A Denver High School Reaches Out To the Neighborhood It Lost to Busing

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Gathered for a routine planning retreat in the fall of 1996, the leaders of Manual High School suddenly found themselves embroiled in a showdown. At stake was the future of a school that had become this city's desegregation showpiece.

The conflict, brought on by the end of court-ordered busing, boiled down to this: Should the school strive to preserve integration by luring middle-class white students from outside its newly drawn boundaries, or focus exclusively on the mostly low-income minority students who lived within them?

After an emotional, racially charged appeal by neighborhood parents, the school leaders chose the latter course. They would launch a top-to-bottom reform aimed at meeting the needs of the mostly black and Hispanic students who would now make up nearly their entire enrollment.

"We realized we were no longer going to be trying to fight our way upstream," Principal Nancy C. Sutton said. "Then, we sat there and cried."

The decisions made at that pivotal meeting were very much a product of particular circumstances at Manual High, where Denver's transition to neighborhood schools has had an unusually dramatic effect.

But the challenges the 940-student school faces are not unique. As more communities move toward neighborhood-based schools, educators, parents, and students are being forced to sort through the tangled legacy of decades-long desegregation decrees.

Few are finding the transition simple or problem-free. And many are eyeing the future with anxiety.

"There are a lot of people with good will and intentions," said David M. Dirks, a member of the Manual decisionmaking council whose twin daughters graduated this spring. "But it's going to be real hard, and I'm apprehensive about what the end result will be."

The same could be said of the transition toward neighborhood schools across this 68,000-student district and the nation. Still, many involved in the change--here and elsewhere--are determined to put such fears to rest.

"The pride in the neighborhood and its school was kind of splintered when busing came in," said Ronald Roulhac, the former head of a predominantly black neighborhood association who is coordinating Manual's parent-outreach effort. "The goal is to get that back."

End of Busing Welcomed

In Denver, the path was cleared for a return to neighborhood schools in 1995, when a federal judge declared that the district had complied with orders to desegregate dating back to 1969.

Once the court order was lifted, a state constitutional amendment that prohibited busing for racial integration kicked in. The amendment had been passed in 1974, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the district's busing plan in its first decision mandating the desegregation of a northern district.

By the 1990s, even without the state ban, political and popular sentiment in Denver favored an end to busing.

To be sure, some school leaders feared a return to the days of separate and highly unequal schooling for blacks and whites--concerns that some now feel are being realized. "We're pretty much back to where we started with the resegregation of the schools," said Sharon Brown Bailey, a former school board member who is black.

But to others, including many African-Americans who watched as black children were bused across town to schools where they floundered, busing was a failed experiment. Many of those students are now parents, and remember the experience with bitterness.

"It was horrible," recalled Jolene Bradshaw, a member of Manual's decisionmaking committee who was bused to a middle school in a largely white neighborhood where anti-busing sentiment was strong. "You don't have to send a child across town to teach them to read a book."

At Manual High, the flip side of that sentiment emerged, as some minority parents began to feel that the importation of whites had not necessarily helped their children.

"Anglo kids felt they got a huge advantage coming here because of the diversity," said Ellen Maresh, a veteran English teacher at the school. "But by and large, you'd find very few African-American and Latino kids who felt they were helped."

One focus of resentment was the relatively small number of neighborhood children enrolled in the school's many advanced courses, compared with special education and remedial courses.

"Before the end of busing, we had two schools here," said Elaine Berman, a Denver school board member whose son graduated from Manual last year. "We had one school for the kids of color and one school for the white kids."

When the time came to forge a new path for the school, white parents found themselves defending integration far more strongly than blacks or Hispanics did.

"The neighborhood definitely wanted its school back," said Geneice M. Taylor, the president of Manual's parent-teacher-student organization.

Exceptional Impact

The end of busing for desegregation--which took effect for elementary schools in 1996 and for middle and high schools this school year--has not affected all of Denver's 120 schools. For example, the busing plan had basically left untouched a number of schools with predominantly Hispanic enrollments--in a district that is now nearly half Hispanic.

All but about two dozen district schools were affected by busing's end and the ensuing boundary changes. Many saw enrollment swings, with some schools gaining white students, for instance, and others losing them. But nowhere was the impact as dramatic as at Manual.

Superintendent Irving Mosko-witz, who sent his own children to Manual in the 1980s, said the school became "a flagship for the integration program" in part because of its striking socioeconomic mix. As Manual English teacher Barbara Ingram put it: "We had kids whose families were on the society pages, down to kids living in shelters."

Now, all that has changed. Between 1995 and 1997, the number of students whose families were poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches rose from fewer than 24 percent to nearly 70 percent--tops among city high schools.

Since the redistricting plan became final in early 1996, about three-quarters of Manual's staff and a higher-than-normal share of its students have turned over. While the proportion of black students has held steady, there has been a huge influx of Hispanics, many of whom lack fluency in English.

In the fall of 1996, blacks and whites each made up 42 percent of the school's enrollment, while only 14 percent of students were Hispanic. By last fall, Hispanic enrollment had soared to more than 43 percent, while the proportion of whites had plummeted to 13 percent. That number will likely fall further, once the last of the students who elected to stay after the boundary changes graduate.

With the rapid demographic shift have come discipline and security problems--some of them gang-related.

Contrary to staff members' expectations, most conflicts have arisen not between blacks and Hispanics but within the two groups. Still, teachers and counselors are taking pains to bridge the language and cultural gap that exists between the groups. They say the challenges are compounded by the allegiances felt toward other schools in Hispanic neighborhoods in which children have long been bused elsewhere.

The school held a six-week summer program last year for incoming 9th graders, focusing on conflict resolution and leadership as well as academics. And staff members have taken pains to "get into the kids' worlds" and stay on top of conflicts, Principal Sutton said. Police have been a constant presence.

Despite such efforts, about 40 students were expelled this school year, four times more than the year before. Ms. Sutton also took the unpopular step of requiring staff members and students to display identification badges.

"We had to show who rules the school," she said.

Test Scores Drop

The transition to neighborhood status has also meant a sharp drop in achievement levels as measured by standardized tests.

In 1995-96, incoming 9th graders on average scored just one or two points below national norms--defined as the 50th percentile--in both reading and math on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Now those figures stand at the 29th percentile in math and the 34th percentile in reading.

Anticipating such a change, Ms. Sutton and her staff scrapped the honors-track courses that largely catered to students from outside the neighborhood.

Instead, they introduced a standards-based approach emphasizing core academic classes in 9th and 10th grades and school-to-work courses in the upper grades. They retained Advanced Placement courses, but otherwise eliminated tracking. Students aiming for college can enroll in a program that lets them earn honors-type credit in regular classes.

Other changes included block scheduling and faculty peer coaching, as well as intensive staff training. By midyear, many staff members felt the new approach was paying off.

But their optimism was shattered in January, when a district reading test showed that Manual's 9th graders had actually regressed since the beginning of the school year. Instead of reading at a 7th grade level, as they had in September, they had dipped to the equivalent of the middle of 6th grade. "The superintendent sent me a one-sentence memo," Ms. Sutton recalled. "It said, 'What happened?'"

After that, the principal said, "we went back and totally redid reading." Computerized reading clinics and other strategies to improve basic reading competency became part of the daily regimen.

This summer, outreach workers are informing poor readers that they will have to attend four hours of extra tutoring per week in the coming year--before school, after school, or on Saturdays. A reading coordinator is joining the staff, and the school has hired a private tutoring company.

Community Reconnection

The goal, Ms. Sutton said, is to provide grade-level course content while shoring up basic skills. "It's been one of the biggest adjustments," she said.

Like schools that struggled to forge a sense of community at the start of court-ordered busing, Manual is fighting to pull together the pieces now that it is gone.

Ms. Sutton and her staff have made special efforts to rebuild a sense of community, and Ms. Taylor, the parent-group leader who was an 11th grader at Manual when busing started, said she sees a difference. "Parents are starting to trickle back," Ms. Taylor said. "Manual is starting to feel like grandma's house again."

Some educators and parents still fault the school board for not including more affluent, integrated areas within Manual's boundaries, and worry that the failure to do so bodes ill. Nevertheless, many here say the school has no choice but to move on.

"There's no secret or magical solution," said Patrick J. McQuillan, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is working with the Manual staff. "It's people struggling day in and day out trying to figure out what the hell to do. That's what Manual is doing."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 1, 22-23

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as A Denver High School Reaches OutTo the Neighborhood It Lost to Busing
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