In the last 12 months, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has experienced significant leadership and structural changes. The new superintendent, Dr. Alex Marrero, started last July, and then the new year began with the introduction of three new Board of Education directors. Most recently, the central office began restructuring — downsizing staff and bringing substantial changes to the senior leadership team. While the district has been in a state of constant change, Our Turn and student leaders remained steadfast — ensuring that through these shifts, our agenda and our voices are heard.
In the summer of 2021, while our new DPS superintendent was conducting his listening tour and convening the transition advisory team, students were doing similar work to connect with their community and peers. In six weeks, student leaders from the Denver metro area conducted dozens of listening sessions in their communities with peers and education stakeholders. We listened, debated, researched, narrowed, and, by the end of our six weeks, student leaders identified five priority issue areas that students and young people want leaders to address in the education system – the Colorado Student Agenda.
After the agenda was set, we made sure other students, community members, and especially education leaders in Denver Public Schools knew about our issues and heard about them directly from students.
In the 2021-2022 school year Our Turn student leaders hosted nearly a dozen meetings with school board candidates, elected officials, and district leadership. Here are our highlights:
- Meeting Dr. Marrero | At our very first action of the school year, student leaders shared their stories and experiences directly with Dr. Marrero. The interaction was one he enjoyed so much that he later mentioned Our Turn youth leader Amelia Federico in his speech to the crowd as an example of the kind of DPS student he hopes the district will produce.
- School Board Candidate Meetings | Students garnered commitments to action from almost every candidate in the 2021 school board elections, and, in three of four races, the winners were aligned with and committed to the Colorado Student Agenda (CSA).
- Strategic Plan Advisory Team Meetings | When the strategic plan advisory team members read our agenda, they said they saw our issues and our voice reflected in district priorities.
While students brought issues like lack of mental health support or the need for more in depth support for students to explore post-graduation pathways to life through testimony and social media storytelling, the same issues were showing up in district leadership conversations and community committees. After more than four years of diligent advocacy and relationship building in the district, including a major push around the CSA the past 9 months, the Board of Education “End Statements'' and the Superintendent’s Transition Team Priorities both included many issues that directly align to our Colorado Student Agenda pillars. Most recently, Dr. Marrero presented his “reasonable interpretations” of the board end statements, and once again we are encouraged to see the alignment with our priorities demonstrating that student voices and solutions were not only being heard, but being prioritized and implemented.
Below, we examine commitments the district has made that align with the Colorado Student Agenda. In the coming school year, DPS will emerge with a new strategic plan, clarity on the direction and metrics for success, and a new central office structure to support real change.
We at Our Turn are excited to partner with the district to make progress toward a student-informed vision for the district.
Support Student Mental Health
- The superintendent’s policy statement on the Student and Staff Well-Being end statement explicitly calls out social-emotional health as a critical component of DPS. The recommitment to this work, and specifically putting mental health on the same level of focus as physical health, comes directly from student messaging used throughout the Our Turn mental health campaign.
In the superintendent’s reasonable interpretation, the commitment to providing trauma-informed teachers and leaders is an extension of the district’s trauma-informed resolution, and comes directly from the Our Turn mental health campaign demands. Students advocated with the board, central office staff, and the budget advisory committee to demand full funding for this team and an expansion of the training. We encourage leadership to commit to a permanent line item in the DPS budget for the trauma informed services team.
- Finally, DPS makes a commitment to check in with students and staff to “assess the social-emotional and mental health strain… so that we can quickly address and mitigate… issues,” but periodically needs further definition and we’d encourage clear commitments to student feedback sessions and student leadership and decision making in how gaps and “issues” are “addressed and mitigated”.
Justice for Marginalized Students
- The Teaching and Learning reasonable interpretation provided by our superintendent specifically calls out ensuring students with disabilities and multilingual learners have adequate resources and support. This directly aligns with student demands in the ‘Justice for Marginalized Students’ Pillar of the Colorado Student Agenda. However, specific metrics commit the district to returning to pre-pandemic levels of staff for Colorado Department of Education compliance. We look forward to partnering with the district to build a vision that will allow all students, especially those with historically marginalized identities, to thrive and not just meet bare minimums. To fully provide these young people with what they need we must make decisions with them, not for them.
- We are encouraged to see the district recommit to culturally and linguistically competent and relevant curriculum. This focus area directly aligns with Our Turn student calls to track and hold state and district entities accountable for strong implementation of existing state and district commitments in this area. In addition, the superintendent’s metric on this commitment relies on student feedback and experience, rather than planning or intention. This direct feedback loop from students is something we encourage the district to incorporate in every priority area.
- The superintendent makes commitments to increase; retention of teachers of color, academic achievement of marginalized communities, and reported sense of belonging from families of color. Each of these offers a strong starting point to advance the student vision for Justice for Marginalized Students in DPS, and we encourage leadership to engage many student groups that have their own ideas and solutions to accomplish these goals.
Improve Post Graduation Pathways
- The superintendents policy statement and reasonable interpretation statement in the post-graduation and global citizenship section offers a starting point for the journey of broadening and deepening our system of support for graduating students. The Our Turn student vision of support for exploring post-graduation options has many parallels to district commitments, including the desire for our system to build well rounded humans who are socially and academically prepared for the ever-changing world they will emerge into. We will continue to elevate student insights and experiences that can help our district fill the gaps and ensure that all students have access to extensive and culturally relevant resources to graduate and be successful post-graduation.
- The district makes a promising commitment to ensure that seniors graduate with a post-graduation plan. This is directly informed by Our Turn demands that students receive resources and support as early as ninth grade to begin exploring pathways post graduation. Senior year is too late to just begin thinking about life after DPS. We encourage the district to set the metric for success as high as possible for this outcome, and ensure that post-secondary education, career and technical pathways, and apprenticeship and direct employment programs are equally encouraged for all students.
- In the Colorado Student Agenda, students specifically call out the need for more support in managing the financial barrier to pursuing postsecondary education. The district has recently made a commitment to take accountability for the percentage of students filing their CAFSA/FAFSA, and while we support this, we also see a strong need for disaggregated data collection and analysis structures to ensure students across demographic groups are receiving support.
The commitment to set a baseline for On Track to Graduate rates is something we are encouraged to see. This data point allows for interventions that will increase our graduation rate, but we encourage leadership to commit to a transparent data review process to ensure the data collected actually impacts practice and student experience in schools.
Student Centered School Culture
- Student centered school culture means responding to student voice and taking action on the issues young people are lifting up. The district responded directly to student calls for financial literacy courses made by Ednuim and affirmed in the Colorado Student Agenda by establishing a metric for the percentage of schools offering financial literacy courses.
- Calls for school discipline reform have been heard from student leaders for years, including in the CSA. In the reasonable interpretations, the district commits to a decrease in suspensions and referrals to law enforcement. This is a strong starting point to create school culture that seeks to be in relationship with young people rather than have power over them. However, without engaging students in conversations about what the alternate culture should be, we will not be able to dismantle punitive systems and repair fractured youth-adult relationships in schools.
- Throughout the reasonable interpretations the district shares a vision for a DPS student that is directly in line with Our Turn’s vision for a well-rounded leader. In both DPS and Our Turn, we aim to support young people to become independent, confident in their identity, and able to create change in the world and in their community through their own agency and choice.
Full and Equitable Funding
- None of the superintendent’s reasonable interpretations make reference to budget allocations - particularly those associated with federal stimulus funds. The Colorado Student Agenda identifies that there are inequities in our state and local funding formulas that are placing a higher burden on some communities to adequately fund schools. Our Turn student leaders stand ready to partner with the district to ensure equitable allocation of our regular budget, ESSER dollars, and other financial resources.
While there is still much work to do to create equitable and just education environments for all DPS students to achieve their full potential, Our Turn is encouraged by the alignment between the Colorado Student Agenda, the DPS School Board “end statements,” and Dr. Marrero’s “reasonable interpretations”. Student voices have been a critical component of shaping the district’s direction thus far, and, if DPS continues to honor student agency and authentically co-conspire with youth leaders, we will realize a future where education justice is a reality in Denver.
"Being a marginalized student within an underrepresented community, it was super important for me to align my values with similar beliefs of my own. With Our Turn's contributions to DPS and the creation of the CO Student Agenda, I can securely say that we ARE working toward a better future. As well as the introduction of a new superintendent that aligns with our vision, I feel much better about the landscape of education. Our Turn is an organization and an opportunity for a better tomorrow!"
-Isaiah Jiron, Our Turn CO Youth Organizer & DPS Alum