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Students riding a school bus on May 1, 1981. In a federally-mandated effort to desegregate schools, many students were bused to schools outside of their own communities from 1969 to 1995. —Courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History Collection

Film Addresses the Achievement Gap in Denver Schools

A new documentary asks how we can close the achievement gap between white students and students of color in Denver.

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Long after the last school bell rang, 80-plus people sat in gray and blue plastic chairs at Denver School of Science and Technology: Green Valley Ranch (DSST) on the Evie Garrett Dennis campus, passing around neon-colored notecards. Quietly, the students, parents, teachers, and community members scribbled words that they felt represented an ideal education. Younger audience members were asked to yell out their answers. “Achievable,” one called. “Opportunity.” “Reliable.” A small boy in the back of the room hesitantly offered, “Be safe.” Another student wrote “love.”

This group was gathered at the school on a Tuesday evening in October for a history lesson—one still unfolding today. They were here to watch the premiere of Episode 1 of the Rocky Mountain PBS four-part documentary “Standing in the Gap,” which examines the achievement gap that persists between white students and students of color in Denver. For audience members—more than half of whom self-identified as black or Latino during a formal poll taken before the film—the lesson was all too familiar.

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“No one’s really talking about integration, and no one’s talking about what’s happened in Denver Public Schools,” said Mary Seawell, former Denver school board president and senior vice president for education at the Gates Family Foundation (one of the film’s sponsors), while introducing the film. “There’s no court case forcing us to do that, and so it’s really a choice.”

The first episode of the documentary, which will air on PBS on November 12 at 9 p.m., focused on schools in northeast Denver, as well as the history of segregation in Denver Public Schools (DPS). Episodes 2, 3, and 4 will look at segregation and the achievement gap in other parts of the metro area.

Here, a few key takeaways on the issue from the first episode of the series and the constructive community discussion that followed:

Denver—like all American cities—has a history of racism and segregation.

“There are people who think Denver was this little community where there was no worry about segregation and so forth,” Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Mile High Montessori Early Learning Centers, said in the film. And that simply isn’t true. In the 1960s—even as Rachel Noel was elected as the school board’s first black member—there was still resistance to desegregation. In 1973, DPS was the subject of one of the first Supreme Court cases about school segregation outside the South, Keyes v. School District No. 1. When the court ruled that Denver needed to start busing, the leaders pushing for desegregation and their families received death threats. Buses were bombed and set on fire.

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Many of our schools are still segregated, which plays into a growing achievement gap.

In 1995, the courts determined that busing in Denver was no longer necessary, and as a result, schools started re-segregating. Many parents wanted their kids to attend their local schools—and in Denver’s racially divided communities, that meant the schools would have less diversity.

Discrepancies grew. “As an adult, I realized that an A in my classroom at Montbello High School did not mean the same thing as an A in a more privileged community,” said education equity advocate MiDian Holmes in the film. Despite her 4.3 grade-point average, she needed remediation classes at her university to keep up. Montbello developed such a poor reputation for low test scores and attendance, as well as violence and drug problems (a student was stabbed to death in the cafeteria in 2005), that in 2010, officials announced that the high school would be phased out and replaced by three new programs, including a college prep academy, a high-tech early college, and an additional location for the Denver Center for International Studies. Today, according to the film, only 5 percent of the surrounding community is white.

Now, Northeast Denver hosts multiple charter schools, but many parents in the film say DSST: Green Valley Ranch is the only school giving kids a real shot—and its doors aren’t open to everyone. “When I consider ‘SchoolChoice,’” said Vernon Jones Jr., executive director of Omar D. Blair Charter School, referring in the film to the DPS enrollment process, “I call it chance, because its still a system where in so many places you have a limit to how many students can get in. It’s really a roll of the dice. You give people false hope by saying it’s a choice.”

Achievement rates are still “unacceptably low” for black, Latino, and low-income students.

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While DPS’s overall test scores have climbed over the last decade (the highest academic growth in the state), the gap has persisted as white students’ proficiencies increase at a higher rate than their black and Latino counterparts. According to statistics outlined in the film, the white student population’s reading scores have crept past 80 percent between 2005 and 2014. Black students’ and Latino students’ scores both barely tipped 40 percent. That gap is the largest in Colorado. And it’s everywhere—even at DSST: Green Valley Ranch, where filmmakers say the gap is 14 to 30 percent in math and reading.

The solution is complicated—but we have to do more than just talk.

Given a list of possible solutions to Denver’s racial and ethnic achievement gap, no one in the audience selected “dialoguing.” Instead, attendees said they wanted more cultural competency, teachers of color, funding, and generally a multifaceted approach to the problem.

Ed Benton, who served on the DPS school board from 1961 to 1969, during the height of segregation, called on attendees—many of whom were elementary, middle, and high school students—to address the underlying issues still holding students back.

“We talk about poverty, we talk about education, we talk about a lot of things,” said Benton. “But what we don’t talk about and recognize is that across this country, there is still institutionalized racism. Until that issue is understood and changed, we’re going to continue to have deficiencies in our school systems and in other important activities in society. So it’s up to all of you children here—I say this advisedly at almost 90 years old—make it work.”

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In front of Benton sat a young boy dressed in a sharp blue button-up shirt. He twisted around in his chair to stare up at the man, listening intently. His mother sat next to him, pressing a headset to her ears as a translator repeated Benton’s words in Spanish. Hearing the call to action, the boy started clapping.


Attend a screening: Episode 2 of the documentary will be screened on October 20 at 6 p.m., Abraham Lincoln High School, 2285 S. Federal Blvd.; Episode 3 will be shown November 11 at 6 p.m., North High School, 2960 Speer Blvd.; and Episode 4 can be viewed on December 15 at 6 p.m., McAuliffe International School, 2540 Holly St.

See the film on PBS: Episodes 1 and 2 will air on November 12, starting at 9 p.m.; Episodes 3 and 4 on November 19, starting at 9 p.m.

Want to learn more? This American Life recently aired “The Problem We All Live With,” a two-part series on school desegregation. You can listen here.

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