Students describe crowded classrooms and chaos in Denver schools on first day of teacher strike

Students across Denver had mixed experiences in their classrooms Monday as their teachers went on strike, but for the most part, it was far from a normal day.

At high schools, students described crowded classrooms, large groups and chaotic schedules. Many walked out of their schools and joined teachers on the picket lines instead.

Nicole Aguiler, a 10th grader at South High, said deans brought the students into the auditorium at the start of the day and then released them from school as they went to their walkout to show support for their teachers.

“They are with us for more than half the day,” she said. “They teach us and care about us. They should get paid more.”

Later, video emerged of students dancing in the hallways at East High School. The video was provided to The Denver Post by a student journalist at the school.

The Denver district and the teachers union have been negotiating the district’s complex teacher pay system, ProComp. The disagreements have exposed deep philosophical divides about how teachers should be paid, but the dispute also comes with a backdrop of heightened teacher activism nationally and built-up frustration locally about several school reforms.

District officials had been planning for weeks as the possibility of the strike became apparent, and said this weekend they were prepared to keep schools open to ensure students kept learning. They deployed about 1,400 central office employees to various schools to help keep order, and in some cases, to help teach. The district sent schools boxed lesson plans and packets of worksheets.

Students who walked out from Lincoln High said their worksheets didn’t match the classes they’ve had, and in some cases seemed to them like eighth-grade work.

As of midday Monday, district officials didn’t have final counts of how many students had attended at least some school, but said they did serve more than 19,600 breakfasts Monday morning. A district spokesperson said the district usually serves about 31,600.

Ayanna Thatch and Bailey Schwartzkopf, both seniors at South High, were chanting and holding signs just outside the school for their teachers Monday morning after walking out. They said administrators at the school knew that students planned to walk out in support of teachers and did not stop them.

Bailey said it didn’t sound like there was much of a plan for the day.

Seniors who stayed in school the rest of the day said they spent half of the day in the gym.

One mother, RB Fast, said she was going to pick up her daughter from school, Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a K-12 in southwest Denver, once she heard that all the sixth-graders were doing that day was playing in the gym. But her daughter asked her not to because “it was too fun.”

“I was under the impression from the district that they were going to deploy enough subs that it would be, not normal, but still close to normal,” Fast said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

Across town, at the Denver School of the Arts, serving students from sixth grade through 12th grade, students said they were grouped by grade level.

“All hell broke loose,” said Luke Poirier, an eighth-grader at the school. “There were people everywhere … it was awful.”

Eighth-grader Lulu Kahn said the only way she knew where to find the classroom she had been assigned was through texts from her friends.

In their large groups, just taking attendance took 45 minutes, DSA students said. After attendance, the teachers told them they could just talk while the teachers figured out what was going on.

They were going to be given work to do on their Chromebooks, but some students walked out just after 8 a.m. instead to join their teachers.

Nancy Nieves sent her 6-year-old, a student at Doull Elementary, to school despite her complaints Monday morning. Nieves didn’t want her daughter to have an absence on her record.

“She likes her teachers a lot,” Nieves said. “She told me she wanted to be with her teacher and help her.”

But after school her daughter said she had a great day drawing hearts and making bracelets.

“Of course she’s going to be happy as long as she’s playing games and things, but she’s not learning,” Nieves said. “We really need our teachers. It’s only fair they get a wage that values their work.”

Chalkbeat’s Erica Meltzer and Ann Schimke contributed to this report.