When Denver Public Schools began forced busing to desegregate the city's schools just over two decades ago, the reaction of many white parents was swift: They left. In 1974 nearly 54 percent of the Denver student body was white. By late last year, when the district was released from federal supervision, whites made up only 27 percent of the classes.
Now DPS is hoping to reclaim them. One way is through an advertising campaign that ran in The Denver Post in March and in the Rocky Mountain News in May. The five-ad series, which features outstanding students and their areas of academic interest, touts "The New Denver Public Schools" and ends with the tag line "We'll Save a Seat for You."
Administration officials say part of the campaign's purpose is to burnish the general reputation of the city's school district, which has suffered over the years. But they also say that the other, more specific intent is to entice students scared off by busing back into the district--white students, in particular.
"We're targeting the areas, like around the University of Denver, that are largely white," says DPS spokesman Richard Frye. "Those are the areas that parents left from."
School-board member Lee White says that wasn't his impression. "I'm kind of surprised by that," he says. "Yes, we do want Anglos back in the schools. But we want all students to come back to DPS."
Frye says that initial response to the advertising campaign has been heartening. "We've had a tremendous outpouring of support," he says. Yet exactly how that sentiment will translate into students is somewhat of a mystery.
Certainly the potential is high. Using population figures and racial ratios, district officials estimate that Denver's federally mandated busing policy convinced parents to pull anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 white students per year out of Denver's public schools.
Despite that enormous pool, school administrators are being cautious, estimating that perhaps 1,000 new students will return to Denver schools as a result of the end of busing. White is more optimistic, guessing that the student body could grow by at least twice that amount. In fact, he's bet superintendent Irv Moskowitz a steak dinner on it.
The success or failure of DPS's new recruitment campaign is about more than just district pride, though. Given the amount of money at stake for DPS, Moskowitz would probably be thrilled to lose his bet with White: Denver Public Schools receives about $4,500 from the state for each student it educates; 2,000 new students would mean a hefty $9 million windfall.
Competition for students could prove difficult, however. For one thing, DPS is only now becoming used to the idea of student recruitment. For another, a vigorous private-school system has sprung up over the past twenty years to grab some of the families bailing out of Denver. By the fall of 1995, according to the Colorado Department of Education, about 11,600 Denver kids were attending private or parochial schools, a number that has been growing slowly but steadily in recent years.
Another competitive threat comes from charter schools, permitted under a 1993 state law. Although Denver has only two such schools, with a total of approximately 65 students, the number of new charters is expected to increase. Says White, "We definitely are out recruiting for customers."
Which leads back to the recent advertisements. If DPS is successful in persuading white students to come back to the public schools, it will have to share the credit with some unlikely allies: the city's two daily newspapers, which paid for most of the campaign. According to Frye, the district spent only $5,000, with the remainder of the $20,000 tab being picked up by the papers.
"We worked with The Denver Post to get the ads out in March," he explains. "They helped defray the cost of those ads."
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Mark Stevens, DPS's new public information officer, moved into the job from The Denver Post, where he covered DPS as a reporter. Vern Mallinen, the Post's vice-president of marketing, says the connection had nothing to do with the paper's decision to help the school district.
"It fell in the community-service area," Mallinen explains. "Education is a focus of the paper. We have to step up and be good citizens at some point."
Regardless of how the Post was persuaded to help out, the paper's assistance inspired support across town. "After the ads ran in the Post," Frye says, "we got a call from the Rocky Mountain News saying, 'Hey, how can we get involved in this?' They provided photos and layout [for the May ad series].
"Imagine our surprise," Frye adds. "[News education writer] Brian Weber hasn't been altogether generous [in his coverage of Denver's schools]. But I don't think that was behind it.