the state and local levels through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Keyes was the first Supreme Court ruling that recognized the rights of Latinos to desegregation. Under Keyes, Denver created a plan that desegregated both Black and Latino students within the city in such a way that it became one of the few large metropolitan areas during the 1970s where both Black and Latino students became much less segregated from Whites.
Since the time of Keyes, one of the most dramatic demographic changes in Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been the surge of Latino enrollment. In 1980, DPS was already majority minority with 41 percent White, 23 percent Black, 32 percent Latino, and 3 percent Asian student enrollment. A little over two decades later, DPS became majority Latino, with White students comprising only one-fifth of the entire student body by 2003. Denver school growth was cut off by a state constitutional amendment that prohibited incorporating surrounding suburban communities into the Denver school district. Approved by voters in 1974, the Poundstone Amendment prohibited annexation except by the consent of the majority of the voters in each county that was giving up the land. Specifically, the legislation stated, “except as otherwise provided by statute, no part of the territory of any county shall be stricken off and added to an adjoining county, without first submitting the question to the registered electors of the county from which the territory is proposed to be stricken off; nor unless a majority of all the registered electors of said county voting on the question shall vote therefore.”
At the time the amendment was passed, Denver was annexing lands to the south and east following the suburbanization of White families. Once these lands were annexed, the schools became part of Denver Public Schools. While the announced goal of the amendment was to prevent Denver’s growth from overwhelming the suburbs, the effect was to limit the reach of the desegregation order into the suburbs. Because Keyes only covered the schools within the 1974 boundaries of Denver and none of the other school districts in the metropolitan area, the Poundstone Amendment effectively sealed off Denver from the surrounding suburbs and severely curtailed its ability to have any lasting and stable desegregation of its public school students. As a result, Denver Public Schools now captures a shrinking share of the total Denver metropolitan student population (from 21% in 1990 to 19% in 2003).
Amidst the context of major demographic transformation, in 1995 the court ended nearly two decades of court ordered school desegregation in Denver schools (Keyes v. Denver School District No. I, 902 F. Supp. 1274 (1995)). As one of the few major school districts with a history of desegregation of both Blacks and Latinos, the implications of this reversal of Keyes are important to understand. Policymakers and educators will be uniquely challenged to provide education in a context that is both majority Latino and, as this paper documents, increasingly segregated and unequal for its growing diverse student body.
This paper, the first of two reports, focuses on the dynamics of segregation, demographic changes, and implications for graduation rates in the Denver Public Schools. I utilize the Common Core of Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to place the Denver Public Schools in both a national and regional context. I begin with a demographic overview of the Denver-Aurora Metropolitan Statistical Area6 (hereafter referred to as the Denver Metropolitan Area) before focusing on the composition of Denver Public Schools from 1990 to 2003. The relationship of the dramatic demographic changes to segregation trends is examined by measuring the average exposure of students to all racial groups, as well as to each other and the concentration of students in racially isolated schools during the five years preceding the 1995 Keyes decision and in the eight subsequent years following. I use the Cumulative Promotion Index to calculate graduation rates, a measure of student promotion through successive school years designed to offset some of the limitations of official dropout data.