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Fear, Stereotypes And Isolation: Inside The Report On Racism In Denver Public Schools

Denver Public Schools
Denver Public Schools administrative office

While kids are getting ready to head back to class this month, administrators at Denver Public Schools are working on solutions to what some perceive to be a culture of racism in the system. A report commissioned by the district showed black teachers and administrators overwhelmingly felt the district had failed them, and had failed their black students as well. The report also found that low expectations for students of color threw up additional roadblocks to achievement.

The report [.pdf] by former DPS board member Sharon Bailey was the culmination of 70 recent interviews and focus groups with black educators and administrators within the district.

Major Takeaways:

DPS continues to struggle with employing and supporting teachers of color.

The student population in the district is 78 percent non-white, while 74 percent of the teaching workforce is white. Even going into this school year, the same issue is reflected in the district’s newest class of teachers. According to data from the district, out of the 935 new teachers joining the district this year, 70 percent are white, 19 percent are Latino and just 4 percent are black. All this in spite of an ad campaign launched earlier this year called “Make Your Mark Denver,” which is aimed at recruiting more teachers of color. However, the two-year campaign may make a dent in future waves of hiring.

Black educators in the district said they also lack support. Many respondents reported that it was more difficult for them to advance in their jobs. They also reported feeling isolated. Many black educators said they felt that their opinions did not matter to other teachers or administrators; they they were stereotyped as bad teachers, and had to work harder than their white peers to gain respect and recognition.

“African-Americans in DPS are invisible, silenced and dehumanized, especially if you are passionate, vocal and unapologetically black,” one respondent said. “We can’t even be advocates for our kids. It feels a lot like being on a plantation… there is a lot of fear and black folks are pitted against each other.”

A major trend that emerged throughout Bailey’s study was of a lack of role models.

“Our African-American students need caring, qualified teachers with a willingness to learn about other cultures,” another respondent said. “They also need to have high expectations for our students.”

Bailey cited findings that show minority teachers are more likely to have higher academic expectations of minority students, which lead to another major takeaway…

White teachers set lower expectations for students of color

Many of those interviewed for Bailey’s study said they felt white teachers were less likely to build good relationships with students of color. While the district as a whole has offered cultural competency training for the past few years, few respondents felt that schools who needed it took advantage of the training. Bailey wrote that many of her interview subjects felt they did not have time for such initiatives because they were too busy trying to meet benchmarks for standardized testing.

“Districtwide, I see some schools embracing cultural competency training, other schools who refuse to have it at all. They think they don’t need it. They have their own specialists or think they already know everything, and they don’t,” one respondent said. “One of the schools I’m thinking of is one that speaks the loudest about being culturally competent and they are the least in my opinion and the most discriminatory and segregated of all, and blatantly just not addressing the needs of kids of color.”

White teachers disproportionately discipline black students, often out of fear

Bailey noted that white teachers -- predominantly women -- appeared to be fearful of young black men in their classrooms.

“I think some of our teachers are afraid of African-American males. Because of this, these teachers just kick African-American males out of the classrooms. One day I counted six different African-American males just hanging out in the hallway because they were kicked out of class,” a respondent said. “I went to the principal about this. I think the principal wants to help but does not know how.”

Black teachers and administrators participating in the study overwhelmingly felt as though white teachers labeled black students the minute they walked in the classroom. As a result of this, “African-American students are suffering a great deal,” said another respondent.

Black teachers also reported that their white colleagues tended to send black students to them with disciplinary problems.

“I’m a special education teacher and I have kids who aren’t even in special education being sent to me just because they can’t deal with behavior…These kids act out and they just get rid of them. These adults hold on to these grudges and they just don’t let go,” one respondent claimed. “So the kids know who they don’t like and who doesn’t like them…They know who has given up on them.”

Read the full report here [.pdf]

DPS’ next steps

The district has offered optional cultural competency training for years. The 2016-2017 school year will be the first year this training is made mandatory for all new teachers. The district has also just begun a series open forums across the city. Community members will have the chance to speak with Dr. Bailey about the report and share their own experiences with prejudices in the school district.

“Our greatest hope in offering these safe spaces and time is to give people an opportunity to connect as we find ways to heal and continue our shared work shaping a more equitable and inclusive DPS community,” wrote Superintendent Tom Boasberg in a letter to the community on July 29.

This month, the district is also identifying members for a task force that can make recommendations based on the findings. Those recommendations are to be finalized by the end of this year. Teachers, administrators, community members and even students will comprise the task force.

Ann Marie Awad's journalistic career has seen her zigzag around the United States, finally landing on Colorado. Before she trekked to this neck of the woods, she was a reporter and Morning Edition host for WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capitol. In a former life, she was a reporter in New York City. Originally, she's from Buffalo, so she'll be the judge of whether or not your chicken wings are up to snuff, thank you very much.
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