Advocating for Equity in Denver Public Schools

Of all of the challenges that the Strengthening Neighborhoods committee was asked to address, there was no doubt in my mind that I would join the working group focused on Equity. The opportunity gap in our system is real, and although there is great diversity within Denver Public Schools (DPS), there is not yet true equity or inclusion. Whenever I can advocate for those in our community who can’t advocate for themselves, I will be that voice, continuously saying, “we’ve got work to do.”

Advocating for equity and inclusion has been a longstanding passion for me, both professionally, in my role supporting organizations with diversity training, and personally, as I supported my daughter’s quest for equity through the One George initiative at George Washington High School.

It’s no surprise that the first core belief that the committee established was that “historic, institutional racism and discrimination have inhibited the academic and social progress of students of color and low-income students in Denver.” After all, one of the primary reasons many of us joined this citywide effort was to focus on creating productive, high-quality solutions to the issues of equity and inclusion in our public schools.

But it was an important starting point for the work that the Equity group wrestled with, because we had to start with naming the elephant in the room. Many of the district’s policies, by default, benefit European-American students and families. We felt an urgent need to push against the status quo and to take a creative approach to our policies for tracking and measuring equity so that other communities are included. Rather than just expecting square pegs to fit round holes, maybe we all need to shift to create a new shape that fits everyone.

Our recommendations for Equity targeted three key areas for improvement:

Expanding the current measures of equity

When DPS staff presented the extensive data that the district is currently tracking in regards to Equity, the sheer quantity of information was overwhelming, but all of those numbers haven’t yet added up to more equitable outcomes for students and families. Our recommendation was that DPS look more closely at how it measures how well schools are implementing equity in school culture, teaching practices, student engagement, as well as social-emotional outcomes and other key factors. DPS should make sure it’s finding the best ways to use the data we have, and seeking out the data we need to get the best possible results for students.  

Committing to equitable allocation of resources

Equitable should not necessarily mean equal, particularly in public education. The committee recommended that DPS allocate money and resources in ways that will increase success for all students in all schools, based on their specific needs. This recommendation also encourages DPS to prioritize the recruitment, retention, placement and support of diverse staff members, knowing that a diverse staff is a powerful district resource for improving equity in schools.  

Increasing equity in community involvement

The committee strongly believes that equity is more likely to result when DPS acts “with” families when it comes to decision-making, rather than “to” or “for” families and the community. We recommended that DPS increase support structures for community engagement to build trust, grow engagement and provide opportunities for authentic, two-way feedback. As an advocate, I know that many communities are not even aware that the need is there to advocate for themselves. Particularly among immigrants, the expectation is that they will assimilate and adapt into the existing framework, regardless of whether it works for them. To truly include all families in our community, DPS must meet families where they are – not the other way around.

Still more work to be done

The six months I spent on the Strengthening Neighborhoods committee revealed to me that there’s much more work to be done. The situation is not hopeless – it’s just going to require work and dedication to make the changes that are necessary to close opportunity gaps in DPS. It’s going to require those who are used to the status quo to step outside of their comfort zone. It’s going to require some sacrifice from those who are not used to sacrificing. It’s going to require those in need to speak up and truly share their concerns. And above all, it’s going to require DPS to create not just a safe environment, but a courageous environment, where it’s ok to bravely speak your truth.


About Michelle Quattlebaum: Dedicated to changing the world one conversation at a time, Michelle has facilitated group conversations on a wide range of topics to gain a better understanding of societal perception, as well as developed and facilitated cross-cultural workshops for couples, families, and individuals who seek a healthier understanding of communication and its implications for them and the world around them. This blog is the third in a CO School Talk series detailing the Strengthening Neighborhoods committee’s recommendations on how to increase integration and inclusion in DPS schools.

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