Andrew Hartman is only in his second year of teaching, and already he's out of a job.
The teacher's problems began last November, when students in the Thornton High School chapter of Students 4 Justice began distributing anti-military literature during a visit from armed-forces recruiters. It was the students' idea to protest the weekly presence of the recruiters, but it was Hartman who helped them make a list of ten reasons not to join, including: "The U.S. Military protects the interests of corporations overseas, thus increasing the gap between rich and poor" and "The military recruits poor minorities."
The club's twenty members set up a stand where they sold Zapatista organic coffee and handed out copies of the top-ten list as well as an essay one student wrote about the true meaning of anarchy.
A couple of teachers who are Vietnam War veterans saw the list and complained to school administrators. That day, Hartman was called into an assistant principal's office, where he defended the students' right to protest. Although the school allowed the students to continue selling coffee, administrators banned them from dispersing any more literature.
Hartman, who had introduced the club to Thornton High in September, wasn't happy, but he went on teaching his ninth-grade American history class with the same zeal. When his students were learning about labor conditions, for instance, he had them do a weeklong project on sweatshops; they watched movies, participated in debates and made anti-sweatshop posters that they hung in Hartman's classroom.
At the same time, he encouraged the kids in Students 4 Justice to fight for social causes. They are currently working on an ambitious project to adopt a sweatshop worker in Honduras. The students want to raise enough money to take the place of whatever wages the young worker would earn toiling at a sewing machine so that she can go back to school.
On February 9, Hartman sat for his annual evaluation. Assistant principal Julie Lambert, who had observed his classes several times, provided "nothing but positive feedback" at first, he says. But then she told him she'd received an anonymous complaint from a teacher who didn't like his classroom decorations. In addition to the anti-sweatshop posters, Hartman's walls were covered with images of Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Malcolm X and the band Rage Against the Machine. Then Lambert asked Hartman where he sees himself teaching next year. "I see myself teaching here," he answered. But Lambert told him that the school had decided not to renew his contract, Hartman says. "She said that I don't fit into their plans for the school. No one has told me what those plans are. I just don't fit into them."
The following Monday, Hartman went to see principal Kerry Moynihan, who confirmed that he wouldn't be welcome back next fall (teachers who have worked fewer than three years must have their contracts renewed annually). "She said I was using the classroom to promote my political agenda," he says. "If teaching for social justice is an agenda, then I am guilty. I was accused of trying to push my socialist views on children. If teaching that human values are more important than profits is considered socialist, then I am guilty. I was accused of teaching the facts with a bias and not letting the students think for themselves, as if 'facts' exist in a vacuum, with no room for interpretation. If teaching that African-American males are 7 percent of the American population yet make up almost 50 percent of the prison population is not letting students think for themselves, then I am guilty."
Administrators at Thornton High deferred comment to Adams County School District 12 spokeswoman Susan Carlson, who said she couldn't talk about Hartman's termination because it's a personnel matter. "In general terms, what I can say is that the person held accountable for teaching and learning at each school is the principal, who is a trained evaluator. If an individual has not been rehired, it's because a trained evaluator has made a decision about the quality of the instructor's performance and whether he meets the goals and objectives of the school," Carlson says.
According to Carlson, those goals include: ensuring educational success for students; being responsive to the students, parents and the community; and honoring a diversity of individuals and opinions. Teachers are evaluated on four standards: planning and organization, instruction, professional growth and responsibility, and professional relationships, she adds.
Hartman is convinced that the quality of his teaching is not the issue; he says he has students who have stayed in school because he has made his lessons exciting and applicable to their lives. "I don't know why I pose such a threat, but that's how I'm viewed -- as a loose cannon, a renegade, as if there's no one else out there like me," he says.
There are other teachers like Hartman, and they don't mix well with authority, either. Alan Chimento, a popular West High School history teacher, was forced out after he accompanied students in May 1999 to a Denver Board of Education meeting where they delivered a presentation on the poor conditions at their school, including a shortage of textbooks, a lack of seats in the cafeteria and outdated computers ("Lesson Unplanned," May 13, 1999). Before that, Chimento had long encouraged students to speak out against injustice, and he often spoke his own mind.
Although Chimento was transferred to George Washington High School, his legacy at West is part of the reason Hartman is in trouble now. Hartman was a student teacher at West when Chimento was leading his young activists, many of whom were also involved in West's Students 4 Justice chapter.
"I decided that, wherever I went, I wanted to start one," Hartman says of the club, which was created by the Colorado Progressive Coalition, a nonprofit consortium of more than forty civil rights, labor and student organizations. Students 4 Justice clubs are currently active in several urban public schools, including East, West and Manual.
Raised by liberal parents who both taught, Hartman grew up leaning to the left. His heroes include Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Howard Zinn. At Metropolitan State College, a professor turned him on to books that challenged the teaching establishment; one of those was Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen.
So it doesn't come as a surprise that Hartman isn't popular with school administrators. "The principal told me that I'd be better off in a junior college with older kids who are better equipped to handle these issues," he says. "To me, that says that these kids aren't bright enough."
They were certainly bright enough to figure out what was happening to their teacher. Hartman was so angry after his meeting with Lambert that he immediately went to his room and removed all of his posters. Two Students 4 Justice members who were there at the time found out that they were losing their leader, and a couple of days later, they began circulating a petition supporting Hartman without his knowledge. Students say about 1,000 of their classmates signed it.
"I'm really sad that he's leaving. I've never had a teacher who's really cared about me until now," says Darnelle Apodaca, a Thornton High senior and Students 4 Justice member.
"I used to hate my race. I would tell people I'm Spanish instead of Mexican. When I used to talk to Mr. Hartman during lunch, I'd tell him that I don't like the way Mexicans act; they always act so tough. But he told me to look at what they have to go through. He started teaching me about my culture. He told me about the Zapatistas. I didn't know that indigenous people in Chiapas are being oppressed by the government.
"My stepmom wants to meet him now. I go home every day and say, 'Guess what Mr. Hartman taught us today?'" Apodaca continues. "She's really surprised, because I've never had so much passion for school before.
"I don't know why they want to get rid of a teacher who has so much impact," Apodaca wonders. "It shows that they don't care about the students and that they just want to protect the status quo."
Mike Ripple, who is in one of Hartman's classes, says the teacher opened up his mind. "Before I came here, I was the stereotypical rich white kid who didn't care about others," Ripple says. "I had a racist mindset. I thought there were more black people in prison because more black people commit crimes. Mr. Hartman made me realize that the laws were set up to attack minorities."
The petition didn't affect the principal's decision, though. If anything, it angered her further. "She accused me of using the students to my benefit," says Hartman, who will begin looking for another teaching job this summer.
"I'll find a school that's right for me, but it's going to be a disservice to the kids at Thornton High when I leave. These kids have so much energy and passion for social justice, but they have no support."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.