Before the first tardy bell rang Wednesday morning, dozens of teachers, parents, and students marched and waved signs outside of four Denver schools asking for more money and more respect.
The modest marches, organized by the city’s teachers union in partnership with a national organization, marked the beginning of a campaign to unite teachers and parents frustrated with the direction of Denver Public Schools. The union is hoping to energize parents and seize the renewed interest in public schools created by a spate of school board election victories along the Front Range.
It’s a tall order. Denver voters have again and again rejected union-supported school board candidates and their positions. But the union sees itself in a position to make new allies — and to begin developing a message that will resonate with voters in the 2017 school board election.
“Today the teachers and staff are joining with our community to celebrate our schools and advocate for the schools our Denver students deserve,” said Lynne Valencia, a teacher at Beach Court Elementary School and vice president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We’re committing to work alongside the community to ensure all Denver students have a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.”
While the local campaign is in its infancy, those involved in the effort talk about smaller class sizes, deeper community partnerships to provide services for families, and greater accountability for charter schools. Those priorities echo those of a national movement created by the Chicago-based Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, which counts the nation’s largest teachers unions as members.
On Wednesday, before-school marches took place at hundreds of schools across the nation, including in Chicago and Los Angeles, where reform efforts similar to those happening in Denver — including the opening of more independent charter schools and using test results to make decisions about closing schools — are underway.
Denver’s reform efforts have yielded mixed results. While enrollment and graduation rates are up, there are still wide gaps in how well students of color perform compared to their white peers.
To Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver union, the district’s tactics are old news.
“It’s been a long time and it really isn’t making a difference,” she said.
Denver’s Acting Superintendent Susan Cordova disagreed.
“I think when we look at the work we have done, and you ask, ‘are the reforms working,’ I think we’ve made significant progress,” Cordova said referring to the district’s graduation and remediation rates. “But we’re still nowhere near our own expectations of where we need to be.”
Teachers and parents who marched Wednesday had a range of concerns about how Denver funds and evaluates it schools, and about the programs the district provides to students.
Beach Court Elementary parent Kristin Barnes, who marched with teachers on Wednesday, said she believes Denver’s school choice system and inadequate state funding have stripped her school of resources.
Barnes said she believes students should be able to play and learn where they live. She dreams of schools staffed with well-trained teachers working with parents to meet the needs of students, strengthened by community partnerships to help families in need, and flush with resources.
“I believe that’s possible for this school and every school in the city,” Barnes said.
Union critic and Stanford professor Terry Moe said the union’s new effort shows it is on the defensive.
“This is not a good time for them,” Moe said. “Reformers have been on the move and achieving some successes. … Unions are more worried now that their power is slipping and they’re being aggressive.”
But their power was on full display last fall when the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and its local chapters helped to flip several school boards, including the high-profile Jefferson County school board, in their favor.
Part of the union’s’ strategy included partnering with politically connected middle-class parents who were frustrated with their school board.
Union leader Shamburg said Denver parents are just as frustrated.
“They don’t necessarily know where to go with it or what to do with it,” Shamburg said. “But that’s coming more and more. We get the calls, not just from teachers, but from parents and community members. They’re asking, ‘What do we do?’”
Denver school board member Lisa Flores, who represents Denver’s northwest corner, said the school board is not deaf to the concerns of parents — and the divide between the school board and the union is not as wide as it seems.
“I think there is shared agreement on smaller class sizes, making more resources available to schools, and holding charters and district schools accountable for academic achievement among the board and with this national movement,” Flores said. “Where there is disagreement is how you get there.”