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The recent confirmation fight over the new education secretary, Betsy Davis, brought more attention to the issue of school choice. Whether choice comes through vouchers, tax scholarships or charters, some opponents say these programs often privilege the wealthy, lack oversight and undermine neighborhood public schools.
One city that believes it's found an innovative, balanced approach to school choice is Denver, Colo. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the program has created some tough choices about how best to serve the city's vulnerable students in Denver's schools.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In Denver schools, color matters a lot. A blue rating is great, green is good, yellow worrisome, orange troubling and red is bad, really bad. Gilpin Elementary in the city's Five Points neighborhood got a red ranking, or probation, the lowest category in the district's color coded school performance ranking. And under Denver's new policy, chronic red can get you closed.
Gilpin parent Beth Bianki (ph) says teachers are reporting more student behavior problems and more stress since the community got word from the school board just before Christmas that this public Montessori school will be shuttered at the end of the school year.
BETH BIANKI: They're really in turmoil over everything that's happening.
WESTERVELT: Everything, including parents having to find and choice-in to a new school and figuring out transportation there after years of walking to a neighborhood school.
BIANKI: How am I going to get there? Is that the best school for my kid? And when you don't have great options for those things, it's extremely stressful and the kids are really feeling it.
WESTERVELT: Once a thriving area known as the Harlem of the West, Five Points today has deep pockets of poverty. Public housing projects are visible from the Gilpin playground bench where Bianki is sitting. The area is also gentrifying fast, but there simply aren't enough children in the neighborhood to support all the schools here. Enrollment at Gilpin has declined steadily.
CAMERON WARD-HUNT: It's clear that for Denver, choice, closure and charter are all linked together.
WESTERVELT: Cameron Ward-Hunt (ph) says he and his wife chose this neighborhood public school for their son because of its more open Montessori curriculum and its economic and ethnic diversity.
School choice in Denver grew out of the end of a court-ordered busing desegregation case in the 1970s. A federal busing decree led to an exodus of white families to the suburbs and undermined school integration. Ward-Hunt believes with closures like this, the district is slowly resegregating minority and low-income areas.
WARD-HUNT: It's really closing down neighborhood schools close to the city and then replacing them with charter schools out in suburbia.
WESTERVELT: He has a point. Since 2006, enrollment growth in Denver charter schools has outpaced enrollment in city-managed schools. But the district has a point, too. Academically, Gilpin was failing its low-income and students of color. Only 6 percent of its students of color performed grade level in English Language Arts. And only 1 percent of its students of color performed at grade level in math according to district data.
At University Prep Arapahoe, a charter school not in suburbia but less than a mile from Gilpin, 45 and 48 percent of students of color today are at or above grade level in math and English.
TOM BOASBERG: I think lots of low-quality choices don't serve anyone.
WESTERVELT: That's school superintendent Tom Boasberg. Denver, he says, sees its city-wide choice system as a means to an end, quality learning for all, not choice for choice's sake. And school choice reforms here have faced less blowback than other cities from low-income communities of color. That's partly because leaders reached out early to multi-racial, multi-faith groups for input and help. And the fact is it's easier to close schools and open innovative new ones when student achievement rates have been rising over the last decade. Superintendent Boasberg.
BOASBERG: We have more than doubled our graduation rate among our Latino students. We've cut our dropout rates by 70 percent among our students of color. We have seen the greatest increases in student achievement of students of color in this district than any other district in the state.
WESTERVELT: While the academic growth is impressive, wide achievement gaps by race and class persist. 2014 numbers show that wealthier students in Denver are testing at grade level at far higher levels than low-income students across all subjects. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Denver.
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