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A Moment Becomes A Movement

Hasira (Soul) Ashemu is organizing a Black Parent Empowerment Summit in Denver on May 12. Photo by Lynn Kalinauskas

Rising Voices Echo Through A House Divided At DPS

Two events that took place in mid-April encapsulate the state of education in Denver: the brief return of Antwan Wilson and the rise of Vanessa Quintana.

Antwan Wilson’s brief return

On April 11 a photo of Wilson walking through the corridor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, a high school in far northeast Denver, emerged on Facebook with speculations that he must have been re-hired by Denver Public Schools.

In 2014, Wilson’s title with DPS was Assistant Superintendent for Post-Secondary Readiness. Among his actions, he was directly involved in the closure of Montbello High School. He left DPS to become superintendent of Oakland Unified School District in California. In Oakland he attempted to carry out some of the reforms Denver has implemented: closing schools, increasing the number of charters and a single application form for both charter and district schools.

Jeff Fard, aka Brother Jeff, has been tapping the groundswell of activity happening around education and equity, particularly in DPS. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fard

In November 2016, amidst pushback and budget controversies, Wilson left Oakland for Washington D.C., where he was appointed Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. He resigned from that position this February, when news leaked that he had violated the district’s policy by transferring his daughter to a school without following the proper procedure.

On April 12, the day after Wilson’s photo surfaced on social media back in Denver, DPS acknowledged that it had indeed hired him as a consultant. Wilson was to be paid $60,000, plus expenses, for 12 two-day workweeks. Shortly thereafter, DPS announced that Wilson won’t be a consultant after all.

Vanessa Quintana takes on DFER

During a recent meeting at Manual High School. In the foreground: Hasira Ashemu, Talib B. Ashamee, Candi CdeBaca, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Photo by Brandon Pryor

On April 14 at the Colorado Democratic State Assembly, Vanessa Quintana put forth a proposal to remove the word “Democrat” from the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-reform education group. Delegates overwhelmingly approved the proposal amidst cheers and applauses.

DFER is a political action committee founded by hedge fund managers. Also known as Education Reform Now, it backs education reform agenda and policies. On its board is former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who is currently running for governor of Colorado and who authored Senate Bill 191 that tied student testing scores to teacher evaluations. DFER was also active in the last round of school board elections in Denver Public Schools, promoting pro-reform candidates with large sums of money.

Although the Democratic State Assembly vote may not translate into concrete action, it points to a growing schism in Denver’s political scene around education.

What is equally significant is the fact that Quintana was a freshman at Manual High School when U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet – then the superintendent of DPS – closed the school in 2006. There has been a constant churn of leadership at the school ever since.

The latest controversy to affect Manual happened in early March when principal Nick Dawkins resigned amidst accusations of a hostile work environment. The circumstances around the resignation are still unclear and DPS has hired an outside firm to investigate the allegations.

Directly impacted by the reform movement that has swept over Denver, Quintana said at the state assembly that, “growing up in poverty [was] compounded by additional traumatic experiences which were all rooted in education reform policies.”

Her education was disrupted by two school closures and a school restructuring. Twelve years later, she is here with a strong voice and a clear message about how specific policies have failed her and her siblings.

11 high schools in the Far Northeast

In 2010 the DPS Board voted to phase out Montbello High School in the Far Northeast area of Denver and replace it with smaller schools. The last Montbello class graduated in 2014. Wilson was heavily involved in the closure process. Currently there are three middle schools and two high schools in what is now called the Montbello campus. In total, there are 11 small high schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch nearby.

The controversial decision to close Montbello has been criticized throughout the years, but there has been a recent increase in community outcry and a demand for a new comprehensive traditional high school in the Far Northeast.

This year, 292 students from the Far Northeast attended East High School. Another 260 attended Northfield and 143 attended George Washington. Forty-eight went as far as North High School to attend a comprehensive high school.

A year ago, I visited the Strive program located on the Montbello campus. I was struck by classrooms that had no windows and by the large library that was sectioned off by partial walls and divided into three classrooms. I wondered how anyone could focus on one teacher with three classes taking place at once.

Eighteen months ago, DPS created the Far Northeast Education Commission in an effort to better understand the community’s priorities.

On Jan. 25 Tony Lindsay, head football coach for the Far Northeast Warriors, and member of the FNE Commission, addressed the school board, telling members the Commission would recommend the creation of an “academic liaison” to better coordinate the logistics of eligibility and academics of his players coming from 11 different schools.

Lindsay specified that with 90 to 100 players, and approximately 50 staff members per school, the task was daunting and athletes were falling through the cracks, missing out on potential scholarships.

“How are we supposed to come together as a community,” asked Gabe Lindsay, another Warriors coach and member of the FNE Commission, also noting that the 11 schools have different bells schedules, making practices start late and causing the team to lose 80 hours of practice per season.

“How is it that the Far Northeast services the most high school students but yet we don’t have a traditional school as an option?” Lindsay wondered.

Pressure continued to be exerted on the board: “For one single campus at Montbello, there are 10 principals and assistant principals with six-figure salaries,” said Samantha Pryor at the Feb. 17 meeting. “That is excessive and it amounts to waste of precious fiscal resources.”

A community divided

A more recent school board meeting brought tensions to a head when members of the FNE Commission presented their request for a comprehensive high school. There, they faced principals, teachers, students and parents from the neighborhoods’ schools who felt directly threatened by the proposal.

Kimberly Grayson, principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior College, noted that “removing MLK as an option” would hurt the community. At the podium, a student exclaimed, “We will not be moved!” Principal Stacy Parrish of High Tech Early College used the word “atrocities” when referencing the FNE Commission.

Following these speakers some members of the Commission abandoned their prepared speeches and spoke from the heart.

“Where do we get this division about closing schools? MLK was around before Montbello ever closed. It doesn’t even make sense to think that MLK will close,” said Gayland Allen, who has lived in Montbello for 38 years. Allen has been a police officer for 20 years, a DPS coach for 10, and coaches the highly regarded Montbello’s Cheetahs track program.

“We need this [comprehensive traditional school] option and we need all these leaders. Closed? Who told them their schools are going to close? Who put that on the table? That should not be on the table!”

The question is a real one and there has been much speculation about “who” suggested the commission was pushing closures. Brandon Pryor, a parent and coach who was part of the commission’s work, said closures had never been part of the recommendations. The two sides have since spoken directly and tensions have subsided.

The actual recommendations included the following:

• Recruit and retain African American and Latino teachers;

• Replace School Resource Officers (security officers) with counselors and social workers;

• Coordinate the bell schedules for the FNE high schools;

• Create a comprehensive traditional high school;

• Eliminate co-locations.

The school board, however, never formally saw those recommendations.

“The FNE Commission presented the wishes of the majority of those in our community, not what DPS wanted,” said Mary Sam, a DPS retired teacher and longtime activist. “Because of that, DPS simply discounted our findings, and the 18 months of work put into the process.”

Our Voice Our Schools

Pryor has teamed up with Hasira Ashemu, who also goes by Soul, to organize the Black Parent Empowerment Summit to be held on May 12.

Capitalizing on community discontent exacerbated by the events at Manual and those in the Far Northeast, they plan to educate, organize and agitate. Their goal is to register 300 participants. As of press time, 262 people have signed up for the daylong event. The movement is part of a larger effort they call Our Voice Our Schools.

Ashemu is the Chief Executive Director of Breaking Our Chains, a social justice nonprofit that seeks to empower communities of color to disrupt and dismantle the pre-school to prison pipeline.

I asked him about his reasons for becoming involved in this particular education fight. He explained that the criminalization of black youth, as described in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (available on Netflix) begins in the schools with the marginalization of black and brown students via expulsions, in and out of school suspensions, and no tolerance policies.

Another example of criminalization includes the “tickets” students receive for walking in the wrong part of a co-located school. Students who receive such tickets must go to court with their parent or guardian. This policy, used mainly in schools with high minority populations, potentially targets some of DPS’ most vulnerable students.

In February 2017, the DPS Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to protect students’ information from immigration officials. In September 2017, Superintendent Tom Boasberg addressed a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos requesting she use the power of her position to protect students who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

This February, the school board unanimously passed a resolution to do everything in its legal power to protect DACA students’ information.

Yet in DPS, a student can be thrown into the court system for walking on the wrong side of a corridor inside a school.

Ashemu makes a clear distinction between the decisions by DPS administrators who are  promoting such internal policies that target vulnerable students, and the teachers and staff who are on the front lines and working hard for students.

The Free Think Zone

Indeed, viewing the educational landscape, it is clear that longtime activists are being joined by new voices that are mobilizing people and organizing.

“I have been fighting for educational justice since I began teaching in 1967,” said Mary Sam. “There have always been issues around students of color and teachers’ rights. The fight continues.”

Jeff Fard, founder and editor of the Five Points News and founder of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, agrees there is a groundswell of activity happening around education. He speaks of “another generation of activists that is multi-generational, multi-race, multi-ethnic, and gender.”

“There are a lot of people looking for equality,” said Fard, who goes by Brother Jeff. “They are adding their voices as well. More people are seeing these inequalities, taking a step up, and holding people accountable.”

Recently Brother Jeff has been hosting 30-minute Facebook live interviews in what he calls, “the free think zone.” These reach over 1,000 views per session in a day. Most of his interviews include questions on the Denver education scene. He is speaking with people involved in education, the city, the media, sports and politics. He says Superintendent Boasberg has agreed to appear in a segment at some point.

Brother Jeff has also created what he calls the “Community DPS School Board.”

“This is also a volunteer board,” he says, “but it represents our interests.” As DPS rates its schools with colors, this board has rated the DPS administration as “red” or failing. He wonders about the psychological impact this may have as administrators go to work knowing they are “red.”

‘Perfect time for change’   

Adopting a take-no-prisoners attitude, many have been showing up repeatedly at DPS board meetings, have posted live Facebook commentary and are actively engaged in pushing back on DPS’ narrative. Some have called for Boasberg’s resignation.

It is difficult to know the precise moment when individual acts of activism become a movement. This may be it. Brother Jeff says DPS may be the only one not seeing it because it is too busy managing it. “It’s the perfect time for change,” he adds.

Anyone interested in participating in the Black Parent Empowerment Forum on May 12 should register at http://www.breakingourchains.org/ourvoiceourschool/. The summit is at Shorter AME Church, at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Colorado Boulevards. Note that there is also a white training track for white allies.

Lynn Kalinauskas is Education Chair of GPHC, Inc.


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