Michael Atkins recalls getting off the bus he took across Denver in sixth grade and hearing a teacher snidely say, “Here come the bus kids.”
To succeed at the mostly white school he attended, “I needed to adopt the go-along-to-get-along strategy. I needed to try and act white,” said Atkins, who is Black.
“We ask children to do that every single day.”
Several decades later, Denver Public Schools is still grappling with how to serve Black students well. Atkins is now the principal of Stedman Elementary School. Along with every other principal in the district, he was required to develop a plan this year to celebrate Black students’ strengths and close academic gaps between Black students and their white peers.
The plans are an important piece of a landmark Black excellence initiative in Denver. But a Chalkbeat review of the more than 160 plans submitted by schools and charter networks found that while some are detailed and actionable, others are not. Many Black parents, teachers, and scholars fear that Denver’s decentralized approach to improving education for Black students isn’t powerful enough to make lasting change.
“As you can see with the variation in these plans, it’s left to the imagination of the leader of that school: whether they understand it being a problem, how they understand it being a problem, and where they see their universe of influence,” said Eddie Fergus, an associate professor at Temple University who has worked with Denver Public Schools on this topic for years.
Recent events show it’s still a problem.
Teona Bonés was in math class her sophomore year when a teacher called a fellow Black student “boy.” The reason some students were failing his math class, the teacher said, was that they weren’t working hard enough. Bonés’ classmate spoke up about having to balance schoolwork with working multiple jobs to support his parents and siblings.
Bonés, who is now a senior at Denver’s George Washington High School, said the teacher dismissed her classmate’s comments — and added a racial epithet.
“He called him ‘boy’ in front of the entire class,” Bonés said.
Why change is important
Two years ago this month, the Denver school board passed a Black Excellence Resolution. It was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, a Black former educator who is now vice president of the board. “The board embraces the excellence of Black and African American students and will prioritize and target their academic achievement,” the resolution says.
Change is important, because data shows Black students are less likely to be enrolled in rigorous classes and more likely to be suspended from school than are their white peers. They are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.
“I dropped my book one day and a girl kicked it, like literally kicked my book at me. Those microaggressions are very tangible in those spaces.” — Hermela Goshu, Denver student
The resolution directs the district to do three things: Audit its structures to figure out how the system as a whole can better serve Black students, train all staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education, and require each school to dissect its own data and develop an action plan to increase Black students’ success.
In the time allotted last summer to produce its plan, George Washington High School leaders submitted the bare minimum. But they didn’t stop there. Leaders then set to calling the families of all 279 Black students, who make up about one-quarter of its student body, said Assistant Principal Fred Harris.
They also sent out surveys. “How would you define Black excellence?” they asked students. “How should we measure it at George Washington?”
What they heard was that Black students were tired of talking about test scores and how they were underrepresented in honors and rigorous International Baccalaureate classes, a gap that George Washington has been trying to close for years.
“Black excellence is coming together and growing together about any issue we face within the Black community,” one student wrote in response to the survey.
“It shouldn’t be measured,” another said. “Every Black student is excellent and should be praised. They should be taught that they’re excellent.”
School leaders are still mulling next steps, but Harris said one idea is to create a Black excellence center inside the school, a “home within a home” for Black students and staff that would aim to replicate the culture of historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“Not every kid in our building is a great student, and if we keep measuring them by those arbitrary numbers, we won’t find out positive things,” he said. “We want to create an environment where kids culturally feel accepted here and want to come to school here.”
‘Where kids fall through the gap’
Many Black teachers and community leaders question whether a school-by-school approach can create meaningful change. Black community activist brother jeff Fard thinks the district should lay out, “‘This is what we already know, this is what we’re not going to tolerate, and let us show you the best practices and expectations as it relates to Black excellence.’”
William Anderson is helping to lead the Black excellence work at Manual High School, which has already succeeded at closing some academic gaps.
“I wish there was some sense of continuity between [the plans] so we could have measurable outcomes across the district,” said Anderson, who teaches social studies at Manual. “If you tell a school that may not have many Black students in it, few Black staff, and the leadership isn’t Black to create a Black excellence plan, I don’t know how they’re doing that in a meaningful way.
“I don’t know how you know what you don’t know.”
Sataira Douglas, a teacher at Green Valley Elementary School, declined an invitation to help formulate her school’s Black excellence plan because of the disconnectedness.
“We have kids who go from school to school, and when we aren’t working as a district, that’s where kids fall through the gap,” Douglas said.
But district officials say top-down mandates aren’t the answer.
“I don’t think a strictly compliance approach will get us the long-term sustainable shifts,” said Kevin King, a principal supervisor. “This isn’t a compliance checklist. We are changing adult mindsets and conditions and allowing the Black excellence that is [there] to better shine.”
Accountability lies with principal supervisors like King who are checking in regularly with school leaders, monitoring their progress, and offering coaching along the way.
“It’s not a one-and-done,” said Sheri Charles, who is also a principal supervisor. “Nor is it a gotcha. We entered into this work with leaders and literally framed it as a conversation.”
The Black excellence plans are not posted online or otherwise available in a way that would allow the public to compare them. Chalkbeat filed an open records request for the plans; the district charged $150 to redact some sensitive data.
Reading through more than 160 plans, Chalkbeat found some common themes. Many schools pledged to hold more staff meetings to discuss Black students’ academic data, provide training for teachers, and do book studies of texts such as “White Fragility” or “How to be an Antiracist.”
“Schools need to be comfortable with saying these plans are for Black students. That’s part of it — getting over a fear of Black and blackness.” — Branta Lockett, Denver educator
Several mentioned adapting curriculum to be more culturally relevant, a districtwide effort spurred by Black students at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College high school. Many also pledged to make an effort to connect with Black families.
There were also common flaws in the plans. Several had blank spots or placeholders. A few strayed from the focus on Black students to reference Hispanic students or students of color.
“Schools need to be comfortable with saying these plans are for Black students,” said Branta Lockett, who works for the district training teachers of color for leadership roles. “That’s part of it — getting over a fear of Black and blackness.”
Some plans lack clear action steps and reveal disconnects between school leaders and their Black students. “Get to know students by name and face,” one plan said. Another pledged to identify a single Black student for the gifted and talented program through “creative” means.
Other schools spelled out specific action steps, but may face barriers enacting them. East High School is a good example. Denver’s largest high school, East serves about 2,500 students, about 16% of whom are Black. East lists three concrete actions:
- Require all students to take ethnic studies courses
- Stop tracking students into honors and non-honors English, math, science, and social studies classes so that all students take the same core classes
- Eliminate weighted grades so that Advanced Placement courses are not worth more points when calculating students’ grade point averages
East High senior Hermela Goshu thinks those steps are the right ones. The way it is now, Black students are underrepresented in honors and AP classes at East. And because an A in an AP class is worth more than an A in a traditional class, white students often earn higher GPAs.
When Goshu has taken AP classes, she said she’s one of only one or two students of color. It’s an uncomfortable position. In an AP Government class last year, she said a teacher called her a “cop hater” for arguing that the institution of law enforcement is racist. In that instance, a white student backed her up — but it was the first time that ever happened.
“Everybody just kind of looks at you, giggles at you, gives you side-eye, and ignores you,” said Goshu, who is Black. “I dropped my book one day and a girl kicked it, like literally kicked my book at me. Those microaggressions are very tangible in those spaces.”
Goshu is skeptical that the changes proposed in East’s Black excellence plan will happen. All three changes must be approved by the East’s collaborative school committee, a group made up of students, parents, teachers, and staff.
Goshu anticipates the committee will get pushback from white parents worried that eliminating weighted grades will make their children less competitive in college admissions. When the two less controversial ideas — required ethnic studies classes and reconfigured core courses — were proposed at a recent meeting, the handful of parents in attendance seemed receptive.
But Assistant Principal Terita Walker said East has already gotten some questions.
“There are sometimes people who will say, ‘Why does it just have to be Black students?’” Walker said. At an earlier committee meeting, she said, “One of the first questions was, ‘I have a white student and I want to understand how this helps my student.’”
‘The plans are never done’
District officials recognize the wide variability in the quality of schools’ Black excellence plans, but they say that’s OK. The plans are a work in progress.
“We need to meet our leaders and our schools where they are and recognize that it’s a journey,” said Charles, one of the principal supervisors. “The plans are never done.”
District leaders also acknowledge that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools.
Black students make up about 14% of the district’s 92,000 students. But only about 4% of Denver teachers are Black. The majority of teachers — more than 70% — are white.
“We’re asking people to suddenly be concerned about Black excellence when the data says they haven’t historically been concerned with Black excellence,” said Vernon Jones, the executive director of a group of semi-autonomous district-run schools. “What the district needs to own is we’ve asked people to do some things they may not be equipped to do.”
School board Vice President Bacon, an architect of the Black Excellence Resolution, said she never expected the first iteration of these plans to be perfect. Now that schools have submitted them, she said the next challenge is figuring out which leaders need help and how best to deliver it — a task that is perhaps made more difficult in a decentralized system like Denver.
“We do have a district that generally needs to wrestle with autonomies and diversity,” Bacon said. “All of our schools are not the same. But what is the same is that we need to recognize that his group of children need particular support.”
The Black Excellence Resolution makes that clear, she said: “Whenever you put a stake in the ground, it’s to really make people do this kind of work instead of hope they will.”