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"Is Racial Integration Essential to Achieving Quality Education for Low-Income Minority Students, In The Short Term? In the Long Term?,"

by Elaine Gantz Berman July/August 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

Is racial integration essential to achieving quality education for low-income minority students? No. Let me describe the experience of one Denver high school to explain why.

Manual High School, which has been racially "integrated" for the past 25 years, is located on the outskirts of downtown Denver in a neighborhood that is 95% Hispanic and African American. Historically, the neighborhoods surrounding the school have high rates of poverty, single-parent families, and crime and gang activity. Because Denver has been under court-ordered busing for the past 25 years, Anglos now account for approximately 50% of Manual's student population. During this time the teaching staff has been predominantly Anglo. And, while Anglo parents have to travel greater distances to the school, they are more involved with a wide range of school activities than parents of children of color.

In September 1995, Denver was released from court-ordered busing. School boundaries are being redrawn to coincide with those of the neighborhood. If Manual becomes a neighborhood school, the student body will reflect the neighborhood and be comprised of 95% students of color. As Manual charts its future course, it needs to consider the success of its current education program. Has "integration" improved student achievement for its low-income students? Should "integration" be a goal for the future?

Academically, there are two schools at Manual—one for Anglos and one for students of color. For example, Manual has a highly regarded college preparatory program and has graduated students who on a regular basis go on to attend the country's most elite colleges. However, the vast majority of these students are Anglo. Most of the students who assume leadership positions in the school—student council representatives, yearbook staff, class presidents—also are Anglos. On the other hand, only a handful of students of color are in the accelerated and advanced placement college preparatory classes. And while 35% of Manual High School's 1000 students are African American, on average ten African American males have graduated each of the past three years. In examining standardized test scores, there are large gaps in performance between the middle-income Anglo students and the lower-income students of color. It is clear from looking at numerous educational indicators that an integrated student body has not improved outcomes for low-income students of color at Manual High School. And it is equally clear that Manual is not racially "integrated." Rather, it is desegregated.

As the community ponders Manual's future, Denver citizens reflect on its past reputation and express fears about its future. Over the past 25 years, the teachers, parents and alumni have taken great pride in the school, its educational program, the quality of its teaching staff and its racial diversity. Many Manual parents and teachers are worried that if the school becomes racially segregated, discipline problems and gang-related violence will increase. There also is concern that many of Manual's excellent teachers will leave, both for perceived safety reasons and
because the majority of highly motivated students will no longer attend the school. And there is genuine concern for the social considerations of having a diverse student body. Parent activists argue that students need to get to know youth from other backgrounds, to break down stereotypes and become more tolerant of racial and cultural differences.

While it is unsettling to imagine a Manual that is not desegregated and without a superb college-bound program, it is even more disturbing to admit the school has not successfully educated almost haff of its students. The reasons are complex and have more to do with income than race. But, all this considered, as the Denver school community ponders the future of Manual, they would be wise to focus on the attributes of a great school, such as a clear educational mission, a strong visionary principal, motivated, competent teachers with high morale, and strong parent and neighborhood involvement, rather than on the goal of attracting an integrated student body. One of the challenges now facing Manual is who should be involved in determining its fate: the current group of predominantly Anglo active parents and teachers; the parents from the surrounding neighborhoods whose children will soon be attending Manual; or the school board and administration? I would entrust the future of Manual to the parents from the neighborhood; they have the most to gain and the most to lose.

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