Listen first, then take action. That’s how Denver Public Schools officials said the state’s largest school district plans to respond to a recent report that found its African-American teachers feel mistreated — and feel as though the needs of black students are being ignored.
“To truly figure out how to make transformational and systemic change, it’s going to take the entire community,” said school board president Anne Rowe.
In a district that has faced criticism for forging ahead with decisions without first soliciting feedback, the approach is significant. The district’s plan includes discussing the report with DPS employees in a series of forums this month, and setting up a steering committee and several working groups to come up with a long-term strategy.
The groups will begin their work in September, but DPS Chief of Human Resources Debbie Hearty said the district hasn’t yet identified an end date.
“Instead of guessing how people are feeling,” she said, it’s valuable to have those who are directly affected sitting at the table saying, “‘This is what we need to do about it — and what would actual progress look like?’”
But some African-American community leaders said that while they agree it’s crucial to gather input, they worry the process could get bogged down in meetings.
“We want something that’s more tangible than committees,” said Elbra Wedgeworth, a longtime civic leader and DPS graduate. “Talking is talking, but you can also do things at the same time.”
The district commissioned the report in response to concerns from black educators about how they and their students are treated. Black teachers made up just 4 percent of the teacher workforce last year, while black students comprised about 14 percent of the nearly 91,500 students. That percentage has been shrinking since the 1973 court decision that directed Denver to desegregate its schools, a trend the report partly attributes to gentrification.
The 70 African-American teachers and administrators interviewed reported feeling isolated and unaccepted. They said black educators in DPS have had difficulty securing promotions.
“African-Americans in DPS are invisible, silenced and dehumanized, especially if you are passionate, vocal and unapologetically black,” one educator told the report’s author. “We can’t even be advocates for our kids. It feels a lot like being on a plantation.”
The educators also reported poor treatment of African-American students. While some objective indicators point toward progress — dropout rates are down and graduation rates and test scores are up for black students — the educators said many DPS teachers seem afraid of black students, which leads to them being disciplined more harshly than their peers.
And they said that the district’s more recent intense focus on providing services to English language learners has overshadowed the needs of African-American students.
“I don’t see any policy that’s been established to help African-American students … that benefits them, that is unique to them, that is special to them,” another educator said.
DPS leaders called the findings painful.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to live in this country and not realize the enormity of the challenges we face around race and social justice,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a school board work session last week, at which board members discussed the report. “You can’t solve problems until you recognize them. That’s what this report does.”
Board member Mike Johnson said “everybody in the community needs to be aware of the depth of concern” expressed in the report. He said he’s of two minds in terms of how to respond. “I have all kinds of thoughts about what we should do immediately,” he said, “but at the same time … I’d like to hear from those who are affected about what they would like to do.”
The district has hired Allen Smith, a former DPS principal who left for a job in the Oakland school district and recently returned to Denver, to oversee the committees and working groups.
As the groups come up with recommendations, Hearty said the district will continue several initiatives already underway, including attempts to recruit more teachers of color and efforts to provide racial bias and cultural responsiveness training to employees.
Board member Lisa Flores said that while “it’s a tragedy that there was need for this equity report,” she’s hoping this is the first of many times the district will respond this way.
“I am really proud that DPS has taken a step back and instead of coming in with a game plan already outlined, they are taking their cues from the community,” she said.
Sean Bradley, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, has participated, along with Wedgeworth and others, in discussions between DPS and prominent African-American community members about the issues highlighted in the report.
He said he commends the district for recognizing the problem.
But he echoed Wedgeworth in calling for the district to take immediate steps, such as forming an African-American parent and teacher organization, while it gathers more feedback and ideas.
“It’s obvious that black teachers just don’t feel comfortable in the district,” Bradley said. “We need to make sure teachers are treated well, treated fairly. And that there are recruitment and retention efforts to make sure we have high-quality African American teachers in the classroom … all over the country, but especially in DPS. We have to make these jobs interesting again.”