Sharon Bailey remembered as Denver Public Schools’ ‘moral compass’

A woman with medium-length dark hair reads a book titled “Russian in 10 minutes a day.” The photo is black and white.
Denver Public Schools Ombudsperson Sharon Bailey, seen here in a 1987 photo when she was a delegate to the World Congress of Women in Moscow, passed away Friday. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver Public Schools lost its moral compass with the passing of district Ombudsperson Sharon Bailey on Friday, according to friends and colleagues. A straightforward critic of the institutional racism she saw in the district, Bailey was also a compassionate leader who believed the system could change and was willing to help, they said.

In 2016, Bailey authored a seminal report about the treatment of Black educators and students in Denver that served as a catalyst for the district’s current Black excellence efforts. The report has a long name, but everyone simply calls it the Bailey Report.

“She knew all the research, all the data, all the negativity going on, but Dr. Bailey had this hope in her that things were going to be better, that we could do this,” said Vernon Jones Jr., a longtime Denver Public Schools educator and former school leader. 

Her husband, John Bailey, said of his wife, “She was the smartest one here.”

Bailey, 68, died at home Friday, the district said in a statement. Three days earlier, on Tuesday, she spoke at a meeting honoring outgoing Denver school board members. She urged the incoming board members to focus on three things: recognizing the history of institutional racism in Denver schools, changing mindsets so that creating equity becomes a collective responsibility, and sustaining those efforts through a mix of transparency and accountability.

“She was whatever the word is for compass, stake in the ground, directional,” said state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, who left the Denver school board Tuesday after four years of service. 

Bailey grew up in Denver and attended schools in the northeast part of the city. Happy Haynes, a former school board member and city councilor who is now executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation, met Bailey when they were students at East High School in the late 1960s. 

Haynes said she and Bailey advocated for the teaching of what was then called Afro-American history, an effort that resulted in the first such class being taught at East.

“Our advocacy was really all about, ‘We want our history. We want to be acknowledged,’” Haynes said. “Those early efforts prepared us both.”

Bailey poses for a portrait in 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

After graduating from East, Bailey got her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and eventually earned a doctorate degree in public administration from the University of Colorado. Her dissertation, entitled “A Journey Full Circle: An Historical Analysis of Keyes v. School District No. 1,” examined efforts to desegregate Denver schools. 

Bailey witnessed those efforts firsthand. As a parent with children in Denver schools, she served on the Denver school board from 1988 to 1995, at times as the only member of color. She was on the board when a judge ended a decadeslong court-ordered program of busing students to schools in different neighborhoods to achieve racial integration. 

Worried the district would lose sight of the importance of equity once busing ended, Bailey sponsored a resolution in 1995 declaring, in part, that the district would give all students equal academic opportunities and that student discipline would be free from bias. The resolution passed unanimously, but the issues it aimed to address didn’t go away.

Her 2016 Bailey Report, commissioned by the district, found Black students were disciplined more harshly and had fewer resources dedicated to their academic success than students of other races. A qualitative report based on interviews with 70 Black teachers and administrators, it also found that Black educators felt isolated and passed over for promotions.

The report led to the creation of a districtwide African-American Equity Task Force, which made 11 recommendations, including that every school should be required to write a plan for how to better serve Black students and that curriculum should be culturally relevant.

Bacon was one of the educators interviewed for Bailey’s report. She said it was a major reason she ran for the school board in 2017. Two years later, in 2019, Bacon sponsored a Black excellence resolution codifying some of the task force’s recommendations. In 2020, the board voted to require the teaching of the contributions of Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities.

“She always wanted us to know the history of Denver Public Schools and of Denver because a history unknown is a history repeated,” Bacon said.

Mentoring younger leaders was important to Bailey. “She knew one day the torch or the baton would be passed to us, and she wanted us to be ready,” Jones said.

He said Bailey and her husband John set an example for an entire generation of Black leaders. “We saw them exemplify what it means to love your family and love your community, and that you can do both,” Jones said. “That was probably the best gift she gave.”

After authoring the Bailey Report, Bailey took a job as a senior adviser for equity initiatives in Denver Public Schools before being appointed the district ombudsperson this year. The ombuds office was envisioned as a confidential space for employees to express their concerns. Bailey’s experiences made her “uniquely suited” to the role, the district said.

“In the old days, the revolutionary language was ‘working in the belly of the beast,’” Haynes said. “And that’s what Sharon was doing. Even though she was a critic, sometimes a harsh critic of the district and what was happening in public education generally, she was always willing to step in and help and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’”

Bacon, Jones, and others said they worry about how Denver Public Schools will fill the role Bailey played. Bailey’s husband, John, said she would want others to continue her work.

“She would say, ‘Don’t mourn for me. Do more for kids and community,’” he said.

In her last public remarks before the school board Tuesday, as part of a tribute to Bacon’s service on the board, Bailey herself issued a prescient call to action.

“In some circles, they call me the OG, the old girl, the old guard,” Bailey said. “But there are lessons to be learned with the long view of the historical inequities in the school district. 

“What I do know for sure is that genuine educational equity in our district and around the nation has been elusive. Where is it? How will we know it when we see it? What will it look like? What will it feel like? So I contend that we can’t simply believe in equity, fairness, and justice in education. 

“We have to create it.”

A community celebration of Dr. Sharon Bailey’s life will be held at New Hope Baptist Church, 3701 Colorado Blvd., Denver, on Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. A home-going memorial service will be held at the same location Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to the Dr. Sharon Bailey Memorial Scholarship Fund sponsored by the Denver Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and the Bailey family. Donations can be made online via The Denver Foundation. Indicate the donation is for the Sharon Bailey fund. Checks can be made payable to The Denver Foundation, 1009 Grant St., Denver, CO 80203.

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