Rising Up

Rising Up: Voices from Colorado’s student protest movement

Students from South High School arrive at East High School during student protests in Dec. 2014.

In Denver, some students were told they’d face severe consequences if they walked out of school last fall.

In Boulder, students received donuts from school board members while they protested against standardized tests.

In tiny Mancos, student activists took to social media because they knew a protest in the streets wouldn’t make much of a splash.

These were just some of the details shared by the eight high school student activists who spoke at Rising Up: Voices from Colorado’s Emerging Student Protest Movement, an event held by Chalkbeat at the University of Colorado Denver last week. The students had different experiences, but shared a concern about how rarely students’ opinions are considered by policymakers.

After each protest, critical voices across the state raised questions about whether students were choosing the safest or most effective way to make their points. Some wondered if the high schoolers were taking their cues from adults, and if participants were more focused on missing class than on the issues at hand.

This event was a chance to hear directly from students in four districts about how they organized, why, and what comes next. We also invited a few adults with expertise in the subject matter to talk about how the protests were received and how they fit into a broader social and historical context. (For more student perspectives on activism, check out these interviews; for a glimpse at the social media conversation prompted by the event, check out this post.)

Below, we’ve pulled out some highlights and audio clips from the Rising Up event. You can also listen to a recording of the full event below.

Panelists at Chalkbeat Colorado's Rising Up Event
PHOTO: Nic Garcia
Panelists at Chalkbeat Colorado’s Rising Up Event.

More diplomatic methods didn’t work

Several students said that more traditional methods of voicing dissent, such as letter-writing, were either unsuccessful or suggested too late in the game. Boulder student Rachel Perley said administrators suggested writing letters and provided students with lists of legislators and other policymakers to contact, but only after students proposed a walk-out.

Jefferson County student Ashlyn Maher talked about how Jeffco parents and teachers tried conventional methods to no avail.

Organizing on social media

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Activists at a multi-school event at City Park in Denver.

Students in all four districts used social media to launch their campaigns. In Boulder, Fairview High School’s senior class Facebook page was a launchpad for the resistance.

“About three weeks before the test actually happened was when we got our schedule for it,” Rachel Perley said. “That day that the schedule came out, that Facebook page blew up. Everybody was like, ‘Why are we taking this? Let’s refuse. Let’s walk out.’ It kind of went crazy.”

In Mancos, social media is where students started their “Terminate Trivial Testing” campaign. Mancos student Taryn Gordanier said that it made more sense to students in the small rural district to spread the word online.

Inspiring peers around the state and nation

Mancos student Faith Aniscar talks about organizing and protests in a rural district.
Mancos student Faith Aniscar talks about organizing and protests in a rural district.

In their role as the first Colorado district to try mass student protests last fall, Jeffco students served as an inspiration to high schoolers in other parts of the state.

Mancos student Faith Asnicar said, “These big schools up in Denver had been doing these protests and doing these walkouts and…that’s what kind of helped us realize, well, they’re doing it, so why can’t we do it?”

Hannah Sun, a Denver School of the Arts student, discussed the connections she saw between the districts.

Protests in Denver seen through different lens

Several panelists talked about how Denver students who protested the Ferguson grand jury decision were viewed differently than their suburban counterparts.

Bill de la Cruz, the director of equity and inclusion for Denver Public Schools, said, “It’s interesting that Boulder board members brought donuts…In Denver, it was the extreme from ‘Those kids are horrible. They should be in class,’ to ‘We’re really proud of them.’”

Ben Kirshner, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, shared his observations and questions about this reaction.

Discomfort with conversations about race in Denver

Audience at Rising Up panel

Multiple panelists talked about how there is a consistent discomfort with having conversations about race in many Denver schools. Estee Dechtman, a freshman at Denver School of the Arts, said that before the Ferguson walk-outs there was no structured class time to broach racial inequity and social justice issues.

De la Cruz said that the students’ walk-outs had raised awareness and led to some concrete changes: “I have to applaud these students because after they did all these walk-outs all these conversations weren’t happening and now they’re happening and they continue to happen as well.”

Testing protests a wake-up call for state policy-makers

Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education, said the anti-testing protests made staff at the department “sit up real fast” and start talking about how to include students in decision-making.

He said that the current testing program was developed partly in response to concerns expressed by civil rights organizations in the past that “who gets tested, gets taught.” The idea was that standardized tests, and spotlighting how different groups perform on them, could help ensure that all students get a high-quality education.

Asp also discussed the complacency among many officials as the culture of testing ramped up over the years.

Activism doesn’t stop with protests

Ashlyn Maher, one of the leaders of Jeffco Students for Change.
Ashlyn Maher, one of the leaders of Jeffco Students for Change.

Several students noted that while their activism started with high-profile protests—and while those protests are what captured the attention of the media and community—they’ve continued to stay involved in the issues they care about in a variety of ways. These include testifying before the legislature, holding in-school conversations about topics like race, and meeting with school board and state officials to air their concerns.

Ashlyn Maher from Jefferson County talked about how students in Jefferson County are remaining organized:

Audience member Roshan Bliss commented that adults’ efforts to include students’ voices can’t be purely symbolic. He said organizations need to avoid creating a “kids’ table,” where students’ opinions are expressed and then ignored. Several panelists agreed with Bliss.

Many adult allies forced to toe the line

While adult panelists as well as audience members roundly praised the student panelists at the Rising Up event, there was a sense that some adults—school staff in particular—had to stifle their support last fall.

“We had a lot of tacit support from our school and district administration because legally they weren’t allowed to support us,” said Boulder’s Rachel Perley.

“I was sitting down talking to my newspaper advisor earlier today…and she was saying, ‘OK, I can say it now…just how proud I am of everything you guys did and how well put together it was,” Perley said.

Bar set too high for student protesters?

While student protesters certainly gained support from many adults in their respective communities last fall, some observers raised questions about whether all participants were well-informed about the issues and whether some were treating the protests simply as an opportunity to skip class.

Kirshner addressed this criticism during the panel discussion.

Connections to protests of the past

Photo of demonstrating students
Fairview High School seniors Alei Russo, left, Emily Bollman, and Natalie Oberer stand along Broadway Street in Boulder Thursday morning. The students opted-out of the state’s standardized science and social studies test that was administered today at their school.

Both students and adults drew connections to protests of the past. CDE’s Asp said it was an odd experience for him, as a former student activist from the 1960s, to be on the receiving end of protests. The University of Colorado’s Kirshner said that there is a rich history of activism in Colorado, including groups such as Padres y Jovenes Unidos.

Senior Cody Limber mentioned getting an email from John Tinker, a former Des Moines high school student who protested the Vietnam War and ultimately sued the school district for impinging on his freedom of expression.

Full audio recording provided by the University of Colorado Denver:

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.