Newly Inaugurated Tay Anderson Wants to Make the School Board More Accessible

Tay Anderson's mother swears him in, drawing up an emotional moment at the December 4 inauguration ceremony.
Tay Anderson's mother swears him in, drawing up an emotional moment at the December 4 inauguration ceremony. Sara Fleming
The Denver Public Schools Board of Education has never seen a candidate quite like Tay Anderson. The 21-year-old's run caught the attention of activists, high-profile politicians and national organizations, and brought students and community members into the race. If Anderson's official swearing-in to the school board on December 4 is any indication, he’s likely to shatter the status quo as a member, as well.

The signature elements that helped him win the election — an army of grassroots supporters from a wide variety of races, ages and political backgrounds, and a casual style that helps him connect with them — were out in full force. Anderson's mom, Mia Anderson, swore him in, a symbolic moment that brought them both to tears. "I'm a son of a single mother who was a teen mom who defied all the odds to help put me through an education system that was never designed for me," Anderson says about why having his mother, who voted for the first time in her life in November, with him was so significant.

After the ceremony, Anderson flipped a baseball cap he was wearing backwards, a nod to a social media commenter who had called him a “thug” for donning such a look, he says. "My hat has been my signature, [and] it also has been what relates me to kids. And so I'm not trying to look like a politician. I'm looking like my district and really understanding that when kids look and see me, they understand they can connect with me, and they know that I am here to advocate for them."

"Listen to me carefully," he told a crowd of supporters who hardly stopped cheering every time he spoke. "This time it will be different. I'm gonna take this term to bring integrity back to our district, transparency back to our district, and accountability back to our district."

Before even announcing his school board run, Anderson had become a fixture in Denver politics. While still a senior at Manual High School, he became the youngest candidate ever to run for the school board, in 2017. He placed third in District 4 with about 25 percent of the vote, but the loss didn’t quell his passion for politics and community activism. Anderson served stints leading gun control advocacy organizations Students Demand Action and Never Again Colorado, served as chief of staff for Colorado State House Representative Jovan Melton, and became an outspoken voice at anti-gentrification protests and anti-Trump rallies.

To win his at-large school board seat, Anderson fought a hard campaign against main rival Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who raised significantly more than he did. Anderson still won with 51 percent of the vote, becoming Colorado's youngest African-American elected official (for a few weeks after the election, Anderson claimed he was the youngest elected official in Colorado; he corrected himself when others pointed out that David Crespin, 18, had won an election to the Fort Lupton City Council.)

His win, along with District 1's Scott Baldermann and District 5's Brad Laurvick, "flipped" the school board, landing a majority of members endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers' union, and opposed to "reform," the model that has dominated Denver Public Schools policy for the past decade. The five anti-reform members on the school board (including the new members and incumbents Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson) tend to say that policies that focus on school improvement and increasing choice, including revamped support for charter schools, have left neighborhood schools behind and created bigger gaps in equity.

After running a successful campaign that galvanized an army of grassroots supporters, Anderson faces a four-year task of a very different caliber: making policy for the state’s largest school district. DPS calls the shots on opening new schools and closing old ones, hires and holds the power to fire the superintendent (currently Susana Cordova), manages the $1 billion-plus budget, and sets a vision that guides what happens in the classrooms of DPS's 207 schools for over 93,000 students.

“Everybody's like, well, what type of Tay Anderson are we about it to get? Are we gonna get the activist, or you gonna turn into a politician?” he jokes.

So far, he's positioned himself to bridge those two roles. He compares his approach to how Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca (who was a mentor of his through her organization Project VOYCE) challenges and provides a check on Mayor Michael Hancock.

Anderson says he plans to visit every high school, middle school and pathway school in the district during January for a "listening tour" to talk with students and staff and learn what resources are missing for them. He's already held a town hall, a question-and-answer session that packed dozens of parents, kids and community members into Whittier Cafe to hear details and give feedback on his ideas and opinions about various DPS policies. Anderson says he'll hold town halls in various communities on a monthly basis. 

"I want the school board to be as highly paid attention to as much as we pay attention to city council, the mayor and the legislature. I want people to say, 'Well what's going on in our public school system?' all the time, not just when an election is happening," Anderson says.

If he succeeds, he might revamp public engagement with the school board itself.

Although many of Anderson's supporters are DPS teachers and parents who had long been pushing the board to change, others had no involvement or awareness of the school board before they started following Anderson. Carole Goodwin, whose kids are all over thirty, met Anderson at Trump protests and immigrant-rights rallies. "He's been fighting on the front lines, and I've watched him just come from that. I just believe him to be a sincere, honest super-hardworking individual who's going to go places."

Hashim Coates, who helped with Anderson's campaign, says he, too, was pulled into school board politics because of Anderson. "I'd say as a metaphor, Tay is to the school board race as seasoned salt is to chicken," he says, laughing. "It brings attention to it. It makes people want to get involved."

click to enlarge A crowd of supporters, some of whom haven't been involved in DPS politics before, gave Anderson multiple standing ovations. - SARA FLEMING
A crowd of supporters, some of whom haven't been involved in DPS politics before, gave Anderson multiple standing ovations.
Sara Fleming
One of Anderson's goals is to change the times of meetings, which are currently held at 4:30 p.m. on Thursdays (when many parents are working) at the Emily Griffith Campus downtown (where parking is scarce). He wants to move them to Saturday mornings and open the DPS central office and its 250-car parking garage to attendees.

Bringing underrepresented voices into the conversation is a natural move for Anderson, who took his own turbulent path to getting involved. He moved from Kansas City to Denver in 2012 and enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High School. After making some “poor decisions,” as he calls them, and facing a difficult family situation in which he spent time in foster care, he failed his freshman year and had to repeat it. He transferred to Prep Academy and then to Manual High School. There, he says, he found educators of color to look up to as role models and found community in the ROTC program. He served on DPS's student board of education, became the chair of the Colorado High School Democrats, and was elected student body president.

Anderson's perspective on the school board was shaped by his experience as a student, when administrators proposed adding a middle school to Manual's campus to increase enrollment. While he initially took hardline positions against charter schools and school choice, he now has a more nuanced perspective. "We have students who are still reading at third grade reading levels, so reform hasn't worked," he says. "It's had positive effects and it's had negative effects, so we have to make sure that we have a school district that is going to operate in what's best for our students, not what's best for business."

While his big-picture focus is on building up neighborhood schools and increasing equity within them, Anderson has also campaigned on some very specific equity measures: mandating that every high school provide a gender-neutral restroom for transgender and non-conforming students, providing free menstrual products in school bathrooms, ensuring protections for undocumented students, and increasing pay for school support staff. Anderson has already put forth a resolution for the first item.

Angela Cobián, a school board member from southwest Denver, told the crowd at the inauguration that she thought Anderson's personal experience as one of the students who could have been left behind by DPS would help him in his new role. "I'm super-excited to have somebody who's been directly involved in the work, in the pain, and working really hard to make sure that all students — immigrant students, black students, students of color — have what they need to be college-ready and successful in whatever way they choose."

Anderson once spoke openly about grand political ambitions: becoming the first African-American governor of Colorado, or maybe even president. Now he says he’s not sure he’ll pursue politics past he re-election bid in 2023, saying he wants to teach history at Manual High School and focus on narratives told by people of color.

Coates, who has known Anderson since his 2017 run, says the shift in Anderson's personal goals reflects a larger one. "He's grown from being that loudmouth, not-knowing-what-he's-talking-about kid to a more refining adult that is looking at things from a more 360 perspective. He's lost his tunnel vision while he's remained focused on what we need to do, and he's more inclusive with his thought and pragmatic with his action," he says. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming