Rallying cry

Denver teachers union teams up with parents seeking to roll back reforms

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Teachers at Beach Court Elementary School in northwest Denver marched outside their school Wednesday morning. They were met by a group of parents. The rally was part of a nationwide effort to bring attention to public schools.

Before the first tardy bell rang Wednesday morning, dozens of teachers, parents, and students marched and waved signs outside of four Denver schools asking for more money and more respect.

The modest marches, organized by the city’s teachers union in partnership with a national organization, marked the beginning of a campaign to unite teachers and parents frustrated with the direction of Denver Public Schools. The union is hoping to energize parents and seize the renewed interest in public schools created by a spate of school board election victories along the Front Range.

It’s a tall order. Denver voters have again and again rejected union-supported school board candidates and their positions. But the union sees itself in a position to make new allies — and to begin developing a message that will resonate with voters in the 2017 school board election.

“Today the teachers and staff are joining with our community to celebrate our schools and advocate for the schools our Denver students deserve,” said Lynne Valencia, a teacher at Beach Court Elementary School and vice president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We’re committing to work alongside the community to ensure all Denver students have a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.”

While the local campaign is in its infancy, those involved in the effort talk about smaller class sizes, deeper community partnerships to provide services for families, and greater accountability for charter schools. Those priorities echo those of a national movement created by the Chicago-based Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, which counts the nation’s largest teachers unions as members.

On Wednesday, before-school marches took place at hundreds of schools across the nation, including in Chicago and Los Angeles, where reform efforts similar to those happening in Denver — including the opening of more independent charter schools and using test results to make decisions about closing schools — are underway.

Denver’s reform efforts have yielded mixed results. While enrollment and graduation rates are up, there are still wide gaps in how well students of color perform compared to their white peers.

To Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver union, the district’s tactics are old news.

“It’s been a long time and it really isn’t making a difference,” she said.

Denver’s Acting Superintendent Susan Cordova disagreed.

“I think when we look at the work we have done, and you ask, ‘are the reforms working,’ I think we’ve made significant progress,” Cordova said referring to the district’s graduation and remediation rates. “But we’re still nowhere near our own expectations of where we need to be.”

Teachers and parents who marched Wednesday had a range of concerns about how Denver funds and evaluates it schools, and about the programs the district provides to students.

Beach Court Elementary parent Kristin Barnes, who marched with teachers on Wednesday, said she believes Denver’s school choice system and inadequate state funding have stripped her school of resources.

Barnes said she believes students should be able to play and learn where they live. She dreams of schools staffed with well-trained teachers working with parents to meet the needs of students, strengthened by community partnerships to help families in need, and flush with resources.

“I believe that’s possible for this school and every school in the city,” Barnes said.

Union critic and Stanford professor Terry Moe said the union’s new effort shows it is on the defensive.

“This is not a good time for them,” Moe said. “Reformers have been on the move and achieving some successes. … Unions are more worried now that their power is slipping and they’re being aggressive.”

But their power was on full display last fall when the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and its local chapters helped to flip several school boards, including the high-profile Jefferson County school board, in their favor.

Part of the union’s’ strategy included partnering with politically connected middle-class parents who were frustrated with their school board.

Union leader Shamburg said Denver parents are just as frustrated.

“They don’t necessarily know where to go with it or what to do with it,” Shamburg said. “But that’s coming more and more. We get the calls, not just from teachers, but from parents and community members. They’re asking, ‘What do we do?’”

Denver school board member Lisa Flores, who represents Denver’s northwest corner, said the school board is not deaf to the concerns of parents — and the divide between the school board and the union is not as wide as it seems.

“I think there is shared agreement on smaller class sizes, making more resources available to schools, and holding charters and district schools accountable for academic achievement among the board and with this national movement,” Flores said. “Where there is disagreement is how you get there.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”