Ally to Accomplice Series: What happens to Black children after the strike?

I’ve felt a bit unclear on where I stand on the Denver teacher’s strike. Maybe you do, too. For me, it's related to a relational sense of justice, grounded in my faith perspective. I am part of a tradition (unitarian universalist) that values the idea of relational covenant and collective well being. As part of this tradition, we develop and uphold agreements about how we will treat one another in humanizing ways. It requires us to consider how we’re showing up for one another and recognizing both our unique and collective needs. 

It’s with this in mind that I’m feeling mixed on the strike. On the surface, there is clearly a need for a more humanizing system for Denver teachers, who have neither a dependable or fair compensation system. There is also a need to challenge the reform agenda that threatens to undermine the public good. But I see another dimension to this issue, of a damaged relationship between a majority white teaching force and the communities of color in Denver whose children have not yet been provided the educational opportunities they deserve. For me, it is a situation of broken covenant, broken trust and the need for repair. 

In particular, I’m thinking about how the classroom is the well-evidenced starting point for the school-to-prison pipeline. I have had the privilege of closely examining this issue. I know well the national data that continues to demonstrate the vulnerability to criminalization faced by Black and Brown students. In DPS, racial disparities continue, even for the youngest children. Although there have been slight decreases in early childhood suspension rates, “black boys made up about 6 percent of Denver’s kindergarten through second grade population, but received 29 percent of suspensions given in that age group.” Across ages, Black students in DPS are still six times as likely to be suspended as Whites, Latinx students are three times as likely. Beyond the numbers, I am filled with stories from friends and co-workers of color about the discriminatory experiences their children have had in DPS. 

So when I see coverage of the impending strike, part of me see’s a group of white people using student equity arguments to draw public support for salary increases and I’m thinking --  if you’re asking for political support from parents of color in Denver, when the strike is over what are you going to do to ensure that your classroom dignifies and intellectually enriches and advances education for their children? Are you going to encourage your fellow teachers to stop sending Black children out of the classroom? Are you going to advocate for instructional changes that could reduce conflict in the classroom? Are you going to advocate for school-wide conversations about equity and diversity? Are you going to advance your knowledge of implicit racial bias and use it to transform your practice? Are you going to support your Black colleagues? Are you going to encourage your principal to hire more teachers of color? 

Because I’ll tell you -- and I’m talking to my fellow white folks in education when I say -- I have my doubts. I have seen leaders and teachers scoff at and resist professional development about race and equity, or pivot to suspension within minutes of age appropriate behavior. I have seen them resist changing instructional practices and discipline policies that would benefit students of color. I have seen them resist efforts to diversify advanced placement and honors classes. I have seen them do all of these things even while being adamantly “liberal” and “progressive.” And while arguing these decisions were in the “best interests of students.”  

I say this passionately, but tenderly, because I also know many of you battle each day for equity in your schools. You might be the principal who brings in equity coaches and encourages teachers to learn about implicit racial bias. Or maybe you’re the principal, who, upon your arriving at your new school, halts the in-school detention and eliminated the “Refocus” room. You might be the high school teacher who demands conflict mediation in lieu of your principal's calls for police ticketing. Or you might be the middle school teachers who collectively presses leadership for books and curriculum reflective of your diverse students. You might be the principal who actively recruits and supports teachers of color. I have seen these stories, too. And it’s my wish that efforts were part of the covenantal offering made by the predominantly white teacher’s union in Denver as they continue to seek political support from communities of color.

So, when the strike is over, what are you going to do in your classrooms and schools to uphold your part of the relationship, what will you do to advance educational equity for Black and Brown students? Some of the above might spark some ideas for you, or perhaps you’re already have some in the works, and I’d love to hear about them and share them here. Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide some local and national examples of teachers and building leaders who advocated and changed school-level policies and practices to the benefit of Black and Latinx students and staff. We’ll also explore some broader systemic changes to consider, such as looking at clauses of the DCTA contract related to school discipline and considering the implications of changes. If you’re already thinking about how you might advocate and agitate and want to share about it, contact me at [email protected] 

Kathryn E. Wiley, Ph.D.
Denver, Colorado
[email protected]