Forward to the Past

What will happen when Denver's model of integration, Manual High, returns to the old days of segregation?

Manual High School students talk about commitment to their school with a religious fervor. Many of them paint a rosy picture. Everyone gets along. Race has been overcome. The basketball team's integrated. Some teachers can't even remember the last fight they saw, much less broke up. And the school performs well academically, often above the national average.

But underneath the sunny talk, there are problems. Serious ones. As these same people start to talk in detail about their school, a different picture of Manual emerges: two schools, separate and unequal, a family that next year may unravel at the seams when court-ordered busing comes to a close.

In 1994 a graduating senior took the microphone at commencement and complained that the school was not graduating enough of its young black men. Despite its reputation as the most integrated school in Denver--a reputation that will change in the fall--the school, located just east of Five Points, is academically segregated. White kids, bused in from well-to-do neighborhoods like Hilltop and Crestmoor, make up 44 percent of the school's population, yet they are the overwhelming majority in Manual's accelerated, college-prep courses. And the majority of students in remedial classes are minorities.

"No one is intentionally drawing lines," social studies chairman Santo Nicotera says of the school's de facto segregation. "But in any given classroom, it is segregated."

The Reverend Gill Ford of Salem Baptist Church, a community activist in the neighborhood around Manual, says many of the problems come from faculty and administrators. "Parents call me up and tell me that counselors are guiding them into lesser areas," says Ford, who is black. He contends that the end of busing will "revert Manual back to what it was designed for--to teach kids from lower incomes how to go out and do menial jobs."

Whoever is responsible, the school cannot hide the disparity in achievement among the races. Last year its eleventh-graders scored in the 53rd percentile on the Iowa Basics tests, three points above the national average. (The Denver Public Schools average was four points lower, in the 49th percentile.) However, white students scored in the 65th percentile, while Hispanic students scored in the 35th percentile, and black students did even worse, scoring in the 30th percentile.

Next year, the 102-year-old school will be plunged into real segregation for the first time since the early 1970s. Denver's ten public high schools will no longer bus students to achieve integration. Boundaries that once took kids in southeast Denver across town to Manual and took kids in the northeast across town to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, will be redrawn. Manual will pull almost all of its students from the poor neighborhoods immediately surrounding it.

Because the changes in racial makeup at Manual will be more severe than at any other high school, it is becoming ground zero in Denver's post-busing landscape. Currently the school, with about 1,000 students, is well-integrated: 44 percent white, 41 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic. Within the next few years, school officials predict a radical change: 52 percent Hispanic, 44 percent black and only 4 percent white. Whereas this year 45 percent of the students are from middle-income families, next year the figure will drop to 8 percent, with an estimated 92 percent of students living at or below the poverty line, according to DPS statistics.

Boosters call the new Manual a "neighborhood school," but many simply regard the plan for next year's school as segregation--with its implicit meaning of separate and unequal--all over again. "It will clearly become a segregated school, with all the trappings that seems to bring," says Gordon Greiner, the attorney who represented black families in the 1969 court case--Keyes v. Denver School District 1--that led to busing. "The political tenor of integration changed. Neighborhood schools are what are politically popular."

As far as Greiner is concerned, the end of busing is strictly a matter of politics, not education. "Why throw away something that works in part," he asks, "until you have something better?"

And despite stubborn optimism by Manual's administration, "something better" is not immediately forthcoming.

Of course, busing was no cure-all. At the current Manual, "integration" is not a guaranteed thing, even if black and white kids are roaming the same hallways. Furthermore, many believe that forced busing contributed to the mass exodus of middle-class Denverites to the suburbs--white flight and black flight. Busing not only is inconvenient, its opponents argue, it also does little to foster community unity, and it forces groups together that might prefer to stay apart.

Nicotera, a teacher at Manual since 1991, says the promise of desegregation has never been fully realized at Manual. "White kids coming to Manual go on to a top-flight school," he says. "Unfortunately, you don't see a lot of minorities going to the top schools. When you walk through the school, Manual didn't do such a good job. [Busing] was not the panacea people thought."

And the proponents of neighborhood schools admit that next year's changes won't be a panacea, either. "I don't think redrawing the boundaries [after the end of busing] had anything to do with closing the gap," says Bernadette Sieck, DPS's assistant superintendent for secondary education. Instead it had to do with luring people back to Denver. "We did see an increase in money coming in from the state because of the increased enrollment," Sieck says.

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