Speaking Back

Last Wednesday evening was one of those nights when I was struck by what it means to really be an ally for those who don’t feel they have power or voice. I live in Denver, CO, a wonderful city on many levels. As is the case with many wonderful cities, its benefits are sometimes its drawbacks. This feels true in many sectors, and the education sector is no different. I feel lucky to have had the chance to get to know and work with and alongside many amazing people who are all committed to doing what they think is best for children. I don’t agree with people on everything but I do appreciate that everyone believes they are working towards a better system. However, Denver is a small city or a big town – take your pick. Over the last seven years I have watched the same roster of players fill different leadership roles in the education community, and being able to work with others and not rock the boat becomes a bit of a pre-requisite in that type of environment.

Wednesday starkly illuminated one of the downsides of that type of environment. On February 10, 2017 there was an open letter published in Chalkbeat, a local news organization. It had been written by the four leaders of Denver’s most prominent college preparatory charter school networks. The letter speaks for itself, but the bottom line is that these four leaders were making a request that they, collectively, be allowed to open a large number of new schools in an urban district that is already saturated by college preparatory charter schools. I understand why they believe that allowing them to expand is a good thing for Denver students. I disagree. But I understand.

Response to their letter being published was swift and fierce – in my circles and the networks of many friends and colleagues, calls, texts, emails, off-hand remarks began pouring in. People have concerns about these schools. They are concerns I have written about on this blog, such as the misgivings about how they treat students in the name of high expectations and academic rigor; or how they treat teachers and students of color; how they create environments that feel fearful and oppressive, where adults and young people feel they will be punished if they speak out against things they find unfair and concerning. I’ve heard the stories and seen the actions, and as a brown woman I understand – even more so these days.

But the culture of fear that has been created extends beyond the schools themselves and into the Denver education community because these four networks and their leaders have power: money, connections, influence, the ability to cut people down and never have to apologize. I have been in meetings and in conversations with advocates and funders and education leaders where the same concerns are expressed as I have heard expressed in schools by teachers and students. But there is a sense that saying something out loud and publicly could result in being shunned by the powers that be. Not being invited to sit at the big boys table, to be in meetings, to be part of the group of folks who are “in the know” and have the power. And I understand. I disagree. But I understand.

So we had a meeting last Wednesday in my living room. We thought it would be good to invite a few people to talk about what it would look like to try and respond to the open letter because it was obvious that people were upset and we thought some type of response was in order. I thought maybe a dozen people would show up. Over the course of the evening over 40 people showed up after a long work day, some trickling in just for the last half hour in order to at least be there. Teachers and principals (including from some of these networks), activists, parents, students, leaders in organizations that ARE part of the big boys table and support the four networks asking to expand.

As we pulled out every last chair in the place only to find that people still had to sit on the floor and stand up on the side, we asked people what they had to gain by being there, and what they had to lose. Person after person said what they had to gain was being in the presence of other people who shared the concerns that they felt but didn’t feel like they could talk about them out loud in our larger community. And at least 30 of the people in my living room said that what they had to lose was their job, their network, the school they led or wanted to start, their connections within their professional and maybe personal communities since when you work in schools and education your colleagues are also often your friends. Think about that for a second. They worried about losing their job and networks and connections for showing up at a meeting to talk about the idea that there might be concerns worth expressing about certain schools in our community. I understand. I SO disagree. But I understand.

I have spent the last many days wrestling with myself. Wrestling with the reality that I am no different than the people who talked about what they have to lose because my livelihood also depends on working within this community and its organizations. But there were a lot of people in my living room who felt exactly as I do but don’t feel like they have the same voice. I send my two boys to a school that talks about compassion, courage and integrity, and focuses a lot on what it means to be a member of a community even when it is hard. This feels like a moment when our community is more likely to end in a better place if we stand together to speak up and ask for a conversation, than if many people stand alone continuing to feel unheard at best, ignored at worst and ineffective all around.

I helped draft this letter about why Denver needs a greater variety of schools – schools that take different approaches to the work of learning. This makes it more likely that parents and students can find schools that fit. Those of you who know me and my work over the last few years know that I believe in ideas and solutions that I think are pragmatic and reasonable, based in science and research and recognizing the diversity of learners and what it means for kids to succeed. This letter is an articulation of the research I have done for my book over the last two years, and presents ideas that I (and others) think could reasonably move our district forward in positive ways.

My colleague and friend drafted this letter, which calls out some really important issues our district faces in confronting and changing a broader climate and culture that helped lead folks to my living room last Wednesday. I have a lot of thoughts about this second letter, which I will post more about in the coming days so check back here and on Facebook.

Other than these two letters, I don’t know for sure what the response will include. Probably anger. Because that’s what happens when you have people who feel like they have been unheard, ignored and ineffective. Probably some sadness and frustration. And hopefully some inspiring ideas and themes that hold the promise of seeding productive conversations moving forward.

If you’re interested in learning more, click on the links above, and watch this space over the next few weeks. For those of you who live in Denver and/or know others who do please share this information because this is a conversation that should matter to all of us – whether we have kids in school today, may have kids in school tomorrow, or really just care about changing both the culture and the work of our district and community.

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