DGS: New Boundaries along class lines

DGS: New Boundaries along class lines

Boundaries: Denver Green School, Lowry, and Equity in Education

Last night, the Denver School Board had a meeting to hear public comment on a proposed addition to Lowry Elementary School along with changes to the boundaries for the Denver Green School (DGS).  I spoke briefly (3 min.) in opposition to the boundary changes emphasizing that 1) changing the DGS boundaries serves to further “segregate” low Socio-Economic Status (SES) students from high SES students, and 2) isolating students at poverty is harmful to their learning, brain development, post-secondary options and economic opportunities.  A couple of people have asked me to summarize my comments along with supporting data.  Here we go:

The Issues

In answer to a perceived need for additional “capacity” at Lowry Elementary (due to the impending redevelopment of Buckley Annex), Denver Public Schools (DPS) proposes the following*:

  1. Add physical addition to Lowry Elementary, creating space for 100-150 more students
    • to be funded by 2012 Bond (est. cost = $2.2M)
    • Design & planning began Sept/Oct 2013
    • Construction likely to begin in Winter 2013-14
    • new addition targeted for completion in August 2013
  2. Re-assign portion of Denver Green School’s boundary (including Buckley Annex) to Lowry Elementary
    • No impact to students currently attending either school
    • New boundary to be finalized prior to December 2013, when School Choice period begins

*from DPS presentation at the Lowry Elementary Community Meeting (Oct. 10, 2013)

Interestingly, DPS accepts as a given that there is (or will be) a capacity issue, but many disagree.

Choicing In/Choicing Out

How is a “Neighborhood School” different from any other school?  Let me suggest that “% of in-boundary use” is a good metric to start with.  There is wide agreement that, all things being equal, a parent would rather send a student to the school nearest their home.  There is also a good argument to be made that neighborhood schools enhance both the stability and vibrancy of residential communities.  DGS claims “Place-based Education” as a core value.

Note that only 71% of families within the Lowry boundary currently elect to send their school-age children to Lowry Elementary.  In other words, 29% choose NOT to attend Lowry and that’s not exactly a vote of confidence for their program – and, IMO, I’m not sure it even qualifies as a true “neighborhood” school with those numbers.  

At Denver Green School, the numbers are even less “neighborhood” driven, with only 64% coming from in-boundary.  59% of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch.  Here’s a blurb from their 2013 re-application:

winston downs,school

Why school “Choice” isn’t equitable either . . .

“Schools should not be deciding which students will be granted a seat, and which will not.  Schools should not be manipulating capacity by enrolling students via undocumented
processes. Schools should have nothing whatsoever to do with the processing and assigning of students. Yet in Denver right now, schools do all of those things and there is
no accountability regarding their conduct in these operations. Schools should no longer have the operational ability to enroll students on site – all enrollment manipulations
should be centrally processed, and all students wishing to attend schools other than their home schools should participate in Round 1 and/or Round 2. ” (from An Assessment of Enrollment and Choice in Denver Public Schools, Prepared for The Denver Enrollment Study Group by The Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, May 2010, http://getsmartschools.hotpressplatform.com/services/Report%20with%20ESG%20edits.pdf)

What the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice decided about DPS in 2010 is that most of the enrollment decisions were happening at the building level (principals) and not through a uniform, equitable, transparent or accountable process.  Reading between the lines, one would assume that the only way DGS could get 59% low SES from a boundary containing only about 20% low SES would be to make most of the choice decisions outside of the public process.

Why might they do that?  1) They’re well-meaning people who have a (not formally stated) goal to create a school for primarily SES, which they have done, and 2) when a school has 40% low SES, they can use Title I funds for school-wide programs (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/titleiparta/index.html) . Yes, money is a driver at both ends of the economic spectrum of this issue.

One might also wonder if DGS puts itself at risk for receiving ANY Title I funding if by doing so they create an environment which is primarily inequitable to children at risk, as I conclude below.

DGS – Boundaries now

 boundary current

DGS – proposed boundary changes:

boundary changes

Notice that the “new” boundaries effectively move all students north of Alameda (including those from the new Buckley Annex) to Lowry Elementary.  Let’s look at the characteristics of these areas:

Socio-Economic Characteristics by area:


Buckley Annex

Well, it’s not built yet so we’ll have to speculate, but it should be easy. The Buckley Annex shares enough common characteristics with Lowry that we can safely predict it will be extremely similar in most respects:

  • Same Director of Development (Monte Force) who oversees site planning, infrastructure improvements, real estate sales, marketing and overall project administration.
  • Similar Design Guidelines.  I served for about a year on a preliminary Design Review Committee appointed by Councilwoman Marcia Johnson.  The group used the Lowry guidelines as the starting point.  The current design guidelines look much like Lowry with a bit higher density.
  • Similar CAC (Citizens Advisory Committee).  Many of the same members as the Lowry group of past years.

Therefore, we’re most likely to see upscale product and pricing (like Lowry), especially considering current high-demand/low-inventory market conditions in central Denver.

Lowry – 80230

Average Family Income:  $155,344*

Percentage of families with school-age children at or below poverty level:  17.7%*


DGS – 80224

Average Family Income: $80,500*

Percentage of families with school-age children at or below poverty level: 24.6%*

DGS – 80247

Average Family Income: $50,930*

Percentage of families with school-age children at or below poverty level: 33.2%*

*(source: U.S. Census 2010)


 Education equity – a Civil Rights Issue

The United States confronts an achievement gap that separates our communities by class and ethnicity.  This is in opposition to the core principle of our democracy: a promise of equal opportunity for all.  Public education is the vehicle by which our society strives to deliver on this promise.

Equity can only be achieved by addressing the individual needs of each student, which requires precision in how we allocate resources.  Federal funding alone cannot bridge the socio-economic disparities because poor children develop an achievement gap before they enter school; poor and minority students require different resources to meet their educational needs.  There is no single policy, but rather what is needed is an array of policies to close the achievement gap for poor and minority students. “Innovation is critical, but it should not come at the expense of ignoring 50 years of research on what works.” (Michael Honda, Preserving the American Dream: A Teacher-Turned-Congressman Starts a National Dialogue on Equity, American Educator, Spring 2011)


Poverty and It’s Effect on Learning

Much research has shed light on the relationship between poverty and the educational gaps mentioned here.  I quoted from a well-known longitudinal study by Dr. Todd Risley and Dr. Betty Hart, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.  Among many findings:

Language acquisition is affected by poverty.  Risley and Hart found that average children heard 1500 words per hour on average, while children from “professional” families heard 2,100 words/hr.  By contrast, children in welfare homes heard on average 600 words/hr.  By age four, poor children had a 30 million word deficit, putting them at risk for a lifetime of low-literacy and under-achievement.

The point here is that separating, or segregating, students along socioeconomic lines is bad educational policy, and probably educational malpractice.

Boundaries, Buildings, and the Equity Agenda

What should our educational policy-makers (the BOE) do to ensure that students of all backgrounds have the same opportunity to succeed?  They need to examine the allocation of resources (and boundaries, those being the allocators of human resources) “in light of its potential alignment with the emerging education reform agenda, which is grounded in important principles of shared accountability.” (Richard Riles & Arthur Coleman, Turning the Page on the Equity Debate in Education:  How to Give All Children a Real Opportunity, American Educator, Spring 2011)

The fact that DGS has 59% of students from poverty just amplifies the effect of parsing out the higher SES population from it’s boundaries.  Whether it’s good educational practice to have that number in a catchment area of only 24% low SES is a question for another time (although it seems obvious that you only further handicap the low SES learners regardless of the program).   What is clear, however, is that changing the boundaries to further segregate the high SES population (Buckley Annex and Lowry) from the average and low SES population (parts of 80224 and 80247) is not consistent with “closing the achievement gap”.

The “Achievement Gap” at DGS

Now somebody is going to accuse me of “dissing” the school and that’s not my intent.  It’s an innovative and progressive concept, in a school run by hard-working and dedicated professionals, with high parent approval, good community outreach, and their hearts are in the right place.  Obviously, they see themselves as focused on serving the underserved and at-risk population.  The point is this:  there already is a gap along class lines and we don’t need to make it worse.  Here’s the data for DGS:



So there’s the gap:  30 point difference between low SES and average students in reading.  And a much higher percent of “at-risk” (unsatisfactory) students in the low SES group.  We could have predicted that based on the research.  The point is, we’re not going to “close the gap” by further segregating DPS students by class and ethnicity, as DPS proposes to do with the boundary change; instead they’re just going to make the gap wider and more entrenched.

Changing the boundary to give Lowry and Buckley Annex a new $2.2M addition is bad policy, educational malpractice, and an erosion of civil rights for those at or near poverty.


  1. Very well-written, informed, and eye-opening. As a new Winston Downs resident (below Alameda in 80224); I like the idea of my kids attending a diverse school. However, re-drawing boundary line to ensure my children have little exposure to others of their same SES seems to be a bad idea. I like your proposition that the district should not manipulate the boundary lines further in an attempt to increase federal funding. A couple of corrections, the percentage you quote is for free OR reduced lunch, you only say free (a $6000 or more annual household income difference between the two). I also believe there is a zip code typo below your map (80237 should be 80247)

    • Thanks, Eric! I’ve made those two corrections to the text.
      By now you know that they have made those boundary changes.

      Segregation in Charter Schools (or Innovation Schools, et al.) is almost always unintentional – alternative schools are usually trying to implement reform and the use of ‘better ideas’ in education. That being said, removing underserved or unequally served students from their neighborhoods so they can attend a better school is usually problematic (think Denver busing started in 1972) and there is a growing body of research that tries to figure out why that is true (e.g., NEIGHBORHOOD AND SCHOOL INFLUENCES ON THE FAMILY LIFE AND MATHEMATICS PERFORMANCE OF EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS, by Sophia Catsambis and Andrew A. Beveridge, Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY). Most likely because of the importance of parental involvement – neighborhood schools really do work best when they’re primarily focused on the neighborhood.

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