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Decades after redlining, Denver schools see choice contributing to racial imbalance

Amid declining overall enrollment, some neighborhood schools suffer as parents send their kids to higher-achieving schools

A basketball hoop at Castro Elementary School, in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver. (Jackson Reed, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In 1938, members of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation drew lines on a paper map of Denver. These determined which city residents would be approved or denied mortgages based on the racial makeup of the neighborhoods in which they lived.

Predominantly African-American and Latino areas faced discrimination, with their communities labeled with the lowest of four “grades” on the map’s legend. Although redlining eventually became illegal, the effects of lines drawn 80 years ago still resonate — only now, it’s within Denver’s educational system.

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The impact of redlining continues to play out in areas of Denver that are being gentrified. In a tight urban real estate market, middle- to upper-class families are moving into areas of the city that historically have been less affluent. These families have the option — and the means — to avoid sometimes low-achieving schools and send their children to private schools or other schools within the district.

That, in turn, drops the enrollment at the neighborhood schools, which plays a large part in how much funding they receive from the state. When enrollment rates drop, so does the amount of money public schools can use to pay teachers, buy school equipment and operate on a daily basis.

Race continues to play a role in this story 80 years after Denver residents of color were denied mortgages. Many of the families moving into these historic Denver neighborhoods are white. Statistics show that this is leading to dramatic disparities in racial demographics in Denver Public Schools.

Case in point: Castro Elementary School in the city’s Westwood neighborhood, a rectangle of more affordable housing between Federal and Sheridan boulevards. In 1988, white enrollment at Castro accounted for 29 percent of the school’s student body.

In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education showed that white enrollment at the school had fallen to 1 percent. Total enrollment at Castro dropped by almost 200 students in the nine years between 2007 and 2016 — down 26 percent in less than a decade.

Robert D. Villarreal was a principal in the Cherry Creek School District before he took over Castro Elementary six years ago. Back then, he says, the school was firmly in the “red zone” — the lowest category of school performance according to the Colorado Department of Education. Villarreal says the school has shown marked improvement and now aims for the highest level of performance.

“The way I run Castro is the way I ran schools in Cherry Creek, with entrepreneurial influence,” Villarreal says. “We made a major paradigm shift from a behavior to academic focus.”

These improvements aren’t halting gentrification, he says, but he is determined not to let funding issues related to enrollment hold back his kids.

“[Castro Elementary is] the most high-risk impacted of Denver Public Schools,” he says. “And we’re beating the odds. We’ve had an upward trajectory.”

Some of the parents at Castro Elementary are less optimistic. Eve Ulloa, the liaison between the school and the community, says that in addition to parents being unable to pay bills or avoid homelessness, she hears many voicing fears about the school closing due to a lack of funding.

“We aren’t the only ones suffering from our numbers going down,” Ulloa says. “A lot of our families are moving because they can’t afford the rent anymore.”

Castro Elementary School, in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver, has seen declining enrollment as some parents choose to enroll their children in other DPS schools. (Jackson Reed, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For those who stay, a close-by neighborhood school remains important. Ulloa says “a lot of the families here walk to school,” so having to find new schools — and transportation — for their children would be a challenge.

Ulloa grew up in Westwood, and has seen the value of her home and the homes of her friends double or even triple in recent years. Although she hasn’t sold her home, many other members of her community who inherited homes are selling and moving to areas with cheaper rent.

Both Villarreal and Ulloa stress that Castro is far from the only school struggling with enrollment and funding. They say all schools in southwest Denver are seeing their numbers drop rapidly. DPS’s’ Strategic Regional Analysis for 2017 shows that enrollment for all southwest area schools is projected to shrink by 2 percent by 2021. The elementary school population is expected to drop by an even larger 16 percent by 2021.

“The city of Denver from a student population perspective had a really, really good track record of growth for a long time. It grew almost 30 percent over about a 15-year period, and what has happened is the rate of growth has slowed significantly over the last two years,” says Sarah Walsh, manager of choice and enrollment services for DPS. “At our peak we were at about 3 percentage points (growth) per year, and now we are at less than 1. We expect the next year to be the first year of decline in about 15 years.”

Though it may seem counterintuitive with the general population of Denver growing, research confirms that the district’s student population is shrinking. Studies show that 80 percent of the growth in households in Denver has been those without kids, according to the Shift Research Lab, Walsh says.

“What they’re seeing,” she adds, “is an influx of those aged 25-35 who often don’t have children.”

Even with the declining student population across the city, some schools face further enrollment issues because students choose to enroll in schools outside of their designated enrollment zone. About half of all families across the district choose to send their students to schools that aren’t in their neighborhood enrollment zones, according to Laurie Premer, senior manager of choice and enrollment services for DPS.

Last year, the DPS school-choice program set a record for participation with over 27,000 students requesting school changes, a 17 percent increase from the year before. The program asks students and families to list their top five choices for schools they would like to attend, then assigns them a school through a lottery system.

This system provides families with educational options for their kids, and it makes parents happy because they have some control over the education their child is receiving. But it also contributes to racial imbalance.

For the past two years, DPS has been recognized by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, as being the best public school system in the nation for school choice. However, a 2017 study by Brookings also showed a correlation between districts that are school-choice friendly and schools that have racially imbalanced student populations.

Across town from Castro Elementary, some schools are performing well under the district’s SchoolChoice program. Polaris at Ebert Elementary School, an arts-integrated magnet school on the north edge of downtown Denver, is among the top-rated elementary schools in the state.

Katie Allen, a fourth-grade teacher, spent her first six years teaching in Grand Junction before moving to Polaris two years ago. She says that, although Polaris still doesn’t have the best funding, parent involvement makes up for it.

“The parents have really good relationships with the teachers,” Allen says. “If the teachers need anything, they can support us. And they also do several fundraisers a year for the school as a whole.”

The school’s racial makeup provides a stark contrast to Castro’s and illustrates how school choice can contribute to racial imbalance. More than 72 percent of Polaris students are white, with 9.9 percent each Latino and mixed race, and 3.6 percent each Asian and African-American.

More than 80 percent of the school’s 332 students used the school choice system to enroll there for this school year.

But that system also impacts neighborhood schools.

“We have to have services that support our kids, not just academically,” Allen says. “So, I do think that the school choice program affects that, because every school should be amazing in every district so that parents don’t have to choose.”


 

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Colorado Journalism’s Generation Next

The Colorado Sun has been pleased to work with the University of Colorado’s News Corps, led by Chuck Plunkett, to showcase the work of student journalists who pursued various elements of our larger look at gentrification in Denver. Many of the program’s participants produced excellent work, but we present this week what we felt were the best of the best — work that promises a bright future for local journalism in Colorado and wherever these talented students land.

Monday

WESTWOOD: Staff writer Kevin Simpson explores the Denver neighborhood of Westwood and its struggle to retain its identity while dealing with the challenges of gentrification, which has become a top issue for city leaders. Freelance photographer Jeremy Sparig contributes a wide array of images. Freelance graphic artist Carrie Osgood sketches maps that show the demographic changes across Denver over the years.

PROGRESS REPORT: In 2016, the city published a report that made 12 recommendations for ways that Denver could mitigate the negative effects of gentrification. The Sun asked for an update. The city summarized its response to each of the recommendations.

Tuesday

SUN VALLEY: CU journalism students Amanda K. Clark and Shannon Mullane paint a compelling portrait of Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, which city officials hope will be a model for development without displacement — though locals aren’t so sure. Mullane also produced a short audio story on a community institution, while Lara Henry created a detailed, illustrated timeline of the neighborhood. Both Clark and Mullane also contributed photos.

REDLINING: Students Anna Blanco, Anna Mary Scott and Jackson Reed examine the practice of redlining and how, as a side effect of gentrification, it still echoes today. The package includes photos shot by Blanco and Reed.

ROOTS RUN DEEP: CU journalism student Will Halbert spent time with longtime Westwood resident Eve Ulloa and produced a poignant video that details all the things that bind her to the neighborhood.

Wednesday

ACROSS THE STATE: Sun writer Kevin Simpson returns to look at how Colorado’s hot real estate market has triggered early rumblings of displacement across the state — and how other cities are trying to prepare to counter the negative impacts of gentrification.

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