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‘What do we want? Teachers that stay!’ With strike on hold, Denver students speak out

An estimated 1,100 students at seven Denver high schools staged sit-ins, information sessions, marches, and other demonstrations during the school day Monday in a show of solidarity with teachers who stand ready to strike over a pay dispute.

“Teachers are the ones that support us,” said Alexandria Bermúdez Burciaga, a senior at Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello in northeast Denver, where the day began with conversations in the auditorium and then a march through the hallways. “We spend most of our time with teachers, and they listen to us. They’re preparing us for the future.”

Monday was the day that Denver teachers would have gone on strike if the district had not requested state intervention into a long-running pay dispute. Until that process is complete, it would be illegal for teachers to go on strike. Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating the ProComp system, which provides bonuses on top of base salary for things like working in a hard-to-fill position or in a high-poverty school.

Both sides’ proposals put more money into base pay, but district officials want to keep larger bonuses and incentives because they see those as important tools for retaining teachers. The union believes that higher and more predictable base pay will do more to keep teachers over the long-run.

Students who participated in the Montbello demonstration said even with bonuses, too many teachers leave each year.

Adriana Medina, 17, a junior and student organizer of the Montbello event, said she’s seen how teachers leaving in the middle of the school year can hurt student learning.

“It’s hard for a lot of the students especially after they’ve started building a bond with someone,” Medina said. “That’s a process that takes a lot of time.”

Bermúdez Burciaga added that she’s had substitutes fill in for months at a time after teachers have left. Both students said those substitutes can’t fill their teachers shoes.

“What do we want? Teachers that stay. How do we get it? Give them fair pay,” was one chant that echoed through the halls of Montbello.

Another was: “Polis, escucha: tu pueblo está en la lucha.” The chant in Spanish called on Gov. Jared Polis to “listen” and recognize that teachers are engaged in struggle.

The union and its supporters don’t want Polis to order state intervention, which would delay a strike.

Bermúdez Burciaga said the administration at her school was supportive of the demonstrations and thanked students for keeping it peaceful.

Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones said that is the approach school leaders are taking across the district. In addition to the Montbello campus, where district-run and charter schools share space, students demonstrated at Northfield High School, East High School, George Washington High School, Denver School of the Arts, John F. Kennedy High School, and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. MLK had the largest demonstration, with some 400 students participating, according to the district.

Denver Public Schools did not allow media into schools to cover the demonstrations, with a spokesperson citing a desire to “protect the integrity of the school day.”

Students who took part were marked “present” if they were in school that day, regardless of whether they attended their regular classes. Jones said that at some schools, the conversations took place during certain class periods or during lunch.

“DPS encouraged school leaders to plan with students for today’s sit-ins,” Jones said in an email. “Together, they could identify spaces designated for protest activities, and then use conversation and trusted adults to keep lines of communication open. We are optimistic that we will continue to hear a variety of perspectives, maintain a productive educational environment, empower our students to lead and share, and reach a positive resolution with our teachers.”

Correction: The original version of this story had the wrong last name for Adriana Medina.