a look back

Two decades later, a school boundary decision that isolated poor students reverberates

It was September 1995 and Laura Lefkowits had served on Denver’s school board for just four months when suddenly and unexpectedly she and her colleagues were faced with making some of the most momentous decisions in Denver Public Schools’ 93-year history.

A federal judge had just released Denver Public Schools from a 22-year-old court order that had mandated busing kids across town to create racially integrated public schools in a largely segregated city. Now, with busing dead, it was up to the board to decide how to assign the city’s kids to schools. Should the district return to a system of neighborhood schools, which would mean a return to de facto segregation? Or was there some other alternative?

Neighborhood schools won in a landslide.

And in retrospect, Lefkowits and some of her colleagues now believe that one decision in particular that emerged from that process —  the attendance zone from which northeast Denver’s Manual High School would draw students — was a catastrophic mistake. And that mistake they say, is at the root of Manual’s subsequent history of academic struggles and upheaval.

The Manual boundaries approved by the board and recommended by DPS senior administrators created a school population isolated within an anvil-shaped chunk of north-central and northeast Denver. This transformed Manual into an overwhelmingly low-income school, its student population evenly split between African American and Latino students. Over the past 18 years the student population has become increasingly Latino and has remained overwhelmingly poor, while the school has undergone successive waves of failed change efforts.

Board members knew at the time they were making a momentous decision. They didn’t realize, however, that reverberations from that decision would still be felt almost two decades later.

“I almost think we could have been sued all over again for the kind of boundary that we drew,” Lefkowits said. “We really made serious mistakes with [Manual]. And that at this point I don’t know if it ever can be righted. I feel like it has been one disaster after another since 1995.”

“Two high schools no one wanted to go to”

As soon as the news hit that fall that busing had ended it was as if the lid blew off a pressure-cooker, Lefkowits recalled recently.

Former Denver school board member Laura Lefkowits
Former Denver school board member Laura Lefkowits

First came the phone calls. Dozens of them to her home, at all hours. Then, in those days before universal email, mountains of letters. The vast majority – and from diverse constituencies — urged the school board to return to the old days, when kids could attend their neighborhood schools.

The push to return to neighborhood schools made Lefkowits uneasy, given the city’s segregated neighborhoods. Ultimately, however, she succumbed.

“Frankly, as a brand new board member, I had not had enough experience in making tough decisions to be that noble and statesmanlike,” she said. “And you’re always conflicted. Should you lead if no one is following you, or should you represent what people are asking you to do as their elected representative? It’s a difficult balance.”

Other boundary lines proposed at the time would have created a naturally integrated school.

The most prominent alternative, proposed by board member J.P. Hemming, would have drawn the boundary between Manual and Denver’s flagship East High School along York Street from the city’s northern border south to where York becomes University Boulevard and intersects with East First Avenue (where the Cherry Creek Whole Foods sits today). Kids living west of York would have gone to Manual and those east of York to East.

Those boundaries would have sent to Manual a large number of more affluent students from the Capitol Hill and Country Club neighborhoods who had historically attended East. But residents of those neighborhoods pressured board members not to make that change, thereby leaving East’s historic boundaries largely intact.

Former Denver school board member J.P. Hemming
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Former Denver school board member J.P. Hemming

District officials also balked at changes that would have affected East as well as Manual. East’s boundaries didn’t change much under court-ordered busing because the school’s central location meant it drew from diverse neighborhoods and resulted in an integrated school. So why change them as busing ended, officials reasoned?

New East boundaries could have resulted in “two high schools no one wanted to go to,” said Wayne Eckerling, DPS’ planning director when busing ended. “The district was in a very different place then than it is now. Enrollment was way down. We were worried about losing more people.”

But it wasn’t just affluent white folks who opposed the York Street boundary line. So did African American clergy and vocal Manual neighborhood residents, among them then-Mayor Wellington Webb, himself an African American and Manual alum.

Under the federal court order, Manual, which before busing had been a predominantly African American school, was integrated because a large section of the affluent, mostly white east Denver Hilltop neighborhood became a Manual “satellite” and was bused there. Manual’s neighborhood boundaries were small — just a mile north to south and three-quarters of a mile east to west of northeast Denver immediately surrounding the school, located at 1700 E. 28th Ave.

As high school attendance boundary debates progressed in late 1995 and 1996, school board members and DPS senior staff knew that Manual would pose the thorniest challenge. The school sat in the center of what had once been Denver’s African American community. By the mid-90s, the neighborhood’s population had become increasingly Latino, but many prominent African American families, including Webb’s, still regarded Manual as their school. Busing had deprived them of their school since 1973, and they wanted it back.

“Everyone wants neighborhood schools,” as Webb told the Rocky Mountain News early in 1996.

Through a spokesperson, Webb declined to comment for this article, saying “Manual is a painful subject.”

“In education our actions often don’t match our platitudes”

Layers of mythology have accreted to Manual over the years, but the school has never served all its students well. During the busing era of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, Manual’s top graduates regularly gained admission to Ivy League schools and elite, small liberal arts colleges. But most of those top graduates were the Hilltop kids. Enormous achievement gaps existed between mostly white, affluent kids and lower-income African American and Latino students.

In 1994, Manual gained notoriety when just six of its black male students received diplomas. Fifty-eight black males had been freshmen four years earlier.

Aaron Gray served as school board president as the board determined DPS’ post-busing landscape. Gray is African American, and a Methodist minister. He remembers with some bitterness the role his fellow black clergy played in the debate over Manual’s boundaries. They and their neighborhood followers were, he said, “the loudest voices in the room.

Former Denver school board President Aaron Gray
Former Denver school board President Aaron Gray

“We were somewhat intimidated because of those loud voices (that were) often putting the board down and putting the superintendent down,” Gray said. “Guilt was important. They made it clear that you should really feel bad about what has happened and what you have done.”

Hemming, who proposed the York Street boundaries, still seethes at the lack of consideration his proposal received from other board members. “In education our actions often don’t match our platitudes,” he said. “The Manual boundaries are a case in point.”

And he scoffed at the notion that pressure from all sides proved too much to bear. “Oh, yes, the pressure was intense,” Hemming recalled recently, sitting in a cluttered back room of the fire suppression business he owns. “I received threatening phone calls from all sides. But come on. We were volunteer elected officials. There is a lot of power in being a volunteer. What are they going to do, fire us? Pressure shouldn’t have been a major consideration.”

But the pressure was real, and at times if felt both intense and personal. Lefkowits proposed that instead of an attendance zone for Manual, the district create a magnet school at Manual – a specialized program that would attract a diverse array of students from across the city. The reaction to that proposal typified the kind of blowback the board faced from people in the Manual neighborhood.

“If you’re saying we need magnets to attract whites to make the schools superior, then I accuse you of racism,” Gregory Conners, an African American father said during a public hearing, according to The Denver Post.

An evolving racial and socio-economic mix

Indeed, much of the debate that occurred during boundary discussions centered on whether a post-busing school needed to be integrated to succeed. Or could a high-poverty high school be designed that would produce college- and career-ready students?

Historic gaps between Manual’s white and black students may help explain why, as busing ended, influential African Americans pushed hard to have Manual returned to the community through boundaries that excluded whiter neighborhoods. What apparently went unrecognized during the debate was that the neighborhoods within Manual’s new boundaries had become increasingly impoverished and Latino.

But few Latino voices were raised or heard during the boundary debates, former school board members recalled. Court-mandated busing had been a black-white issue for the most part, and the post-busing decisions were made within that same frame.

Eckerling, the former DPS planning director, said that influential African American Manual alums like Webb who pushed for the boundaries that prevailed also failed to recognize how much the neighborhood around Manual had changed since they grew up there, not just racially but socio-economically as well.

Before the civil rights movement and fair housing laws, Eckerling said, African Americans of varying socio-economic status and education levels lived in the neighborhood because housing discrimination and red-lining prevented them from living elsewhere.

By the mid 1990s, however, the black middle class had largely fled the area for suburbs or more affluent neighborhoods, leaving behind a very different, more challenged student population than they remembered from their school days.

Gray said the debate was almost tribal in nature, with “people who call themselves progressives” suddenly backing away from their professed belief in integration when they saw how it might affect their own kids. And African American community spokespeople advocated only for their own people.

“My dream when I was on the board was that at just one board meeting, just one, African American leaders would come and say ‘I am concerned about what’s happening to Hispanic kids,'” he said. “That kind of dialogue would have set a whole different tone. I never heard it once.”

One neighborhood African American pastor, however, said the 1996 school board and district leadership deserve most, if not all, of the blame.

Rev. Frank Davis, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in the Manual neighborhood since 1994, said he never supported the boundaries that made Manual a high-poverty school. “They talk about ‘no child left behind’ but in the case they left a whole school behind,” Davis said. “They didn’t do their due diligence in weighing out the grave impact that decision would have on the citizenry of the area.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”