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Northwest Denver is struggling with yet another fait accompli arrangement, in which the Denver Public Schools pretends to have a public process but know they’re going to force in a STRIFE (aka STRIVE and formerly West Denver Prep) charter school into an “enrollment zone” that just needs a traditional middle school, thereby forcing some kids to attend this school they don’t want.  This time, however, the district tried to pull a fast one by convening a “process” without letting the rest of the community know there was a process.

What is it about DPS and middle schools?

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Anyway, the dynamic in the community around this situation is interesting.  Northwest Denver is known for its in-demand neighborhoods and small-town feeling, but they’re also known for sprawling development and gentrification.  There is still a lot of tension between the longstanding Latino community there (what’s left of it) and the newer, not-always-Anglo but wealthier new homeowners.  The rise of the new residents has accompanied a lot of erasure of Chicano/Mexican-American cultural hallmarks in the area.  And the most disturbing trend has been the attempt to discuss schools that are “intended for those kids.”

photo by Hernandez-Ponce photography

Photo by Hernandez-Ponce photograpy

According to STRIFE itself, “…over 90% of our 2,300 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, 95% are students of color (90% Latino), 42% of students are English Language Learners.”  Those demographics could lead the casual observer to conclude that STRIFE is for the poorest and brownest, and in some people’s minds, that’s exactly what has happened.  In fact, in a recent Facebook discussion, a parent stated that STRIFE was for “struggling students.”  Another said that the school is “required by law to meet the academic needs of children who need additional supports,”  which of course is patently untrue.  There is no law that designates schools specifically for students who appear to be academically struggling, and true educators know that oftentimes it’s the pedagogical approach that’s to blame instead.

STRIFE is specifically concocted to extract “value” from working-class kids of color by “proving” that they can “succeed” via higher proficiency levels on state standardized tests.  The business model is based on squeezing out the highest test scores by spending the least on overhead.  Their teachers are mostly un-certified, culled from Teach for America with only six weeks’ training.  This means that they are paid less than certified teachers and that they are only qualified to teach to the test.  They are essentially McTeachers.

On top of that, even though Denver Public Schools is under a federal court order to provide transitional English-learner services to students designated as English learners, STRIFE’s Teach for America recruits are not trained to properly comply with the court order.  This is why, even though STRIFE touts that 42 percent of their students are “English learners,” what those numbers actually show is that the students that were once designated as “English learners” have already had robust transitional services while in elementary school by qualified DPS veteran teachers.  STRIFE’s “English learners” are therefore only English learners in name only.  They are not receiving services because (a) their teachers are not qualified/certified to give the services and (b) more skills to offer services would require more pay.

In fact, according to STRIFE, “a structured immersion program will ensure that students learning English receive appropriate support in mainstream literacy classes.”  In other words, THEY WILL NOT BE TEACHING YOUR CHILD IN SPANISH, which is necessary for students, at least initially, to move toward full academic English fluency.

ELL children who receive systematic learning opportunities in their home language from ages three to eight consistently outperform those who attend English-only programs on measures of academic achievement in English during the middle and high school years. –“Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners,” by Linda M. Espinosa.

You know why they continuously seem to post high achievement numbers?  It’s because they’ve cherry-picked the highest scoring, most English-fluent Latino kids on the block.

Piano class kids at Valdez Elementary

Piano class kids at Valdez Elementary

Because of the discord in the northwest Denver community around gentrification, the newer residents have an interesting opportunity to extend an olive branch by using their political power and privilege to proclaim that STRIFE isn’t appropriate for anyone’s kid. It does not stand the smell test that the stripped-down middle school is suddenly appropriate for the very same kids that learned music, dabbled in paints and sculpting in art class, learned new languages, acted in the school play…the very same kids who were in mixed-demographic elementary classrooms together, before.

(note: the following list takes from the STRIVE Prep Student and Family Handbook, 2013-2014)

Therefore, here are my…

Top 10 Reasons why STRIVE Prep is not for anyone’s kid

  1. Every child deserves a fully certified, qualified and experienced teacher who is trained to figure out the varied learning styles of each student and to compensate accordingly. (FAQs, Question 5)
  2. Music and arts are academic subjects, and every child deserves the opportunity to study their passion for more than six weeks at a time on a rotating “enrichment” schedule. (FAQs, Question 8)
  3. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn a different language as a regular academic subject. (FAQs, Question 8)
  4. Every child needs down time with family and friends after an engaging school day of appropriate length. (Handbook, pg 6)
  5. Every child, when making a mistake, deserves the chance to make amends, seek forgiveness and make different choices without fear of subjectively-applied suspension or expulsion for relatively mild transgressions. (Handbook, pg. 9)
  6. Students are entitled to lunch and a break, and they should not be required to clean a cafeteria to get the break. (Handbook, pg. 30) Pro tip: this is what prisons do.
  7. Real discipline is empowerment, not reducing it to “black lines on the floor that keep wiggly young kids in regimented lines.”  Pro tip.: this is what prisons do.
  8. Students show respect for others, without the need for bribes or “school paychecks” for good behavior, when they in turn are respected. (Handbook, pg. 13)
  9. Academic diversity is a needed component of education, and because not all students are the same, students should not be forced to take the same academic classes. Some students experience cognitive or developmental delays, and some are gifted/talented, for example.  (Handbook, pg. 23)
  10. School work should help students grow in critical thinking skills and explore their strengths and weaknesses, not force feed “rigorous accountability” through replication of the state exams. (Handbook, pg. 5)
Art class masks from Columbian Elementary

Art class masks from Columbian Elementary

To some, I might be making a big deal out of little things, but on the contrary, I think that these things point to an overall attitude toward working-class kids of color.  The school’s philosophy, screaming out from the pages of their website and handbook, say that my kids need stricter discipline to deal with their substandard characters and need kill-and-drill rote learning because they aren’t as smart.

In fact, even the school’s perennial cheerleader, Padres Unidos, is saying that my kids suffer “disproportionate discipline” and excessive referrals to law enforcement at STRIVE charter schools, more than any other school in the district.  Read the report here.

Is this school right for your kid?  Of course not!  It’s not right for my kids, either.

Northwest Denver, this is your opportunity to show that equity, diversity and opportunity really matters to you.  Stop trying to sound conciliatory by saying STRIFE “has a place” or “serves a need.”  Understand what you’re communicating when you say that.  Whose place?  Whose “need?”

Instead, say that every child in Northwest Denver deserves something better than STRIFE.  Say that no child deserves an authoritarian, stripped-down “school” that stresses compliance over critical thinking skills.  Say that STRIFE isn’t good enough for anyone’s kid.