The Next Test

Manual High School earned extra credit for surviving the end of busing. But can it survive the CSAP?

Scholars do. A CU symposium last fall brought together prominent law scholars, social scientists, educators and others to discuss desegregation, both in Denver and nationwide. "One theme is that there's a huge group, especially in academia, that really is adamant that the school desegregation movement should not be ended, and this is a very unfortunate thing we're seeing," says CU law professor Robert Nagel. "The other side says when you study it carefully, you don't see that the premise behind Brown v. Board of Education is true."

That landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision found segregated schools to be inherently unequal and unconstitutional, but a follow-up decision in 1955 set no specific timetable for school desegregation and allowed school districts, mainly in the South, to stall for years.

Some experts contend that desegregation efforts were difficult to implement nationwide because Northern states weren't committed to the process (they were only committed to seeing the South desegregated) and residential segregation in virtually every major American city created an almost insurmountable barrier. "It's really hard to have school integration if you don't have residential integration," University of Virginia professor Michael Klarman said during the symposium. "What we've had post-World War II is a suburbanization pattern where whites move to the suburbs, deserting the cities, and the city schools are left to blacks and other racial minorities." Massive busing was the only remedy, he added, but fragile public support meant it couldn't be maintained over time.

John Johnston
Margaret Horton (left) and Samierah Moran keep the junior class on track.
John Johnston
Margaret Horton (left) and Samierah Moran keep the junior class on track.

In 1974, the Supreme Court refused to allow the desegregation of whole metropolitan regions, a process that would have forced increasingly white suburbs to integrate their students with increasingly black and brown inner cities. Later decisions found that once a school district was deemed "unitary" -- that is, no longer unequally segregated -- districts could resegregate their schools.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch released Denver from mandatory busing in 1997. "We are cautiously optimistic that we'll look back and say this was the right way to go," says DPS spokesman Mark Stevens.

Most school districts that ended busing have seen the gap widen between low-income, inner-city, mostly minority schools and affluent, mostly white schools. But at this point, the debate over busing is largely relegated to academics. "Within the narrow communities you still have this tremendous passion on both sides, they really care about it, and there's really intense debate," says Nagel. "If you go to a wider political arena, they don't care anymore. They think decrees aren't in place, there's no more busing, whatever happened, happened. Most people don't have a huge stake in it anymore."

Friday: A heavy snow fell on Denver last night, which means there are plenty of absentees from Manual this morning. A good ten minutes after the bell, only eighteen kids have managed to straggle from the locker room into the gym. The kids stretch out, run a weak three laps, and then most of the boys play hoops while the girls work out to a Tae Bo tape.

Sophomore James "Elvis" Nuñez heads down to the weight room. He's a wrestler, and while his build is slight, his arms are ripped as he works through a series of bicep curls and then moves on to the bench press. He lettered last year in wrestling at 130 pounds, and he's anxious about an upcoming regional meet. Although the team as a whole is unlikely to reach the state finals, Elvis will if he can win three or four of his matches.

The key to doing well, he explains, is the look. Just before a match, he gives his opponent a dark stare, looks right at him, doesn't blink. "Strength doesn't matter as much as heart," he says.

Elvis's schedule is loose this semester, and he's taking advantage. "People tell me I'm smart but I don't always apply myself," he admits. So he's thinking about signing up for the AVID program to get ready for college. He already went through Manual's summer-school program in math, even though he'd passed his math class. He did it because he wanted something to do, and it beat staying home all summer long.

Elvis's father lives in Mexico; his mother, an attorney, lives in Wyoming. Last year he lived with an aunt on the southern edge of the metro area and attended Highlands Ranch High School, about as far away from inner-city Denver as you can get. But he and his aunt didn't get along, so he came back to the Cole neighborhood -- the neighborhood he grew up in -- to live with his grandmother.

There's no doubt that Highlands Ranch had more of everything. Manual is "not even close," he says, to having the same kinds of resources and materials for students. But while he got along fine with the suburb's largely white student population, the teachers there just weren't right for him. "Our teachers are great," he says. "I learned just as much at Manual as I did at Highlands Ranch. The teachers at Manual care about us 100 percent."

One of Elvis's classmates, a black sophomore named Chase Maxwell, attended George Washington last year and echoes his friend's thoughts about Manual, applauding how much the teachers care about the students. And Myeisha Young, a junior, actually views the IMP math classes with pride, pointing out that "only George's smartest students can take them" -- whereas all of Manual's students take them.

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