culturally responsive teaching

One way Denver Public Schools is addressing race and culture in the classroom

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students at College View Elementary visit with deputy superintendent Susana Cordova this year.

On a warm summer morning last week, about 40 new Denver Public Schools teachers sat in semicircles in a high-ceilinged classroom at North High School.

“One of the fears I had is calling the homes of people whose languages I don’t speak,” one teacher told the group.

Another teacher, who will be teaching at a school where the rigorous International Baccalaureate program and the traditional classes have long been criticized for being racially divided, said he’s concerned about having to mediate conflicts between IB students and non-IB students.

“It’s almost like two schools in one,” he said. “I’m worried about how to deal with a racially charged conflict in the hallway or something.”

The conversation came during a three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching, where teachers were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds. This is the first year DPS is requiring all new teachers to take the previously optional course — a move experts say puts Colorado’s largest school district ahead of the curve in addressing a critical topic.

The mandate is partly a response to the demographic reality of DPS: While 78 percent of students last year were children of color, 74 percent of teachers were white.

And those numbers are unlikely to change much this school year, which gets underway this month. Seventy percent of the 935 new teachers hired as of Aug. 1 are white.

“Given that so many of our teachers don’t come from the experiences of our kids, we’ve become more and more clear about saying, ‘This is not something we can let be random,’” said Debbie Hearty, DPS’s chief human resources officer.

The current national discourse on race “is a really important reminder that this is not a nice-to-have,” she said. “This is a need-to-have.”

So what is culturally responsive teaching? The definition can vary, but experts agree it entails building relationships with students — learning about their lives, meeting their families — to better understand the strengths they bring to the classroom. It includes having high expectations for all students, regardless of race or class, experts said, and planning lessons with students’ cultural backgrounds in mind.

“Teachers grab on to, ‘I’m going to integrate some diverse material into my curriculum,’ and that’s just one component,” said Dorinda Carter Andrews, the assistant dean for equity outreach initiatives and an associate education professor at Michigan State University.

To do it right, Carter Andrews and others said, teachers must first examine their own biases and how those biases might affect their students. For instance, is a teacher more likely to believe a white student who said he forgot his homework at home than a black student?

Retired university professor Christine Sleeter has researched culturally responsive teaching and surveyed teachers about it. Most said they understood the concept, but when Sleeter asked how they interpreted the difficulties some of their students were having, “They used deficit perspectives about kids and families: ‘The kids don’t care about education. They don’t come to school.’”

“If you’re really working with culturally responsive pedagogy, you don’t frame kids and families in terms of deficits,” Sleeter said. Instead, she said, teachers should think about the barriers that schools may be unintentionally presenting to those families.

Experts agree that Denver is ahead of most other school districts nationwide when it comes to mandating culturally responsive teaching training for teachers, even if it’s just for new teachers. But they worry a three-hour course doesn’t do the subject justice.

“You can’t unlearn your biases in three hours,” Carter Andrews said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but we have to move to that continual year-long professional development.”

Denver does offer more in-depth training to interested teachers throughout the school year and an advanced course for those who’ve taken the first series and want to go deeper, officials said. The district also offers bias training to all categories of employees, including school leaders, facility managers, bus drivers, and campus security guards.

The three-hour course is meant to give new teachers an introduction to the topic, said Danielle Harris, the district’s manager of culturally responsive education. At the end, the teachers were given a survey asking whether they’d like ongoing training.

“We used it as a snapshot so that if they want to continue this journey, they have that avenue,” Harris said. “So far, the responses have been positive.”

The three-hour introduction was integrated into DPS’s New Educator Institute, a weeklong series of welcome events and training sessions held in early August.

The morning session hosted in the high-ceilinged classroom at North High was led by Bill de la Cruz, the district’s director of equity and inclusion. He guided the teachers through a series of discussions and exercises about their jobs as educators, their identities as individuals and the intersection of the two.

He also offered the teachers some practical advice:

Learn how to pronounce your students’ names correctly. If you don’t know how, ask them.

If a child tells you he doesn’t have his homework, don’t jump to the conclusion that he’s unmotivated or defiant. Ask him why. You might find out that it has more to do with trauma at home than his unwillingness to complete his work.

Invite each student to hang a poster or a piece of artwork on the classroom walls as a way to showcase who they are to you and their peers.

And most of all, if you see a harmful bias at play in your school — for instance, teachers more harshly disciplining students of color than white students — speak up about it.

“You have a fresh set of eyes and you might see something that someone who’s been here for a while has gotten used to,” de la Cruz told the new teachers. “And I don’t want you to get used to things that are negatively impacting our kids.”

Brown v. Board

In her own words: Remembering Linda Brown, who was at the center of America’s school segregation battles

Linda Brown (center) and her sister Terry Lynn (far right) sit on a bus as they ride to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Linda Brown, whose name became part of American history through the Brown v. Board of Education case, died Sunday.

She became the center of the legal and political battle to integrate U.S. schools after she was denied access to an all-white school down the street in Topeka, Kansas in 1950. Her father and several other parents sued with the help of the NAACP, and their case made it to the Supreme Court.

When they won, it set a lasting legal precedent. Brown was attending an integrated junior high school by then, and she later recalled the initial desegregation of local elementary schools going smoothly. But over the course of her life, she saw the reality of school integration fall short, locally and nationally.

In Topeka, where Brown would send her own children to public school, some elementary schools remained disproportionately black. In 1979, Brown was part of a lawsuit to re-open the case, which eventually resulted in a 1993 desegregation order for the city’s school district. Across the country, schools remain highly stratified by class and race; in many districts, court orders have ended and schools have quickly resegregated.

Brown seemed ambivalent about the spotlight that came with her name, and some news articles recount failed attempts to reach her. But she often spoke at anniversaries of the 1954 ruling — and while she called it a victory, she wasn’t shy about expressing disappointment at just how much the Brown case itself didn’t achieve.

Here she is, telling her own story over the course of a lifetime.

“I was kind of afraid at first. I didn’t talk about it very much, I guess, because I was afraid it would get back to someone who would make trouble.”

“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions, and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in the history books!’”

— 1961 interview with the New York Times, when Brown was 17


“It was not the quick fix we thought it would be.”

— 1984 New York Times interview marking the 30th anniversary of the ruling

“Brown was a very necessary victory. It opened up doors to entertainment, housing, education, employment. All facets of black life was affected by Brown. After 30 years, yes, you do feel that Brown is still not fulfilled. Which is very disheartening to me. I find that after 30 years, desegregation of schools is still very much the issue of today.”

— May 1984 interview with ABC News, marking the 30th anniversary


“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all black school. Being a young child, when I first started the walk it was very frightening to me um, and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

— 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years


“It is very disheartening. We are still going through the old arguments.”

— 1989 interview, again in the New York Times, at age 46


“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”

— 1994 Washington Post story, “Ruling’s Promise Unkept In Topeka,” on the ruling’s 40th anniversary


“It’s disheartening that we are still fighting. But we are dealing with human beings. As long as we are, there will always be those who feel the races should be separate.”

— 1994 New York Times story, “Aftermath of ’54 Ruling Disheartens the Browns”

“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”

“I ran across a quote, in a new book by one of our black women authors — her name is Mildred Pitts Walter — that I believe says it all. ‘It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.’”

— 2004 speech at the Chautauqua Institution, near the ruling’s 50th anniversary

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.