Racial Divide: Harrison School District bucks the trends

There's nothing typical in Dallian Haynes' Advanced Placement Calculus class at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs. 9NEWS at 4 p.m. 10/05/15.

COLORADO SPRINGS - There's nothing typical in Dallian Haynes' Advanced Placement Calculus class at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs. In fact, the data shows there's nothing typical about how the Harrison School District is handling the instruction of minority students.

"In this district from what I've seen, I don't see many people give up," Haynes, Harrison High School senior, said.

9NEWS has partnered with iNews of Rocky Mountain PBS to look at data from the 20 largest school districts in Colorado to detect how race plays a role in the academic achievement. We're looking at the demographics of schools before, during, and after efforts to desegregate schools in Colorado.

"I would say when it comes down to our school district and then also Colorado Springs, maybe we're not as large as Denver," Dr. Andre Spencer, Harrison School District Superintendent, said. "But, some of the same issues and same things they're dealing with in Denver, we're dealing with in Harrison."

Harrison School District 2 is made up of about 70 percent low income families. The district has a high population of Black and Latino students with a significant portion of immigrants still learning to speak English.

"There are kids who do have to work after school or else their family won't pay rent," Taylor Stephens, Harrison High School math teacher, said. "There are kids who have to go home and babysit every day."

Yet, looking around Haynes' AP Calculus class, one can see the difference.

The Harrison School District has more minorities than most districts in Advanced Placement courses. It has more Black and Latino students in Gifted and Talented classes. Harrison has a consistent graduation rate of Black and Latino students of higher than 75 percent. And, testing data shows that this district located on the southern end of Colorado Springs has the smallest achievement gap between white students and students of color.

"We like to call it the 'Harrison Way'," Spencer said. "Really take a strong focus and a strong look at each individual student."

Spencer says at every level, teachers are committed to finding where the skills that students lack or nurturing the skills where students excel.

"There's no such thing as an Advanced Placement student," Spencer said. "All students can be Advanced Placement."

The district increased its minority participation rate in in Advanced Placement courses with the help of a grant through the Colorado Education Initiative. The grant provided supports and financial incentives for students who do well on AP exams.

"I like to challenge myself. I also know that taking these classes is going to be my way out of where I am now," Haynes, half African-American, said.

He says a culture of high expectations didn't start in high school. It started at the very beginning.

"It's a system here," Kelli O'Neil, principal at Soaring Eagles Elementary School, said. "It doesn't matter what classroom I take you in, you're going to see strong teaching."

O'Neil says teachers work hard starting in kindergarten to close the academic achievement gap.

"When they enter as kindergarten, you're gathering as much information as you can get about that student and then putting a program in place that is very specific to their learning deficit," O'Neil said.

She says what teachers do at a young age has lasting impacts through high school.

"If you're a struggling student here, you're going to get maximized one-on-one instruction," O'Neil said.

That's what Spencer calls the 'Harrison Way.'

"I think it's important that we get out there, we tell the truth. We figure out what the issues are and we try to fix them," Spencer said.

So far, it seems to be working.

"We've grown up in this mixing pot, so we've never seen people as difference," Haynes said. "We've never seen it as Black or White or Hispanic or Asian. It's all been just we're all people."

(© 2015 KUSA)


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