Some months ago, in my role as The Piton Foundation’s education program officer, I read “All Together Now—Creating Middle-class Schools Through Public School Choice,” by Richard Kahlenberg. The book’s thesis—that economically integrated schools have significantly greater success educating low-income children than do high-poverty schools—made immediate intuitive sense.
In the spring of 2002, Piton commissioned a detailed study of Denver Public Schools test score data to see whether Kahlenberg’s thesis held true in Denver. To conduct the study, we hired a statistician who worked at the time for the school district.
Dianne Lefly’s insider status afforded the study one huge advantage: it allowed her to examine the test-score records of 13,245 individual students in 89 elementary schools over a three-year period. The sheer volume of data gave the study great statistical validity.
The goal of the study was to determine whether low-income children, as defined by eligibility for a free lunch, performed better in schools where they were in the minority compared to schools where they comprised the majority of the student body
The findings were crystal clear: Low-income elementary school children in Denver performed significantly better on standardized tests when they attended schools where fewer than 50 percent of the students were poor.
Equally significant, the Piton analysis showed that academic performance of more affluent students did not suffer as long as the percentage of low-income students in a school remained at less than 50 percent.
Armed with the study, Piton felt compelled to pursue strategies that would boost the economic integration of Denver Public Schools. But based on Denver’s 20-plus year experience with court-ordered busing for racial integration, we decided the wisest course would be to base our strategies on voluntary integration.
We also concluded that the kinds of programs we would pursue could only succeed if both low-income families and more affluent families saw them as in their own self-interests.
The fact that between 15,000 and 20,000 school-age children who live in Denver do not attend a public school there gave us some cause for optimism. Since the overwhelming majority of these children were not poor, drawing them back into the system would bring down the district’s percentage of low-income students, currently 70 percent.
Initial reaction to the study and our conclusions was mixed. People on the political right and left attacked Piton’s findings. On the right because they assumed, incorrectly, we were advocating a return to busing; on the left because they felt the concept was somehow racist—”You’re saying poor kids can’t learn unless some rich white kid is sitting next to them.”
During the toughest days, I drew inspiration from three decades of success in Raleigh, N.C., with first racial and later economic integration through choice. In 2002, I led two delegations of district officials, school board members and parents to Raleigh. There, they witnessed first-hand how a well-implemented economic integration plan had helped create one of the most successful urban-suburban school systems in the nation.
These trips helped to build the political base for further efforts in Denver. We employed a three-pronged strategy: trying to influence the system to support economic integration; organizing parents to push for more programs; and working with schools in gentrifying neighborhoods to implement programs to attract middle-class families.
Influencing the system Last fall, Denver voters passed a $20 million tax levy increase to promote innovative programs within the district. Spurred in part by the school officials who visited Raleigh, $2.5 million per year of this annual budget boost is being funneled for a new initiative called School Revitalization.
Although people in Denver don’t talk about it in these terms, School Revitalization is, in fact, a large-scale effort to draw middle-class families back into the district and thereby increase economic integration.
Here’s how it is supposed to work: Low-achieving schools that are under-enrolled, and that have a significant percentage of their neighborhood children “choicing out” to other schools are eligible for revitalization dollars. Under the initiative, an independent facilitator leads a community committee through a process that culminates adopting a research-based reform model.
In theory, new Montessori, dual-language and International Baccalaureate-type programs should appeal to families currently choosing not to attend Denver Public Schools.
Organizing parents Parents in gentrifying neighborhoods now realize that they have negotiating leverage with the district. They are prospective customers the district wants and needs. Piton helped form one such group, which has emerged as a significant political player in northwest Denver, and is helping drive economic integration efforts in that part of town.
Working with schools As a precursor to revitalization, Piton has invested in promising schools that, under their own initiative, have begun working to attract new families.
Two elementary schools have adopted dual-language programs, which require a near-even mix of native English and native Spanish-speaking students. By the end of 5th grade, students are supposed to be fluent.
Piton is funding the training of the teachers in this model, and has hired an evaluator to track the progress of student achievement in the two schools.
Our long-term strategy is to build the case, school by school. We believe that evaluating student achievement trends in schools we help economically integrate will create a body of evidence that Denver Public Schools will be unable to ignore. It is our hope that, Denver, like Raleigh, will adopt economic integration as one of its school district’s core values.
Alan Gottlieb oversees education programs for The Piton Foundation, which is based in Denver.