LEE members Jennifer Bacon (JB) and Angela Cobián (AC) serve as the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education Vice President & Treasurer, respectively. On June 12th, the DPS board voted unanimously to end the district’s contract with the Denver Police Department. The resolution they passed asserts that “to fulfill [the District’s] responsibility for undoing the systemic racism that Black children and children of color face,” all police officers will be phased out of DPS schools by mid-2021.
“The reality is that public institutions within our democracy influence and form our racial and ethnic identities, our sense of self-worth, and the extent to which the social contract is applied to people of color. The national protests over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's murders are an expression of the failure of the social contract as it relates to the institutions within the criminal justice system.”
— Angela Cobián
Last year, DPS passed the Black Excellence Resolution, authored by Jennifer Bacon:
“The Black Excellent Resolution asserted that institutional and internalized bias allowed people to believe the inequitable performance of our students (only 1 in 5 black students were performing on grade level in 2019) was acceptable. Also, the resolution explicitly called out that we were failing black students, and that we would have to regularly assess how well we were doing and that we could improve with more evaluation and benchmarked data cycles.”
— Jennifer Bacon
We spoke to Angela and Jennifer about their leadership taking swift action on an urgent national issue.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education Treasurer, Angela Cobián
As the Vice President and Treasurer of a large urban school board, what issues or challenges have a disproportionate impact on Black students, families, and communities in Denver?
JB: At DPS, we have taken the steps to name our values of equity, and that every child can succeed. Our challenges stem from needing to better understand what those values look like in action and holding ourselves accountable to those values.
As a district, we had been living in an environment of empty or pretentious rhetoric, not action -- which can be a liberal affliction. Now we actively monitor, check, and improve, to achieve our goals.
Our board passed the Black Excellence Resolution in 2019, when we were in year five of our 2020 goal cycle. At that time our core values included equity and students first. We merely collected and disaggregated our data to see that we were not living up to the promises we put forth. No one was regularly questioning our data - that only 1 in 5 black students were performing on grade level for years. The institution allowed that performance to be normalized. No one questioned what the causes were for this data, but they still thought it was enough to say we believe in excellence for all kids. The Black Excellence Resolution not only named that it was institutional and internalized bias that allowed people to believe our performance was acceptable, but it also explicitly named that we were failing black students, and that we would have to regularly assess how well we were doing, and improve with evaluation and benchmarked data cycles.
AC: My colleague Jennifer Bacon worked with the ENUF organizing alliance and other stakeholders to pass the Black Excellence Resolution. Denver Public Schools learned that targeted universalism as a policy approach had positive equitable impacts on the English Language Learner (ELL) population as the district went above and beyond the Consent Decree to invest and prioritize ELL students. In Denver Public Schools, 55% of our students are Latina/x, a significant portion of whom are English Language Learners. By extension, it makes so much sense to target and prioritize Black students as it relates to growth, achievement, whole child, and our students' interaction with school discipline.
What do you see as the link between national protests over George Floyd’s murder and harmful policing practices in Black communities, and equity issues in education?
AC: The reality is that public institutions within our democracy influence and form our racial and ethnic identities, our sense of self-worth, and the extent to which the social contract is applied to people of color. The national protests over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's murders are an expression of the failure of the social contract as it relates to the institutions within the criminal justice system. Similarly, public education is a public institution that can potentially be the first "step" in the school to prison pipeline,or the place where what we teach students will shape how they feel about their dignity and what they deserve out of life. As a Mexican cis woman, I want our schools to be places where students of color are valued and embraced and where white students recognize the value of a multicultural democracy and their role in racism. In other words, our schools can be places where students not only experience positive identity formation; but also learn how to advocate for their rights and needs within our democracy.
The DPS Board recently voted unanimously to end the District’s contract with the Denver Police Department. What does the Resolution do, specifically?
AC: The resolution phases out the inter-governmental agreement with the Denver Police Department over the span of a year and starts the opportunity for us to rethink how we conceptualize (and subsequently institutionalize) student safety and whole-child--beyond a reliance on police in schools.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education Vice President Jennifer Bacon with DPS students and her school board colleague, Tay Anderson.
What are additional practical ways we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline?
JB: The use of School Resource Officers (SROs) was not truly preventative. Prevention of violence or misbehavior stems from students' connection to themselves, their communities and what they are learning. We set SROs up to be reactive, to fire back if a student brings a gun to school. To truly prevent and not react, we need to understand why students would shoot and see the signs before they do so: mental health support, awareness and identification, know when a student is asking for help.
On the policy side, we need to identify bias and why we regularly push students out of school. The school-to-prison pipeline typically begins in classrooms where students are overly disciplined. Nationally black students are 2-3 times more than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled. On its face this suggests that Black children are just "badder" than everyone else, and we should refuse to believe that. We've told schools to regularly assess their discipline numbers, to root out who and what are the highest incidents. Do self reflection on bias, and make appropriate restorative and culturally responsive adjustments and interventions.
What advice would you give to an equity-focused leader who is considering running for office?
JB: For me, I've spent time becoming very clear on my values and what equity and inclusion means. I follow the liberatory consciousness framework that includes not only an awareness of how we've been socialized, but requires action. They are the stake in the ground that I hold on to as it storms on around me. Or what pulls me through confusion, dissatisfaction or argument. Also, I learned what my abilities are in my elected position and am willing to push those boundaries. The abilities, or power in your elected role, have been defined or created to reinforce institutional values so you may have to push against them, because ultimately "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house..." (Audre Lorde)
*The above interview has been transcribed and is in subjects' own words, with minor edits for clarity or brevity.
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