Housing and Education

Place Matters

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

Knowing where someone lives in the metro area can tell you a lot about the type of resources they have access to. According to community members, their residential context has a significant impact on how they interact with the city and the places that are readily accessible for them. For many, the current allocation of resources, and the opportunities they may bring, seems unequitable as it appears to reinforce existing disparities along familiar lines like class and race. Marginalized populations tend to occupy under-resourced areas of the city, creating additional difficulties for accessing things like desired educational opportunities, recreational activities, quality food and safe environments. Community members suggested it would be best if anyone, regardless of where they live, had just as much of a chance as anyone else to obtain what they need to live in their neighborhood, but currently, that is just not the case. As community members talked amongst each other, it became clear that some residents had significantly different understandings of what could be expected to be available in their neighborhood based upon their residential experiences. Those in under-resourced neighborhoods were burdened with choosing between significantly sacrificing time and energy to obtain resources in other parts of the city or working with what’s immediately around them; while others had everything they needed nearby. In many ways, it appears that location dictates opportunities, and in the eyes of many community members, it seems that no one cares to change this arrangement. Many families, especially those who don’t have what they need nearby, have to determine what they have to do and where they have to go to get what they need.

Critical Decisions

“I think that transportation and schools are definitely a trade off.”

Needs a broader introduction–something that indicates that for metro-area families, location/place is important, something that makes or breaks whether people have what they need. And, in this particular look at connections to social equity in the region, place also matters….(and that there are not many surprises here, but it is clear that change needs to happen and this is something that we should work to understand.

In order to obtain needed resources and opportunities, many families have to look to neighborhoods other than their own. Families and students often believe they will be in better positions in the future if they find their way to opportunities that can be found in well resourced neighborhoods. Deciding where to pursue opportunities such as education and recreation are critical as some of these choices can have profound impacts on life outcomes. For many, receiving a quality education, or enjoying safe and fulfilling recreational activities require a commitment to traveling long distances. Seeking better options forces families to balance the difficulty of navigating demands on time and energy against the consequences of not having their child attend the best available school or hanging out, oftentimes unsupervised, in unsafe areas.

Community members are aware that simply using what is in close proximity to them may not be in their best interest. Given the potential long term benefits of pursuing better opportunities, people are willing to make great sacrifices in order to make them a possibility. As one student

noted “people don’t get good resources, just because of like, where, where they are. And it’s just sad to me that like, people feel the need not will they kind of have to, like travel so far, just to get like a decent education, especially at like the K through 12 level, especially because that’s like the foundation of like a successful career.”

Schools and school districts aren’t always well equipped to help students find their way to the best educational opportunities either. Trying to access resources in other neighborhoods comes with its fair share of hurdles. For example, one student shared that their mom wanted them to go to a middle school outside of their neighborhood but incurred great difficulties due to an unreliable bus schedule. As another student noted, family struggles such as housing and economic insecurity disrupted their education to the point that they were unsure they would be able to finish high school. Had it not been for the intervention of one teacher purchasing their bus tickets, they are unsure of how they would have gotten through their high school graduation.

As they try to prepare for their future, students are often forced to draw the line between what is reasonable and what is untenable in terms of accessing resources outside of their neighborhood. Students have to anticipate that the benefits of attending a school across the city from where they live will in the end be worth waking up before dawn and possibly returning late at night.

Structural Impediments

“I think it’s more about the inequity of like resources and about what that means for people because it was very, what I did was very different than what any other person in like an affluent neighborhood would do on, like, a regular Tuesday afternoon, you know.”

Even when families chose to pursue opportunities in other neighborhoods, oftentimes they have to overcome significant hurdles in getting across the city. One consistent problem is the inconsistency of the public buses. They arrive late, leave early, and sometimes never appear with little explanation. One student who had to learn to navigate the public transportation system from both her mother and father’s homes noted that even light rails have gotten worse over time in terms of reliability. Not only have students’ experienced unreliable public transportation, some have said they did not feel safe riding the bus and train.

Common life occurrences like moving can also dramatically alter students’ experiences of getting to school. One student explained their experience this way, “I was going to Harrington [a DPS elementary school in the Clayton neighborhood]. That was my neighborhood school, like right across the street. And then things happen in life. We ended up moving kind of closer to downtown. Now I was going to a charter school way in Edison [a DPS elementary school in Denver’s west side, the West Highlands neighborhood]. I was commuting three buses every day to go to Edison.”

The frequency and reliability of transportation are paramount as families have to cover a tremendous amount of distance. For instance, in their middle school years, one student had to travel an hour and a half to get to school and two to get back. As one former DPS student noted “I grew up on West Colfax. So going to elementary school, I could walk there, going to part of middle school, I could walk home, there’s a little bit further but, I could still walk. Then I transferred to another Middle School where I had to take the public school bus. So I had to wake up similar to Carlos, like 5:30 or six, something like that, to catch that. And then after school was done, I’d have to pretty much go home right away to catch the bus so that I wouldn’t be left behind.”

Luckily, public transportation options have become increasingly accessible. One community member noted that students now can have free bus passes if they have a My Denver Card[1]. Also new transportation innovations such as electric scooters have increased options and students now have the ability to ‘lime’ home. Unfortunately, public transportation options do not always provide a safe environment. As one student put it, “it just reminded me of, like, the times I would take the bus and it was very, it was a very different experience. Because it’s very, like, in my community, it was like, quite dangerous. Honestly, it was because there was just so much happening. And I think so many people were just like, okay, with like, the way things like were just like the way people acted and stuff. And so people just, like, ignored each other, but there was like, there was just no sense of security while you were on, like riding the transportation and stuff.”

Many of the spaces available in some community members’ neighborhoods are not accessible due to how unsafe they are. One student grew up being homeless at times and noted that the parks near her were not a safe place to be. As she put it, “there was a playground but it wasn’t probably the safest spot to be at. And so I didn’t necessarily go there.” In contrast, residents in

more affluent areas are able to comfortably access comparable spaces without many concerns. As another student noted, “ I was very fortunate to grow up in, like, an affluent neighborhood. Um, so I’ve had a very different experience. I also have a neighborhood park where, you know, my parents would take me for recreation.” Several students noted that they grew up in apartment areas and the most accessible area for recreation was located in the actual apartment complex. Without access to many amenities, people said they were often not able to develop skills in leisure activities like swimming and sports. Parents also noted that there have been recent upticks in violence, particularly youth violence, which has made their neighborhoods feel less physically safe. Even without physical violence parents noted that their neighborhoods don’t feel financially safe. With escalating rent prices and the pressures of gentrification, parents feel that many of the residents in the neighborhood are not in financially solid positions.

“Especially with how segregated Denver is as a whole not just racially but also finically there’s so many different factors that lead into the circumstance of transportation.”

To many, the resources in the metro area appear to be allocated not by need or density, but by affluence and social status. One student noted that the options provided in his neighborhood force him and his friends to travel just to find healthy dining options. As they put it, “growing up,

when we wanted to do something like go out to eat or anything, all of the really like cheap options. And like, obviously, the the unhealthier ones were just like the more common ones and fast food places would be nearby well, um, anything that was different, like any, any, like, restaurant chain that was like a little smaller or just, you know, cost a little more, it was just further.” At times, the resources available are operated at inconvenient times, meaning some students do even have the opportunity to utilize services like their local recreation center. Since the pandemic, one community member noted, resources are now particularly scarce and difficult to locate in low-income areas.

Accessible Resources

Given the difficulty some residents have locating resources in their neighborhood, one community member suggested that resources should be located more equitably. As one community member noted, “But you know, obviously in such a dense area, like Aurora it’s, it’s very much like resources should be located just as densely as the population and especially when people don’t have as much access to transportation.” Another suggested it should be reasonable for residents to expect to receive a quality education in their neighborhood.

Residential context pressurizes the experience of obtaining education and resources for families living in less equipped parts of the metro area. For these families, they are faced with pivotal decisions about how to navigate complex systems including transportation and education just to name a few. Unfortunately, even after identifying where the best opportunities are located, they face significant hurdles in utilizing them. It seems that for some residents, sacrificing time and energy is a necessity if they want their children to get a quality education. For many, that seems unfair and unjustifiable. “My neighborhood school is not the best but why isn’t it the best? You should be able to just go to your neighborhood school and get a good education and how come we can’t do that?”

[1] As of this printing, it is not clear whether the MY Denver Card has been extended beyond its December 31, 2021 expiration date. DJEC recognizes that an end to this program will produce additional inequities for families.