Symposium tackles desegregation’s legacy

Forty years after Denver became the center of the first school desegregation case from a non-southern city to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Denver schools remain segregated and school leaders are trying new approaches to integration with mixed results.

Sharon Brown Bailey, chair of the Colorado Black Round Table Education Committee, talks to Gregory Anderson, dean of the DU Morgridge College of Education, following a symposium Friday.

A panel of notable local education experts, policymakers, leaders and scholars participated in a symposium Friday at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law that was part of a three-day examination of the legacy of Keyes v. School District No. 1. Court-ordered busing was but one notable result of the case in Denver.

The symposium focused on evaluating metro K-12 public education “through the lenses of educators, administrators and policy makers.” Hot topics included revamping school finance laws in Colorado and experimenting with new school choice strategies.

School finance reform in Colorado

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, honed in on school finance as the best road forward for ensuring equity for all students.

He described the Keyes case as an acknowledgement that segregated schools were not just an issue plaguing the South. The problem of a two-tiered education system for haves and have-nots has never gone away, he said.

“If you were to ask someone today where the worst state in America is to be a 7-year-old black or brown kid who wants to graduate from college – it is the state where you sit right now,” Johnston said, referring to Colorado.

“(Keyes) reminds people in this city that you live in a battleground of the civil rights movement. You live in it and the battle is not over.”

Johnston explored what he termed the “apparatus of segregation.” He said many experts have developed a causal link between poverty and academic failure. He said at-risk students should be attached to a higher rate of funding than students who are on track academically. Furthermore, he said it’s time to get away from a school funding formula that bases everything on who shows up for school on Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, communities such as Aspen get a cost of living adjustment in their per pupil funding formula because it’s so expensive to live there.

“We will subsidize wealthier districts (three times more) than we subsidize poor districts,” Johnston said.

Johnston said under the current system there is no incentive for a school to want to take on a student who arrives on a day later than Oct. 1 and who needs extra support services. He said that needs to change.

“We need to create system that attaches those resources to that kid wherever she goes.” Then districts might actually find themselves fighting over these students, he added.

Johnston said his goal is to provide a system that is “radically aligned toward providing the highest possible outcomes for kids with the most needs.”

“We can be the first state in the country… to fundamentally break the link between poverty and school failure.”

Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, said she agreed a new way of funding public education was in order. She described learning of a student in Eagle who had never held a pencil before showing up at school, or another who was pumped up for state-mandated tests but was unable to describe in descriptive writing a beach because he had never been to one. She’s met kids in Commerce City who have never traveled to Denver or to the mountains.

“All these things impact their ability to be successful,” she said.

“The way we fund our schools we often make our schools the great inequalizer.”

After reading the recent I-News Network series “Losing Ground,” an  investigation published in media outlets across Colorado, Baca-Oehlert said it was clear Colorado hasn’t come that far since the Civil Rights Movement.

“That to me is sad as a parent, as an educator, as a citizen. We owe it to our children to continue this fight. The fight we have right now is the school funding fight.”

Gaining voters trust a challenge

Panelist Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the State Board of Education from Denver, said the issue of school finance has not been tackled in 20 years. She said neither the conversations nor the solutions will be easy to navigate.

“Everybody recognizes we need a new School Finance Act,” Gantz Berman said. “When you start working with this group of people to work on details, it’s amazing how difficult if is. Everybody is worried about what they might lose. Everybody is worried about taking a risk. No one is willing to sign on unless they know every specific details.”

At the end of the day, voters will have to approve the changes in a statewide referendum, she said. While voters are often eager to pass local bond issues and property tax hikes, getting people behind a statewide funding initiative will be a challenge.

“Will voters be willing to trust the state? There is not a great deal of trust outside your local entity,” Gantz Berman said.

Panelists discuss continuing disparities in the state’s public schools during a symposium Friday at DU.

Panelist U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said things are changing for the better in DPS, with growing enrollment (meaning more funding) but work still needs to be done.

Bennet said DPS is “no longer the poster child for budget cuts we saw year after year.” And he said the district is doing a better job getting resources to kids in poverty.

“Thirty percent more (low-income students) are graduating from high school and going on to college than in 2005. I’d be first to say we have a long way to go… but not a lot of urban districts can claim that opportunity.”

He said policymakers, advocates and parents must be willing to take risks and step up the plate the way civil rights activists did several decades ago.

“If we are willing to do that work I know we can succeed,” Bennet said. “If we are unwilling to do it – if we are unwilling to be as brave as they were – we will fail our kids.”

Bennet’s primary beef, though, was with the funding of education in the United States.

“We are one of three countries (in the Convention on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – OECD) that spends more money on rich kids than we do on poor kids.”

“I hope that all of us continue to work on this project. We will become a shining example for this country..”

Using choice to provide opportunities

Meanwhile, superintendents from Douglas County, Aurora and Denver talked about choice policies that can encourage the creation of integrated schools.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg lamented that education policy has for too long perpetuated gaps within society based on race and class.

“I think this is a matter for our kids – making sure the concepts of quality and diversity are completely intertwined,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg said it is the job of public schools to break down barriers and create quality schools for all.

“To have diverse schools that are not quality schools serves nobody’s interests,” Boasberg said. “That results in flight by families with means and resources to do so.”

Boasberg said the vast majority of DPS parents “welcome that diversity” while he acknowledged there is still a “considerable amount of fear and prejudice in our community.”

Boasberg said zip codes still determine where kids go to school. Magnet schools were established to try to create more integrated schools but those have had mixed success in Denver, he said. He said one way to integrate schools in Denver may be to draw bigger attendance boundaries around schools to try to capture a range of neighborhoods.

Doubts about DPS SchoolChoice

Panelist Sharon Brown Bailey, chairwoman of the Colorado Black Round Table Education Committee, said she didn’t believe DPS’s new choice policy was resulting in more people of color or low-income people participating in the process. She said the choice process remains confusing.

“If you missed the first round of school choice you were pretty much locked out,” she said.

Bailey said it’s her understanding only 13 percent of the district’s seats are in quality schools.

“I don’t think we’ve figured out how to really make it work for all families,” she said.” We need to look again at that, and who it’s working for. We are still seeing isolated ethnic enclaves. And (students) are on waiting lists forever…How do you have access to quality with so few quality seats? What kinds of choices do parents really have?”

“Unless you take those quality things in some schools and magnify them throughout the district then choice continues to be a very empty promise.”

Aurora’s pathways programs

Aurora Superintendent John Barry said this is exactly the strategy his district is employing through its “pathways” program, which provides strands of focused areas of study  – such as health sciences, arts and communication, engineering and math  –  ultimately in every school. The district partners with local museums and businesses to boost real-world knowledge and experiences for students.

Barry also said it’s time for more frank conversations about race and the role it plays in key decisions affecting public education. Equity training is required for APS staff, he said.

The DU symposium was organized by the Denver University Law Review and the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education, in conjunction with area law firms and foundations.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”