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OPINION: Fighting for Equity

Local Activists Seek to Reinvent Schools

A year ago we wrote about the rise of education activism in Northeast Denver. Local African American activists were challenging Denver Public Schools and demanding equity for black and brown children in the city’s schools. They were voicing their discontent at DPS Board public comment sessions, using social media and a network of connections to bring attention to what they saw as injustices within the system. 

A year later, we touched base with Hasira Ashemu and Brandon Pryor to see where they stand today and hear about their successes and challenges. Ashemu, who also goes by the name Soul, founded the group Our Voice Our Schools a year ago and was looking to educate, organize and agitate. Pryor founded Warriors for High Quality Schools to target institutional racism in DPS.

Wins and snubs

Soul claims a string of victories for OVOS, including the departure of Tom Boasberg as DPS superintendent last fall. 

Warriors, meanwhile, fought for the 11 high schools in the Far Northeast to have coordinated bell schedules and an athletic liaison to support the schools’ sports program. Through constant pressure, they also succeeded in obtaining lights and bleachers for the football fields at both the Evie Dennis and Montbello campuses, and a library on the Montbello campus. 

When DPS celebrated the inauguration of these campus improvements with local media in attendance, DeVita Bruce, deputy community engagement officer for DPS, neglected to invite those from Warriors who had demanded the changes. “It was a slap in the face,” says Pryor, who held his own celebration two days later, with others who had been involved, including students who spoke to the DPS board at public comment sessions. 

Earlier this year, both Soul and Pryor generated enough pushback to force George Washington High School administrators to walk back a policy on parents’ ability to opt-out of school assemblies when a letter sent to parents allowed for opting-out of an assembly focused on Black History Month. 

In January, when the teachers’ strike was imminent, Pryor released a list of high salaries within the DPS administration that had been provided to him. The data was subsequently used strategically by the union as teachers negotiated for higher pay. 

Constant calls and birthing schools

Pryor and Soul also receive constant requests from teachers and parents within and outside the district for help. “People call me like they call 911,” says Pryor.  

Soul says community members contact him four to five times weekly seeking help. He and others have formed what he calls a Rapid Response Team that attempts to first understand the community member’s perspective and then engage either a specific school or the district to work toward a resolution. After pressure by OVOS and its release of a video, four administrators were suspended last May from Wyatt Academy after a schoolyard fight. The principal, assistant principal, school psychologist and restorative justice coordinator are no longer at the school.

On April 1, Pryor and his team submitted an application for a new Denver Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)-style STEAM high school. Months of research and planning have gone into the creation of the school, which, if accepted by the board, would open in Fall, 2021. 

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. The school would prepare students for college and also for possible trade positions designed to give graduating students a livable wage. 

Pryor envisions the school bringing in faculty from HBCUs to teach short-term and help create a culture around black education. He also wants to host experts from different areas such as technology, health care and culinary sciences. 

Moving beyond tension and animosity

Where there was once tension and even animosity, Pryor has since sat down with board members Anne Rowe and Barbara O’Brien to discuss solutions and ways to move forward. “They’ve provided advice and support,” he says. Board members Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson have also been helpful, he notes. 

For his part, Soul responded to a crisis at the Denver Discovery School (see last month’s column, “An Uncertain Future”). He envisions a plan that would transform DDS into a community school, including services for both students and their parents that could include health care, classes for parents, and after-school programs. 

The project has gained financial and organizational support from the National Education Association. Locally, members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Colorado Education Association have been attending the meetings and generally supportive of the plan. 

On April 18, Superintendent Susana Cordova gave her assurance to the school community that DDS would be open for grades 6-8 in 2019-2020. Soul had pushed for this, fearing a slippery slope to closure should DPS not allow the school to have an incoming 6th grade. 

Soul is interested in pushing this even further by potentially creating a Community Zone for Northeast Denver that would support children from early childhood education to early college. He is in discussions with the Hope Center that hosts programs for early childhood education, Hallett Elementary in the Park Hill neighborhood, Manual High School and the Community College of Denver. 

“Some want us to fail,” Soul says, “but a lot want us to succeed.” 

Journeying for justice

In March, OVOS paired with the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index and held a stakeholders meeting at the University of Denver. Twenty-five community members discussed the needs and strengths of the city in addressing public education. Board members Bacon and Olson attended. 

As part of a national action taking place in 40 cities across the country and organized by Journey for Justice, a national education grassroots alliance, and the Schott Foundation, Soul will be taking teachers and stakeholders on what the alliance terms an Equity Bus Tour on May 20. The group will visit and compare a well-resourced school and a poorly-resourced school. 

On May 25, OVOS will host an Equity Summit, open to all. Featured speakers will include NEA Vice President Becky Pringle and Jitu Brown, the national director for Journey for Justice. 

Looking to the November DPS school board elections, OVOS is working with a coalition of organizations that are hoping to push a slate of candidates to run against the reform candidates who will likely be financially supported by Democrats for Education Reform. 

Equities – and inequities

In a document issued in February, new Superintendent Cordova put forth her vision for the district, with equity topping the list. 

“We must lean into the hard work of eliminating barriers, providing the right resources and ensuring that all students, particularly African-American and Latinx students, have teachers and leaders who both care about them and push them to succeed,” she wrote. “We must break the historical patterns of inequity that have resulted in far too few black, brown and low-income children succeeding at high levels.” 

Also in February, feeling the mounting and sustained pressure from grassroots activists, the Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution. That document asks for school and district level strategies to be implemented and monitored to better the educational experience and outcomes of black and African American students. 

What are visible signs of inequity in our schools? Which schools have 3-D printers while others too small a budget for copies? Which schools fund librarians and which lack books? Does your school occupy the whole building, or is it part of a two, three, or even five-school co-location?

Seventy-five percent of the 72 co-locations are in schools in which the percentage of minority students is 84 percent or higher. There are only six co-locations for schools with a minority population lower than 50 percent. Forty-three percent of the co-locations are in District 4 that includes Park Hill, north of Montview. Only 6 percent and 8 percent are in Districts 1 and 3, the wealthier parts of the city. In other words, co-locations disproportionately affect children of color. 

Relay disparities continue

In her vision plan, Cordova also underlines “instructional excellence,” stating, “Our students deserve the highest quality instruction each and every day.” Yet the number of participants working in DPS schools who attended Relay Graduate School of Education programs in the last two years is disproportionally high in schools with high percentages of students of color. 

Seventy-three percent of participants work in schools that are populated by at least 85 percent minority children. Almost 40 percent of those Relay participants work in District 4 schools. Only 16 percent and 3 percent are in Districts 1 and 3, respectively. 

Relay is not accredited by an institution of higher education. It is a data-driven program that seeks compliance through strict adherence to routines. Critics see it as part of the school-to-prison pipeline, as an integral part of the corporate reform movement that disproportionally tests out educational practices on schools with high minority populations – an unfortunate historical pattern of inequity. 

Denver activists also point to discrepancies in how school discipline disproportionately impacts children of color. For example, although DPS is only 13 percent African American, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Education, blacks in Denver’s schools receive 42 percent of class removals and 35 percent of the total out of school suspensions.  

Impact is undeniable

Pryor and Soul estimate that they and their small teams work 240 voluntary hours per week to effect change in Denver Public Schools. “To do work DPS should be doing,” says Pryor. 

“Our biggest success has been the involvement of marginalized communities, the emergence of marginalized voices in an organized fashion to address their marginalization within DPS,” says Soul looking back on the year. 

The impact of the activists’ work is undeniable. What remains to be seen is the extent to which DPS will embrace or push back their efforts. The question we all need to ask ourselves is, how are we helping or impeding equity in our schools?

Lynn Kalinauskas, the author of this opinion piece, is the education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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