Give Us a Choice, and We’ll Take It from You

Give us a choice, and we’ll take it from you.

This could be the motto of the education reform movement that has gripped Colorado and the nation.

I know because I am part of the problem.

I fell for school choice when the idea was nearly unheard of. In 1991, miserable after two years at Merrill, I heard an announcement that changed my life.

There was going to be a new arts school opening with theatre, creative writing, visual arts, and music. To me, it sounded like a dream.

I spent two weeks preparing for my audition.

And, even though my family thought I was crazy, I took the bus every day that fall and for the next five years to attend Denver School of the Arts, located in the low-income Cole neighborhood.

What did I learn at my school of choice? I learned that it takes a village, led by amazing teachers, to put together a literary magazine. A theatre production. A music concert.

And that village could include kids whose experiences and faces and belief systems looked and sounded nothing like my own. And that art could provide a guttural release of emotion more meaningful to me than anything I’d experienced in education. And that the “low-income” village included the most tenacious, beautiful people I would come to love.

That is why, twelve years after graduating from Denver’s premier school of choice, I bought into the idea of charter schools. An 80/20 bilingual pre-IB program starting as young as kindergarten? Sign my daughters up!

My fifth grader getting bullied at the regular school? Let me put her in the super-structured, flawless-reputation charter network where culture is king. Let her sister follow her.

Let us white privileged parents with the ability to chauffeur our children choose their schools for them.

School choice is all about privilege. I have the privilege, as a highly-educated, middle-class white woman, to send my kids to a charter school. To sift through school ratings. To take over something that was intended to bring better schools into “bad” neighborhoods, and, upon seeing their successes, the privileged flocked to.

And the schools? They run the gamut of success stories piled on top of failures. They pay teachers so minimally that the majority leave the profession within five years. They are plagued with mismanagement of funds and classrooms. They are run by people who have no experience in an educational setting and by people who want “something better.”

But I’ll tell you what’s better.

Not having the choice. A regular public school in every neighborhood that meets the needs of every student. Teachers with decent salaries who love the diversity of where they work and paychecks that help them sustain their families.

And a district willing to see that the phrases education reform, charterization, and school choice are synonyms for privilege.

You gave us a choice. In turn, we privileged took that choice away from those who needed it most.

This needs to stop. Now.

Sweet Sixteen

sixteen years a mom
raising this beautiful girl
to face the world

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arriving past dark
she softened in the sunlight
ready for the fight

ready for blue skies
to brighten her winter day
(born ready to play)

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proud to celebrate
sixteen turns around the sun
(hot springs, sushi fun)

sixteen years a mom
sixteen years my daughter shines
with her brilliant mind

DPS: Three Strikes. You’re Out.

Denver Public Schools is beginning to look like the nail-biting ninth inning of a baseball game with its quarter-century pattern of three teachers’ strikes—1969, 1994, 2019—and I am anxious, as a former DPS student and current teacher and parent, for our district to stop throwing curve balls at our profession.  

I was a junior at Manual High School in ‘94 when I arrived at school and saw my teachers walking the line, holding up signs, and telling me not to go inside. Not knowing what to do, I spent five days, before deciding to leave early each afternoon, in and out of the chaos of auditoriums led by scattered subs, completing pointless worksheets, and witnessing which teachers would cross the picket line.

My teachers were fighting for smaller class sizes, duty-free lunches, more uninterrupted planning time, and a 40-hour work week in addition to a measly 2.15% pay increase. Governor Roy Romer had to intervene in three days of intense negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and Denver Public Schools.

In 1969, teachers in Denver struck for 14 days over many of the same issues—better pay, better student services, and improved equity in our schools.

So why are we here, in 2019, still fighting the same fight? Why did the Denver school district threaten my striking teachers with $100/day fines in 1994 and, 25 years later, ask the state to intervene to prevent current teachers from walking the line?

Perhaps, like the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, DPS thinks we are actors on a “political theater” stage. That we are flooding the streets in #Red4Ed shirts, bullhorns in hand, chants memorized, teamsters and firefighters and construction workers and students and parents in support… to win an Oscar?

What has brought me to this stage?

When we were down on our luck in rural America, my mother uprooted us to move to Denver when I was 11. Contrarily, her own parents had ripped her from Denver’s Park Hill Elementary at the same age 25 years prior during the 1960s “white flight” migration to the suburbs. Always burdened by her parents’ blatant racism, my mother told us, “We’re moving straight to Denver, NOT the suburbs, and you girls will learn the value of diversity.”

Unlike my tiny town in upstate New York, DPS offered me a side of society I’d never seen: racial violence in forced-integration hallways, a Chicano Mathletics coach, a Black science teacher, and a set of friends from multiple races, language backgrounds, and family dynamics. Manual High School offered me a spotlight into the world of LGBTQ acceptance and the privilege of the most inspirational teacher anyone could ever imagine.

That teacher, and DPS, are the reasons I became a teacher and the reason I came back to this district after teaching stints elsewhere. And my mother’s fierce attitude about the value of diversity is why my daughter walks with me into Denver South High each day and takes classes alongside refugees and immigrants, students of color, and every religious belief the world offers. Why I thrive on working at one of one of the nation’s most diverse schools with its Newcomer Center, LGBTQ alliance club, Muslim Alliance, Black Student Alliance, Latino Alliance, and staff members whose faces and backgrounds represent the faces and backgrounds of our students.

So why am I, why are DCTA and the majority of Denver’s 4,600 teachers, fighting against our beautifully diverse school district? Because we have been negotiating our master contract for 15 months. Because the voter-approved ProComp pay system, unlike any other district in the state, offers shifting and unpredictable bonuses and pits teachers against each other depending on the “priority” label the district assigns them. Because the reform movement has gripped our city and shut down all but three of the comprehensive high schools I grew up with, charterizing the rest and stripping teachers of public retirement pensions. Because DPS spends millions on administrative bonuses instead of on teachers’ salaries.

Because I could never afford to live in Denver on the salary I earn today.

Because I have 28 students with one to two essays due EACH WEEK in my latest University of Phoenix class, my second job that pays $225 a week on the occasional basis that I am granted a section.

I keep this job to fund the $2000 I’m paying, in addition to doing hundreds of hours of work, to try to obtain National Board Certification, the only possible way for me to get a raise in Denver without investing thousands of dollars on a third degree.

The disheartening reality of what every teacher I know does to survive is that we must jump through every hoop imaginable to make ends meet.

We teach summer school. We do home visits. We coach. We spend our own money on advanced degrees with the hope of improving our instruction and earning mediocre raises.

This is on top of the 50 or more hours a week we work to plan and teach lessons, grade papers, collect data, counsel students in trauma at lunch and after school, and attend meetings, sports events, professional development, and student recruitment events (because we have to sell our schools now).

So, when my state, my “blue” but really purple state, calls us actors on a “political theater” stage, I am at my wit’s end:

“Criticizing the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as ‘political theater,’ the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment urged the Denver school district and its teachers union … to work harder to find common ground” (Chalkbeat).

Was it theatrical that we gave up the tenth evening in as many weeknights to wait for our district to come to the table with an actual proposal rather than a cost-of-living increase already in the budget?

Was it theatrical that young children stood behind the fraudulent superintendent with signs begging her not to deport our teachers after the HR department more or less threatened their right to strike?

Was it theatrical that we have negotiated for 15 months, yes over “philosophy disagreements” because the PHILOSOPHY OF OUR DISTRICT IS TO SHUT DOWN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, TAKE OPPORTUNITIES AWAY FROM STUDENTS OF COLOR, AND GENTRIFY EVERYTHING FROM NEIGHBORHOODS TO CURRICULUM?

What has brought us to this strike?

All the hours. All the years. All the goddamn blood, sweat, and tears that have been put on stage for the world to see: failed negotiations, ignored community voices, and livelihoods on the line.

For political theater of the worst show you will ever wish you didn’t buy a ticket to see.

Your time is up, DPS. Three strikes. You’re out. It’s time for the teachers to earn the respect they deserve, for the students to have equitable access to education with teachers who will stay in Denver, and for the curtain to close on this performance (pay).

 

My Heart Breaks

Students,

I am going on strike tomorrow. I hope that you come to school, are respectful towards your substitute teachers, get your breakfast and lunch, visit the food bank on Thursday, and keep up with what your teachers have posted on Schoology.

I’ve heard the district will not allow us to access Schoology or emails this week. I am so sorry that I will not be able to respond to any messages from you. Please come see me outside the school if you have any questions about anything. I will grade all of your hard work when I get back.

We all know this is more than grades. This is more than a few assignments. This is more than a week of school.

I love you, and I want you to understand that when we see inequity in our world, we must stand up to it. That is why I’m striking. I want what is best for you, the students. You need teachers who will continuously stay at South. You need a school and district that values students over dollars. You need a chance to see that corporate greed cannot, and will not, define where you graduate from.

In Solidarity,

Ms. Vittetoe

Fly Us Home

Wanting a better life for her family, my mother uprooted us to move to Denver when I was 11. Contrarily, her own parents had ripped her from Park Hill Elementary at the same age 33 years prior in the 1960s “white flight” migration. Always burdened by this blatant racism, my mother told us, “We’re moving straight to Denver, and you girls will learn the value of diversity.”

I attended Merrill and Cole middle schools and Manual High School, the latter two hosting the burgeoning Denver School of the Arts.

Unlike my tiny town in upstate New York, DPS offered me a side of society I’d never seen: racial violence in forced-integration hallways, a Chicano Mathletics coach, and a set of friends from multiple races, language backgrounds, and family dynamics. DSA offered me a spotlight into the world of LGBTQ acceptance and the privilege of the most inspirational teacher anyone could ever imagine–Mrs. Jana Clark.

Mrs. Clark and DPS are the reasons I became a teacher and the reason I came back to this district after teaching stints elsewhere.

Because Denver is my microcosm of what the world could be. What my mother wanted and what I was lucky enough to proclaim: I am a DPS graduate. I am a DPS parent. I am a DPS teacher.

DPS represents our world. Its teachers represent DPS.

Listen to the teachers. Their right to strike is your right to make this city the one we want to fly to, not fly from.

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My Livelihood is ‘Political Theater’

I have twenty-eight students with one to two essays due EACH WEEK in my new University of Phoenix class, my second job that pays $225/week on the occasional basis that I am granted a class.

I haven’t taught this particular class in over two years, so of course, they’ve changed the entire syllabus, I have to read two different textbooks, and I need to update all my rubrics. Also, all of the online discussion questions have changed, so I will need to respond to thirty different questions with a new set of thirty 200-300-word responses.

Part of the reason I keep this job is that it’s online, and I can squeeze it into (every possible free moment of) my day.

Another reason I have kept it, at the moment, is to fund the $2000+ I’m paying, in addition to doing hundreds of hours of work, to try to obtain my National Board Certification, which is the only possible way to get a raise at this point in my career without investing thousands of dollars and hours in another degree (I am MA+30).

The disheartening reality of what every teacher I know does to survive, every teacher who isn’t lucky enough to marry rich, or at the very least marry someone with guaranteed job opportunities and a forever-steady income, is that we must jump through every hoop imaginable to make ends meet.

We teach summer school. We do home visits. We spend our own money on advanced degrees and credits with the hope of improving our instruction and earning mediocre raises.

This is on top of the fifty or more hours a week we spend planning lessons, grading papers, counseling students in trauma at lunch and after school, attending meetings, sports events, professional development, and student recruitment events (because we have to sell our schools now).

So when my state, my “blue” but really purple (perhaps leaning red) state, calls us actors on a “political theater” stage, I am at my wit’s end:

“Criticizing the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as ‘political theater,’ the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment urged the Denver school district and its teachers union Monday to work harder to find common ground — even as he expressed skepticism that the two sides would reach a deal” (Chalkbeat).

Was it theatrical that we gave up the tenth evening in as many weeknights to wait for our district to come to the table with an actual proposal rather than a cost-of-living increase already in the budget?

Was it theatrical that young children stood behind the fraudulent superintendent with signs begging her not to deport our teachers after the HR department more or less threatened their right to work?

Was it theatrical that we have negotiated for fifteen months, yes over “philosophy disagreements” because the PHILOSOPHY OF OUR DISTRICT IS TO SHUT DOWN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, TAKE OPPORTUNITIES AWAY FROM STUDENTS OF COLOR, AND GENTRIFY EVERYTHING FROM NEIGHBORHOODS TO CURRICULUM?

And. Just. Like. That.

All the hours. All the years. All the goddamn blood, sweat, and tears have been put on stage for the world to see, chart-paper and all, chants in the background, livelihoods on the line.

For political theater of the worst show you will ever wish you didn’t buy a ticket to see.