This week marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Keyes case, which was instrumental in desegregating the Denver school system. Colorado Public Radio’s enterprising Jenny Brundin has a brief but mesmerizing story that summarizes the case. Keyes was remarkable as it marked the first time that the United States Supreme Court identified discrimination in a state that had never imposed racial segregation by statute (the benefits of the case are complex; this article helps).
Many people played a critical part in this case, but among the most prominent would have to be Rachel B. Noel, the first black official elected to the Denver School Board, and the author of the Noel Amendment to integrate the school system. As part of her legacy, DPS eventually named a school after her: the Rachel B. Noel middle school in far northeast Denver.
The school has not been the legacy the person deserved. Noel middle school was consistently one of the lowest performing schools in the district, and remains considerable distance from the hopes of equal opportunity: in 2012, 97% of its students were minority; 96% were low-income.
Rachel Bassette Noel died five years ago this week, on February 4, in 2008. She was spared the 2010 indignity of watching the same school board on which she used to sit vote to close her namesake school for poor performance as part of a plan to transform far northeast Denver. I doubt she would have voiced an objection: in 2012 Noel had the distinction of finishing dead last out of 145 schools on Denver’s School Performance Framework. The school is being phased out, and currently houses just 8th grade students, of whom last year just one out of every five was proficient in one core subject. And of the 112 black students in 8th grade — the students for whom Rachel B. Noel so reverently advocated — there are nine who are proficient in math. Nine.
Rising from the ash of Noel middle school is a new innovation school also honoring Rachel B. Noel: the Noel community arts school, which will eventually be a 6-12 program with an arts focus. 2012 was the first year of the new Noel Community Arts school, which started with 6th and 9th graders and will expand over time. In it’s first year, proficiency for 6th grade was 26%, in 9th grade it is 22%. Of the 19 black students in 9th grade, one is proficient in math. One.
There are signs of promise: 9th grade at Noel boasts some impressive growth scores: 68 in both math and reading, and 74 in writing. But the growth needed to get these students to proficiency (captured by CDE as “adequate growth percentile”) is beyond reach of any school: Noel would need to hit growth of 99, 76, and 96 in those respective subjects to get its ninth grade class to proficiency. Simply put, these students are highly unlikely to graduate with the skills necessary for college and career. Noel’s sixth grade class has an average growth score of 52 – a little higher than the state, and yet needs growth of over 81 to have its students reach proficiency — a target no DPS school has ever sustained.
Keyes was an important case, and the contributions of many people to it and similar efforts were critical to moving public education in Denver forward. But it is also clear that our schools need to be worthy of the legacy of their creators. Too many of them are not, and the decision to close schools that consistently underserve the students who need them the most is the right one. We can all hope that one day there will be a school in Denver that is deserving of Rachel B. Noel’s name, but 40 years later we are far from it.