Making the education system equitable is no easy task, but education leaders across Colorado continue to push for positive change and share their experiences in the hope of creating a more equitable system for future generations.
Four community leaders gathered for a panel discussion titled “Equity, Educators and Workforce Transformation” at the Lone Tree Arts Center in early November.
The panel was part of the Changing the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity – Conversations for One America series presented by the nonprofit Colorado Humanities, one of 56 humanities councils in the US funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
“Everyone The panelists bring very specific backgrounds and skills and they all work in different sectors Education,” said LaNaya Butler, the conversation programs coordinator for Colorado Humanities. “I feel like everyone is working to fix problems in their respective fields.”
The hour-long conversation, moderated by Executive Director Janiece Mackey of the non-profit organization Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA), highlighted inequalities in the education system and the methods – and the need – for change.
What drew panelists to education
One of the reasons Rosanne Fulton, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Northern Colorado, was interested in a career in education was that she grew up in very poor circumstances and discovered in the classroom that there were opportunities for people.
Tim Hernández, a teacher who drew media attention earlier this year when his contract at Denver’s North High School was not renewed, grew up in Colorado in the relatives’ foster care system and attended seven schools in seven years.
As a young man, he realized that education is one of the few sustainable systems for people who “exist in systems designed to be unsustainable for them.”
The conversations Tracie Trinidad, director of policy and partnerships for the non-profit YAASPA, had with her parents about the injustice they experience from their teachers, set them on the scene to make sure other students didn’t suffer the racism they felt her parents felt.
Natalie Lewis, vice president of leadership development at DSST Public Schools, was driven by a desire to serve her community and teach young people the heritage they come from, not the stories they are often told in schools.
The Value of Love
When asked what values they bring to education, Lewis said they believe in leadership and love.
“I think the job of education is to make sure everyone knows that love exists between and within different communities,” Lewis said.
Reflecting on how she shows love, Trinidad said, “It’s being humble and knowing that you don’t know everything and that there’s so much to learn from the young people.”
Sometimes in the classroom, educators feel they need to have power over youth, she said.
“And I think by honoring the lived experience of youth and the knowledge that they’re already bringing to the classroom, we can show love and the way we can really change education,” Trinidad said.
Fulton said that as people develop deeper relationships with others, they develop more love. And with that comes more energy to think outside the box to support their growth and development.
“My core values are love, compassion and sensitivity,” she said. “And you know, putting in the energy that it takes to get to know people as individuals, because when you do that, the support that we’re able to offer people can be very transformative.”
Love is foundational, Hernández said, and part of that foundation is urgency too — something he brings with him.
“I don’t think we have time to wait,” he said, explaining that if people are unhappy with the education system, they need to take action to change it.
“As Paulo Freire writes, school does one of two things – it either upholds a just society or it destroys an unjust one. I don’t think anyone here tonight believes we live in a just society,” he said.
“And when we live in an unjust society, we urgently need to have love, we need to have community, we need to have responsibility to make something better,” he said.
What should be removed from the school experience?
Hernández has a long list of things he would like to eliminate from the education system, including standardized testing and standardized education.
Ultimately, he wants to remove “the fundamental nature of education as separate from community” and “anything that is not community-directed,” he said.
“If families and students don’t want something in their education, it shouldn’t be there,” he said.
He understands people’s affinity with national standards and ensures that students can perform well and makes it clear that he does not oppose this. Standards are part of giving students shared knowledge, and educators need to get everyone on the same page, he said.
“But to place the idea that standardized education and a community’s needs and desires are diametrically opposed is to say that communities cannot thrive academically alone, separate from the systems in which we exist,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s the reality.”
Building on Hernández’s points, Trinidad asked who the “normal” and the “traditional” students were.
“I really think communities need to create their own schooling, hire their own educators, and create a curriculum that they know will support their students to be the best people they can be,” Trinidad said.
The current education system has taught people to be more docile than critical, she said.
“Therefore, school education is currently a microcosm of our larger society. It’s a battlefield and we see it as we vote and legislate on what can and cannot be taught in schools,” she said.
Expectations of the education system are one-sided because they are set outside of students and families, Lewis said. Going forward, it’s important to involve families and students in the conversation about what the expectations should be.
Cultural responsiveness versus cultural sustainability
Fulton would remove anything in schools that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of cultural responsiveness, which she says involves teachers building relationships with families and making decisions together.
“I just think it’s very important for everyone to have their own definition of cultural responsiveness and then act on it on a daily basis,” Fulton said.
However, Hernández said he does not believe in culturally appealing education. Instead, he believes in culturally sustainable education.
“Culturally-responsive education validates the idea that culture and education are two separate entities that need to be responsive to one another,” Hernández said. “The culture is already there. It’s not our job to respond. It is our job to preserve them.”
Students deserve their cultures to be represented in the classroom, he said, and schools should actively promote a student’s culture by emphasizing cultural knowledge and expression. Otherwise the culture students might disappear when entering the classroom.
“I think every teacher deserves pre-service education, especially pre-service teachers of color deserve (an) education that teaches them how to maintain culture in the classroom,” he said. “Because when we are given tools and resources to sustain culture in the classroom, these are inherent resources to sustain our own culture itself.”
The feeling that their culture isn’t being maintained is part of what drives color educators away, Lewis said.
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center article, white teachers far outnumber educators of other races and ethnicities, with 79% of US public school teachers identifying themselves as white.
“If 80% of the teachers are white, that’s not just racist teaching conditions. These are also colonial conditions,” said Hernández. “It’s very important that if we exist in racist and colonial educational systems, that we have to be very honest about it – what those systems are – with our students.”
In 2019, The Denver Post reported that more than half of Denver’s public schools are as segregated as they were in the late 1960s.
“We have the power within us to demand something better from where we exist,” Hernández said. “The question isn’t what we want to do, but how long are we willing to wait to get there?”
What gives Trinidad hope is to see how the resistance of young people has developed. She says she has interviewed young people who questioned the textbooks used in the classroom and held meetings with school leaders about what they would like to see in schools.
“I think that gave me hope because they too will be leaders and educators,” she said.