Focus on Achievement: Targeted Supports for Black Students

Original article from the DPS Board of Education Update for Dec. 6, 2018

Targeted Supports for Black Students 

The Denver Board of Education tonight took an in-depth look at targeted supports for black students during its Focus on Achievement session, hearing from students, community partners and the African American Equity Task Force.

“I think it’s really important, as we talk about our African-American students, that we recognize the incredible gems they are,” said Board Member Jennifer Bacon as she opened the discussion. “Even though we may put some things on the table that are hard to receive, we want to be sure, as we are talking about opportunities, they are rooted in the assets of black children.”

The meeting covered the current state of the black student and staff experience in DPS, key efforts underway to improve that experience, and potential governance decisions the board can make to influence this space. Read the full presentation here, including disaggregated data illustrating the black experience in each of the Denver Plan 2020 goals. You can also watch a video of the meeting here.

Voices from the Field

Black high school students Avery Williams of George Washington High School and Michael Filmore of East High School were invited to share their experiences in DPS. Both said they wished their schools would have done a better job promoting equality, social justice and diversity clubs and opportunities, stating they didn’t know they existed and would have become involved earlier if they had the information. Both indicated they would like to see teachers better prepared to have conversations about race and ethnicity, as they often seem uncomfortable or scared to engage in conversations about inequity. They said they’d like to see better representation, both in having teachers who look like them and in the presence of blacks in curriculum, particularly history. 

Parents and community members also came to share their observations with the district. Gerie Grimes, president of the CEO Hope Center (an early childhood program in east Denver), said that black children they identify as gifted are often identified by DPS schools as having “behavior problems” because of their high levels of energy. She also underscored how important it is for parents and families to see people who look like them educating their children. 

Hasira “H-Soul” Ashemu, executive director of Breaking Our Chains, conveyed that DPS needs to learn how to authentically partner with black community organizations instead of feeling the need to control them. “One of the things I think is most damaging, and I don’t think the district has figured out, is how to be in partnership with black families, black parents and black institutions. You can’t empower groups from the paternalistic view where your norm is the best.” He said that the black community is frustrated at having contributed thousands of hours as part of the African American Equity Task Force, making recommendations that have yet to be implemented two years later.

Cassandra Johnson, president of the National Black Child Development Institute, and Ashemu asked that the board focus on two specific recommendations from the [African-American Equity Task Force]: 1) the formation of black family advisory councils and 2) the creation of a planning and assessment tool to empower these councils. 

The board also discussed district efforts with instructional superintendents Antoinette Hudson, Debbie Staten, Suzanne Morris-Sherer and Tony Smith. “Not all of our students are being exposed to the standards at the grade level and to the depth it should be taught, and then we wonder why we see black students not doing well on the test,” said Sherer. She added that many white teachers are afraid of black students, especially black males. She said students will perform when you have a relationship with them and believe in them. “If you have low expectations, they won’t show up. It is up to the leaders to be monitoring this and seeing our teachers intentionally build relationships. If no one is taking the time to intentionally make this part of their day and their work, you’ve lost your kids.” 

Tension Between Equity and Flexibility

Allen Smith, chief of the DPS Culture, Equity and Leadership Team (CELT), noted that on this day, Dec. 6, in 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified to abolish slavery. “It is included in the 13th Amendment to have a right to equality and an equitable education. In 2018, we have seen progress in that, but have yet to see where our black students are thriving and growing to successfully navigate the educational system and societal norms.”

Smith discussed how the word equity — one of the district’s Shared Core Values — has different meanings for different people in our system. Leslie Juniel, CELT senior program manager for equity initiatives, former board member Dr. Sharon Bailey and Smith set up a discussion around the tensions between honoring schools as the unit of change and allowing them flexibility with our responsibility to establish expectations and practices that ensure equity for all students. 

“The district has a vital role in establishing expectations and practices to ensure equity for all students, especially those with the greatest needs and least privileges — our students of color, those from lower-income families, English language learners and students with special needs. Experience has painfully shown us the need for clarity in such expectations and practices and the cost to students of their absence,” slide 40 in the board presentation explains. “We live in a society where privilege and social capital often work to perpetuate in our schools the inequities in our society, and the district has a fundamental leadership role in driving and ensuring equity in all we do. Equity issues can involve both inter-school issues such as resource allocation, boundaries, enrollment systems, and transportation; and intra-school issues such as personnel decisions, discipline, culturally responsive education, and access to rigorous classes. Where practices or actions at the school or district level exacerbate inequities, the district must ensure changes are made.”

Efforts Underway and Key Learnings 

District leaders discussed efforts underway to improve the black experience in DPS, including initiatives to attract and retain a diverse workforce, provide culturally responsive education and become a trauma-informed district. 

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova shared learnings from previous targeted efforts to close opportunity gaps for students. In highly successful efforts to improve opportunities for students of color in Concurrent Enrollment and Advanced Placement courses, the English Language Acquisition program and Early Literacy, all shared common strategies to increase universal training for teachers, embedded professional learning and job supports, explicit progress monitoring, additional funding, and a consistent, long-term focus throughout the district. 

“When we focus in this way, we actually move the needle and it’s part of what we think is the solution that we see for the work we want to enact with our black students in the district,” said Cordova. “With concerted effort, an all-in approach, expectations at the classroom and district level in terms of how we offer supports, we really can make meaningful progress in helping our black students show the excellence that is in them.” Board Member Happy Haynes took the opportunity to highlight another commonality for her peers on the board: “We were at the heart of every one of these. We drove each of these initiatives. We set the goal posts, provided the resources to get it done and held people accountable. So, as we go through this conversation — people are doing the work — but it’s on us to make these successes.”