"What if poor and minority students are performing below other students not because something is wrong with them or their families, but because most schools don't bother to teach them what they need to know?"- Katie Haycock, director, Education TrustDenver is failing its youth, and will continue to do so, unless we turn Denver Public Schools around. We face a fundamental decision: Will we as a community decide to make education a priority for this city? Or will we sit by as Denver's public education system is overrun by mediocrity and low expectations?
Throughout the country, there are a growing number of inner-city schools of color where more than 90 percent of the students stay in school, graduate and go on to college. Some are public, some are charter and some are private - but they all have some basic threads that run through them: Foremost is the belief that all students should be prepared to go to college.
Here in Denver, the Arrupe Jesuit High School has just graduated its entire senior class and all are college-bound. The school's demographics are the same as North High School - 60 percent of the students are at or below the poverty line - but the expectations are high.
In a recent Denver Post article, Arrupe's president, Rev. Stephen Planning, said: "It's a rigorous and demanding program, and these are kids from whom society does not expect a lot, but if you hold the bar high enough for them, and offer support, they will jump over it."
At Padres & Jovenes Unidos, we often meet resistance to setting such a high bar. People tell us that we are setting youth up for failure, or that some students, let's face it, just aren't college material. That's one lesson Juan Evangelista learned at North High School.
"I was in 11th grade when an organizer from Padres Unidos took me aside and told me I should stop ditching classes, work hard, and go to college," Evangelista says. "I had never had a teacher even mention that college was a possibility." With support from Padres Unidos, not only was Juan able to graduate from North High School, but he was also able to start classes at the Community College of Denver.
We have hope in Superintendent Michael Bennet's approach to listening to the community. However, the district will not be transformed by Bennet alone. In order for reform to succeed, we must insist that our teachers, parents and school administrators believe in the educational ability of our youth, regardless of their income, race, or native language.
In order to turn our district around, the following must occur:
School principals who are committed to reform must have the full support of the school district, with the power to manage their own schools and choose their own staff;
Denver Public Schools must have high academic standards and curricula that are aligned with the SAT and ACT college entrance exams for all of its students, including English-language learners;
We must push beyond an outdated educational infrastructure rooted in a long-gone agricultural society that required time off to work in the fields. We must insist on longer school days, longer school years, and classes and activities on Saturdays;
DPS must implement curricula that are multicultural and global in perspective to build the self-confidence, equality and mutual respect in our students needed to ensure that the values of democracy and justice will abound at home and abroad, as well as meet the workforce needs of the global economy;
And last but not least, our entire system must be part of an integrated whole that has a common vision at its helm. Principals and leaders of instruction at all levels (K-12) must meet regularly to monitor their collective quality and progress in educating all students at high academic levels.
The extent to which districts, principals and teachers embrace, internalize and implement these elements of educational excellence is the extent to which our schools will fail or succeed.
As a community, it is our collective responsibility to demand and support change that will bring educational excellence. Armed with the knowledge that low-income students of all colors have the intellectual capacity to do high-level work, all things are possible. Visit Cesar Chavez Academy, Dolores Huerta High School, or the Arrupe Jesuit High School to be inspired. Become a believer in our youth.
Ricardo and Pam Martinez are founding members of Padres Unidos (www.padresunidos.org) and have been organizing for educational and immigrant justice for 30 years. They can be reached at padres_unidos @hotmail.com or 303-433-5081.