On the eve of the Denver teachers’ strike, which began this Monday, Superintendent Susana Cordova claimed that equity was the primary reason she refused to meet the unions’ demands for higher across-the-board pay increases. Like in so many cities across the country, Denver’s billionaire-backed district leaders continue to insist that privatization and “merit pay” are the only viable educational remedies for low-income students of color.
Over the past few weeks, Denver’s students have surged into action to challenge this narrative. Jhoni Palmer, a junior at East High, is one of a small group of high schoolers who have catalyzed thousands of their peers to participate in sit-ins, walkouts, and, most recently, a pro-strike dance party.
Palmer first decided to start organizing after her favorite teacher announced that he was moving away from Denver because he could no longer afford to provide for his family. “It broke my heart,” she explains. “I know what it’s like to struggle to survive—I come from a background where we don’t have a lot of money. So it’s insane to me that my teachers, who spend so many hours supporting us, can’t make ends meet.” As for Cordova’s corporate anti-racism, Palmer replied: “I don’t understand how not paying Denver teachers is helping us students of color. What we really need is more funding and a better curriculum.”
For junior Alessandra Chavira—a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, one of Denver’s low-income, “high priority” schools afflicted by soaring teacher-turnover rates—the movement is just as much about improving conditions for students as it is about supporting teachers. In her view, “since so many of us have experienced trauma—gun violence, family deportations, incarceration, homelessness—our school district should really be providing us with a lot more resources. We’re not getting them.” Teachers at her school, Chavira explains, “are stretched to become our parents, therapists, and friends. But there’s only so much they can do on their own. Hopefully this strike will show those in power that they actually need to fund our schools if they want our teachers to stay.”
Hoping to make their opinions heard, Palmer, Chavira, and a few of their peers on the Student Board of Education scheduled a meeting with Superintendent Cordova on January 23. Infuriated by Cordova’s last-minute cancellation, they turned to social media. That same evening, Palmer, Chavira, et al. posted a video on Facebook enthusiastically calling on Denver students to participate that coming Monday in all-day student sit-ins “to support our educators.” To their surprise, the post went viral.
Well over a 1,000 high schoolers participated in the January 28 protests. Throughout the day, students spoke about how much they appreciated their teachers; they made signs and wrote letters in support of the looming strike; and they educated each other about the union’s demands and the roots of public education’s crisis.
“It was amazing—we started to feel our power,” recalls Claudia Loya, a junior at John F. Kennedy High. “And we learned a lot: These people in charge, they say they’re doing this for us. But they’re actually turning a system that’s supposed to be for us students into a way to make profits for themselves.” Palmer sounded a similar note: “Colorado is a wealthy state, so we know the money is there—but it’s just not going to those who need it. And nationwide, there’s always money for war and destruction, but never enough for public education.”
Day one of the strike illustrated the depth of Denver’s student upsurge. Rather than stay at home, high schoolers across the city choose to arrive at school to demonstrate the incapacity of the district to safely care for them—let alone provide an education—in the absence of their teachers. The gamble worked.
Many Denver schools were a chaotic mess on Monday. Large numbers of students arrived to empty classrooms with no supervision; others were haphazardly herded into auditoriums and given irrelevant worksheets. Over the course of the morning, students in schools like South High and MLK Jr. disobeyed administrator orders and walked out. Throughout the day, thousands of them braved the cold and spent the day walking the frigid picket lines and rallying with their teachers.
Actions escalated furthest at East High. After an hour and a half of being aimlessly shepherded across the school with no clear plan or supervision, the junior class took matters into its own hands early Monday morning, jamming into the hallways chanting, “Pay our teachers! Pay our teachers!” A spontaneous dance party broke out after one student began blasting “Mo Bamba” on their personal speaker. Unable to control the crowd, exasperated deans told everyone to go home. Though footage of the scene immediately went viral in Denver, and even made the national news, Superintendent Cordova nevertheless bizarrely insisted that Denver’s students had spent the day studying in well-supervised classrooms.
Denver’s working-class students of color have succeeded in exploding the claims of Denver’s privatizers to speak on their behalf. High-school activism is proving itself to be a secret weapon of the education struggle in Denver—as well as in Oakland, where walkouts have recently erupted to build support for the looming teachers’ strike. And for newly emerged leaders like Jhoni Palmer and Alessandra Chavira, this movement goes beyond saving public schools. Chavira put it well:
This fight is part of something broader—all my peers know that. Some of us just make memes about what’s going on, but we’re socially aware, more and more. And it really bothers me that when we finally speak up about political issues, we get a ton of pushback. Because of our organizing, now right-wingers have started calling us communists. I know I’m doing something right if I’m getting people like that angry. We’re going to take over this country—so those in power are scared.