Ari Armstrong, Education, Exclusives, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Denver Public Schools has long failed Latino students

“Some students feel they do not belong at Denver Public Schools simply because of their background.” That’s how reporter Ashley Michels paraphrases Superintendent Alex Marrero, discussing a new DPS report about the district’s engagement with Latino students.

A slight majority of Denver students, over 45,000, “identify as Hispanic or Latino,” note Yesenia Robles and Jason Gonzales for Chalkbeat. And those students typically fare poorly academically according to results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, as I pointed out last Fall.

DPS contracted with the Multicultural Leadership Center to produce the document, titled “La Raza Report.” It’s quite the project. The executive summary alone is 22 pages. The report proper is 266 pages. Ramon R. DelCastillo, the lead author of the historical review, long worked for the Chicano Studies department at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and he collaborated with numerous others on the report.

Because the report was commissioned by DPS, we should suspect at the outset that, however critical it is of DPS, in the end it serves the interests of DPS. Basically, the message is, “DPS has failed horribly up to this point, therefore we need to double-down on giving DPS power and tax dollars.” The report makes no effort to consider alternatives such as better-empowering parents to choose educational opportunities for their families.

Nevertheless, the report is filled with important insights and helpful references. I’ll review some of the highlights.

Racist practices

Redlining, marking people of certain areas as unworthy of housing loans, seriously impacted the development of Denver communities, the report relates. “The federal government played a key role in institutionalizing the practice of redlining through the Federal Housing Administration.” And “Denver’s long history of redlining, through racist zoning and lending practices, prevented Black, Indigenous, and other people of color [including Latinos] from homeownership for most of the 20th century.”

Then, starting in 1959, the report relates, Denver planners, using implicitly racist criteria, identified neighborhoods allegedly in need of “renewal.”

The report mentions the 1973 Supreme Court case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver. The court found, “The Board, through its actions over a period of years, intentionally created and maintained the segregated character of the core city schools.” I wasn’t familiar with this case, so looked up the text (linked through Wikipedia).

Justice William Brennan, in his majority decision, summarizes a previous court ruling: “The District Court found that by the construction of a new, relatively small elementary school, Barrett, in the middle of the Negro community west of Park Hill, by the gerrymandering of student attendance zones, by the use of so-called ‘optional zones,’ and by the excessive use of mobile classroom units, among other things, the respondent School Board had engaged over almost a decade after 1960 in an unconstitutional policy of deliberate racial segregation with respect to the Park Hill schools.”

The Supreme Court went further and found that because “school authorities have carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting a substantial portion of the students, schools, teachers, and facilities within the school system, it is only common sense to conclude that there exists a predicate for a finding of the existence of a dual school system.”

An interesting difference crops up between the Supreme Court’s approach and the contemporary approach. The justices considered as evidence of illegal segregation the fact that “teachers and staff had for years been assigned on the basis of a minority teacher to a minority school throughout the school system.” By contrast, many people today call for overtly ethnic assignment of teachers.

The courts’ remedy to the political segregation of schools, bussing to reintegrate students, led to “white flight” as many families left the district. Referencing the work of Phil Goodstein, the report indicates bussing wasn’t popular among all minority families either: “For Latino parents, it did not make sense to take their and other Latino children into other neighborhoods and replace them with White children.”

In my view, bussing was a blunt instrument that did not account for the needs and preferences of the families in question. What families needed was more liberty to pursue educational opportunities; what they got instead was pushed around with little regard to outcomes.

Bilingual education

In the 1970s, the Colorado legislature, following federal policy, promoted bilingual education. But, in the ’80s, the report relates, federal and state policy emphasized English instruction with Spanish taught only “for a short period of time until students could be transitioned to all-English instruction.”

Initially I worried that the report makes the opposite error. It criticizes, “The belief that English-language proficiency was a problem had returned to the national discourse.” Don’t we want all Colorado students to be proficient in English, after all the dominant language of the region? Indeed, English is the most-spoken language in the world, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

The idea that proficiency in English must come at the expense of proficiency in Spanish is a mistake. I agree with the report that schools should lean into dual language. Especially when students already speak Spanish, helping them become more proficient in Spanish, in addition to opening up more widely the world of Spanish-language literature and culture, also helps them become more proficient in English and whatever other language they might pursue.

In the end, the report and I agree on this point. It notes, “In 1981, the Colorado legislature repealed the state’s Colorado Bilingual Bicultural Education Act (CBBEA)” and replaced it with “the English Language Proficiency Act (ELPA).” And that was a problem: “The ELPA act, in essence, codified the belief that non-English languages were a problem to be solved. The purpose of ELPA was to eradicate the ‘language problem’ of ‘LEP’ [Limited English Proficient] students in two years, thereby creating educational policies and practices that would be used to subordinate all non-English-language speakers and deny them opportunities to become bilingual, biliterate, and cross-culturally competent.” I haven’t reviewed the statutes in question, but I favor the report’s aims.

The 1969 West High School walkout

According to the report, a teacher at West High School intentionally and repeatedly “mispronounced a Chicana student’s name” (Perez), “made racist comments to students in his class,” and treated local Chicano leaders with “disdain.”

These complaints, coupled with the school’s refusal to fire the teacher, led to a student walkout and then to a violent confrontation with police, resulting in a couple of hospitalizations and more than two dozen arrests.

To my mind, the basic problem was those students and their families were stuck in an inflexible system. If they’d had the freedom to remove their education-directed dollars from the school and spend those dollars elsewhere, they could have quickly found satisfaction. Indeed, the school, knowing it had to answer to parents, probably never would have let the situation spiral out of control.

Instead, the students felt their only option was to protest in the streets even in the face of antagonistic police. Then students and community leaders issued lists of demands to the district, which the district had little incentive to take seriously.

La Escuela Tlatelolco

Led by Rudolph “Corky” Gonzales (among those arrested after the West High School walkout), among others, community leaders opened La Escuela Tlatelolco in 1971, initially as a private, nonprofit institution. The explicit aim of the school was to provide bilingual education with an emphasis on “Indigenous, Mexican, and Chicana/o history and culture.”

For details, I turned to Gabe Fine’s 2017 article. He writes, “In 2004 the board decided to contract with Denver Public Schools. . . . Many loyal and longtime donors . . . viewed the deal as selling out and withdrew their support.” The principal of the school, Nita Gonzales (Corky’s daughter), told reporter Elizabeth Hernandez, “We almost lost our soul in our contracting fiasco.”

Then, in 2016, DPS withdrew its financial support as well, citing poor performance. Hernandez writes, “According to 2014-15 PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] standardized testing data provided by DPS, 3.3 percent of Escuela students were proficient in English language arts and 2 percent were proficient in math, compared with the district at 33.5 percent and 24.9 percent proficient, respectively.” Supporters of the school said the test results did not reflect the institution’s true value to students, many of whom suffered from poverty and were learning English.

The school closed soon after DPS withdrew its support.

Academic performance

In 2023, the Latino Education Coalition (LEC) presented a list of strategic goals to DPS. The report states, “Strategic Goal #10, ‘Catching Up/Closing Achievement Gaps: Latino students’ perhaps summarizes best the long-standing objective of much of the efforts by the Latino community over the last several decades.”

The standardized test results reported by the study indicate that DPS’s efforts to educate Latino students in basic skills of literacy and mathematics have been, on the whole, a catastrophic failure. By contrast, DPS’s efforts to educate “white” students merely have been abysmally bad. Please note that tests changed over this time, so year-to-year results are not always directly comparable. Still, the results give some indication of outcomes.

White students met or exceeded expectations in math by rates of 35.3% in 2008, 47.1% in 2014, and 28.9% in 2022. The figures for Hispanic students for those years are 28.3%, 38.5%, and 14.1%.

White students met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts by rates of 47.2% in 2008, 54.8% in 2014, and 38.8% in 2022. The figures for Hispanic students for those years are 37.6%, 44.8%, and 23.4%.

In an absurd understatement of the problem at hand, the DPS report states, “The data indicates a long-term issue with student proficiency.” YA THINK?!

School bullying and violence

The report summarizes: “Parents realize there are safety plans in place, but they still fear for the safety of their children and fear potential violence, stating they do not have enough confidence in the current system. Parents and other interviewees realize that some youth have access to guns and may bring them to schools. A policy analysis and evaluation by DPS regarding current policies regarding safety in the schools would provide some security for parents. There is a need for bilingual and culturally competent police officers in schools. DPS should review policies regarding possession and use of drugs and alcohol in the schools and acknowledge that drugs can exacerbate the issue of violence.”

The report also states, “Although parents want SROs [school resource officers] in the schools, they are still concerned about the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” One parent said, “We need good police security. Bags should be checked. We need bilingual policemen in school, who are culturally aware. Students should not be able to leave the building. We need security. I worry about my children all of the time.”

On bullying, the report says: “One parent said that she has witnessed multiple incidents of bullying on the playground, and he has reported it, but nothing has been done, asserting that playground supervisors need to be more observant. Parents keep asking and asking and nothing gets done.”

Another person told the writers of the report: “There are daily student fights in the school and the administration does not do enough to stop those fights. . . . Teachers and Counselors are probably hesitant to get involved because the nature of school yard fights has changed into potential death and violence, with a probability of guns and weapons being involved. . . . Without consequences, there exists a high probability that violence will continue. . . . ¡Estamos creando monstruous! [We are creating monsters!]”

A student said (“and all other students [present] agreed with him”): “There are disruptive students who don’t want to be here, and no one does anything about them–they get away with everything–if they don’t want to be here, they should not be here.”

A long history of failure

For decades, members of the Latino community have begged DPS to teach their students. For decades, DPS has largely failed to do so.

Bluntly, the attitude of the DPS-sponsored La Raza report with respect to DPS reminds me of the line from an old B-movie, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

Or we could look to a line from Corky Gonzales’s poem, “I Am Joaquin,” a line that to this day appears on the web site for La Escuela Tlatelolco: “I shed the tears of anguish as I see my children disappear behind the shroud of mediocrity, never to look back to remember me.”

Maybe at some point it will occur to more people that doubling down on a demonstrably failed system is not the only possible approach. The students of Colorado deserve better.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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