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What a Denver Teachers' Strike Would Mean to Students of Color

There's been no resolution in the conflict between Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union, whose members overwhelmingly authorized a strike over pay and other concerns that could move forward within days, depending upon the outcome of meetings between both sides and Governor Jared Polis mandated earlier this week.

This scenario concerns members of the Colorado Black Round Table, a local advocacy group.

On January 18, Martin Luther King Day, several days before the strike vote, the coalition sent the various parties involved a letter encouraging them to "stay at the negotiating table...in the spirit of peace and reconciliation." In addition, the CBRT has scheduled a meeting today, February 6, for which "former school board members" and "leaders of numerous African-American and Latino community organizations" are inviting representatives of the union and the DPS to attend "a Black and Brown Community Educational Engagement Session." The purpose of the gathering is to allow "taxpayers, citizens, former and current elected officials, parents, students and the community to hear the positions of both sides."

Organizers "feel it is necessary for both the district and the union to hear from Black and Brown parents and community on the contract issues and other educational concerns and issues that must be put on the table for discussion and action," the invitation continues. That includes "the demographic mismatch between an educator workforce that is majority Anglo and female and a student population composed of a majority of black and brown students" who have "the most to lose" in the event of an educational disruption.

Speaking on behalf of the Colorado Black Round Table, John Bailey, a political consultant who's worked for the district, among many other clients, notes that there's plenty of history behind these matters, much of it explored by his wife, Dr. Sharon Bailey, a member of the DPS board of education from 1988 to 1995 and currently the district's program manager of diversity, equity and inclusion. She's the author of two major studies: The first, from 2013, reveals, among other things, that the achievement gap between people of color and whites with college degrees has actually widened since 1960; the latter, published in 2016, examines DPS educational experiences through the "voices of African-American teachers and administrators."

This work is echoed by other studies, Bailey points out. "We're seeing national reports in critical areas showing that we are further behind now than before the civil-rights movement," he says. "And here we are talking about shutting down the schools. And who is that ultimately going to hurt? Teachers will lose salary, but kids are going to lose instructional time in the classroom."

That's particularly problematic for "black and brown kids," he maintains, since he fears that any agreement between the district and the union could result in "money being taken away from hard, challenging schools in the name of a better quality of living for the teachers."

He stresses that "we want more money for teachers — but a status quo for these children is unacceptable. We're in danger of seeing the graduation rate for African-American students fall from 64 percent to 26 percent. And we're supposed to be seeing African-American studies and Hispanic studies being taught in state schools, which are often 75 percent students of color, and they're not being taught in too many of them."

Dr. Sharon Bailey and John Bailey, center, were honored by the Community College of Denver with MLK Community Leadership Awards last month.
Dr. Sharon Bailey and John Bailey, center, were honored by the Community College of Denver with MLK Community Leadership Awards last month.

Speaking of teachers, Bailey says, "I understand if you want a bonus, if you want more money. But I want to see improvements in school. Tell me you're taking classes to learn how to teach students who don't look like you."

The roundtable is looking for a more holistic approach to the problems in Denver Public Schools, he stresses: "We know Denver is a difficult place to live in. The high cost of housing is a major issue, and teachers say, 'We want to stay here, because everybody deserves the ability to be paid a quality salary.' But black and brown families are dealing with these same things, too, and they're moving to Aurora and Brighton and other areas because they can't afford to live in Denver anymore."

In Bailey's view, "The situation we're dealing with touches on significant aspects in every part of the city. We're in a state that is often in 48th or 49th place as far as prioritizing school funding. So we shouldn't place all of this on the district. We should place it on legislators, too, so they can put more money toward school funding. We need to look at the total picture, and we need to deal with it in such a way that everybody is held accountable."

In essence, the group is calling for the union and the district to act like adults, not children.

"If kids come to school and they're hollering, screaming, not letting any instruction happen, they'd get kicked out of school," he allows. "We can't act that way. We need to show more respect and less animus."

The Black and Brown Community Educational Engagement Session is scheduled to get under way at 6 p.m. tonight in the cafeteria of Manual High School, 1700 East 28th Avenue in Denver. The public is encouraged to attend.

We reached out to Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association to see if representatives from each organization will attend. We haven't received confirmation from the union (if and when we do, we'll update this post), but it has another item on the schedule just prior to the meeting's start time. The DCTA, in conjunction with the Colorado Working Families Party, Industrial Areas Foundation — Colorado, and assorted elected officials, labor partners and community leaders will hold a press conference on the west steps of the Capitol prior to delivering what are expected to be 500 to 1,000 letters to Governor Polis, asking him to respect the right of educators to strike. The event is scheduled from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

As for the district, it will have a contingent at the Manual session.

"We're attending and look forward to the conversation and its focus on the needs of our students and teachers," writes DPS spokesperson Anna Alejo, corresponding via email. "We value our teachers, their voice, and the impact they have on our students' lives and across our community. And we appreciate the focus this meeting will have on equity, focusing on the needs of our most vulnerable students — on how important it is to have an equity lens when talking about teacher salaries and ProComp [the compensation system that's at the center of the dispute] — which Denver voters approved to provide additional pay to teachers in areas of high needs. We think that's an absolutely critical part of this conversation."

Alejo adds: "We're still working hard toward reaching a contract agreement that gives our teachers a substantial, well-earned raise and continues to be true to our community's support for equity in how we invest their tax dollars. And we remain committed to reaching an agreement without a strike, which would hit our most vulnerable students the hardest."

By the way, DPS issued a one-sentence statement about its meeting with the governor, which happened yesterday: "We had a productive conversation with Governor Polis and he is continuing to push both sides to talk." A DCTA sit-down with Polis also took place, but the union has not released an official comment about it.

Click to read the the 2013 report titled "Gaining Ground in Colorado's African-American Communities" and the 2016 study called "An Examination of Student and Educator Experiences in Denver Public Schools Through the Voices of African-American Teachers and Administrators," both by Dr. Sharon Bailey. Click to read the letter sent to the union and the district last month.

WHAT WOULD DR. KING SAY?

A Letter to Community, the DPS Board of Education and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association

"A Black Community Perspective on Negotiations and the Potential for a DPS Teacher Strike"

Our community is watching with great interest and concern as the Denver Public Schools and DCTA negotiate bonus structures and compensation for Denver’s teachers. The black community understand that the stakes are high in these negotiations, with the threats of an impending strike looming large on the DPS educational landscape.

The Bailey Report identified several themes in the lived experiences of African American student and educators that needed to be addressed related to racially hostile work environment for African American students and educators.

The reality of the current landscape has sparked a new sense of urgency relative to the education of our student and educators. It has been projected that with the implementation of the new state graduation requirements, and if we do nothing, the graduation rate for African American students will drop from 64 percent to 26 percent. In addition, our black students are performing academically at nearly the same level as white special education students and are at the bottom in nearly every measure of competency. In addition, black students continue to be disproportionately suspended or expelled from school.

With this data in mind, the Black community is raising questions about what it is that our tax dollars for increased compensation will produce relative to closing the achievement and opportunity gaps. According to district data, black students are truly the “faces at the bottom of the well” in nearly every area of measured educational proficiency.

The district has made a commitment through the work of the African American Equity task force to addressing institutional racism, cultural competency, equity, diversity and inclusion. Is the Union ready to make the same commitment to these critical factors for closing the achievement and opportunity gaps as they make their case for bonus compensation?

What about bonuses for closing student achievement and opportunity gaps?What about bonuses for effectively helping to address the crisis in literacy?What about bonuses for recruiting and retaining educators of color and creating school and district climate in which these professionals can flourish and not feel slighted, dismissed or marginalized because of their race?What about bonuses for building positive relationships with students of color, their families and communities?What about bonuses for having high expectations for ALL students and decreasing the disproportionalities in discipline? What about bonuses for recognizing the value of professional development in cultural competence and creating equity in every classroom throughout the district?

How the district ultimately reflects both equity and excellence for ALL students should be a part of these negotiations. The demographic mismatch between the district’s student population and educator workforce makes addressing the questions listed above even more critical and urgent. Currently, our educator workforce is between 70 and 80 percent Anglo and mostly female, while the student population is more than 70 percent students of color.

Within the Bailey report and other research, there is evidence of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students. Specifically, non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. This is concerning, as teachers’ expectations likely shape student outcomes and systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for student success might contribute to persistent gaps in educational achievement and attainment.

Finally, on the potential of a teacher strike. We as a black community believe that ALL teachers should be well paid. We as a black community also believe that ALL students, and particularly our black students get a quality education. Right now across this country, we are in pain because of the governmental shutdown. The pain that many are suffering by not being paid for their work, is unconscionable and a national disgrace. Here we are in Denver at the negotiating tables, talking about teachers striking and shutting down the district unless teachers get more money and bonuses. Let’s flip the script for a moment. Suppose parents decided not to send their youth to school because they weren’t getting the education they deserve and need to be successful in the 21st century. And the only way parents would send their students back to school is if there was a guarantee that the achievement and opportunity gaps would be closed, that every teacher was culturally competent, and that community engagement and student success were the priorities moving forward. My suggestion, as you make these final decisions, is to give serious thought to the implications that your decisions will have on all impacted and affected groups in the educational landscape…especially students. Striking and closing our schools down should not even be an option for consideration, if putting children first is all of our number one concern.

Stay at the negotiating table. If you need the community, we are here. In the spirit peace and reconciliation, let me quote, Martin Luther King Jr. by saying "The time is always right to do the right thing!"

Respectfully Submitted By

John Bailey

The Colorado Black Round Table

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