Recent debate over racial segregation in charter schools has generated a lot more heat than light. Two excellent but very different charter schools in Denver exemplify why more nuance and thoughtfulness is sorely needed.
West Denver Prep (WDP) operates four open-enrollment charter middle schools and was recently approved to open two more middle schools and a high school in 2013. WDP’s first two schools are ranked first and second among Denver’s public schools. Each school is over 90 percent low income, 90 percent Latino, and 35 percent English Language Learners and is posting median growth scores in 80 percent in reading and writing, and above 90 in math. West Denver Prep’s student attrition rate is below 5 percent.
The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) operates two open enrollment, 6-12 STEM charter schools and has been approved to open three more. DSST’s first campus is the city’s highest-performing high school and the second highest-performing middle school. Less than half of DSST’s students are from low-income families. Over 65 percent are minority. Of the school’s 2010 graduating class, 50 percent is first-generation college bound. 100 percent of graduating seniors are accepted into a four-year college. DSST’s student attrition rate is below 10 percent.
West Denver Prep and DSST are very different models and both are achieving great results with their students. DSST is among several charter schools in Denver that are deliberately focused on creating diverse student populations in a city with significant economic and racial isolation in its housing patterns and in its traditional public schools. DSST and other public schools of choice like them face a conundrum. How do you create a diverse and integrated school and still ensure that admission is open to all students?
By contrast, West Denver Prep’s schools face a different challenge. Even though their student populations mirror the demographics of their nearby traditional public schools almost exactly, and even though their schools are helping students achieve previously unheard of results, they are attacked for somehow re-segregating an already segregated public school system.
So what is a school to do?