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Board’s DSST vote and insulting words damage a community where kids thrive

Was it politics? Was it timing? I can see the damage done by the Denver school board’s vote Thursday to delay a DSST at Noel high school from two perspectives: as a parent and as a staff member. Whatever the reason, the damage is real, and it cuts deep.

Either way I view it, this decision has no coherent rationale. It hurts the very kids the board professes to represent, and it goes against the wishes of hundreds if not thousands of families who support our work and mission.

My daughter is a seventh-grader at DSST Noel Middle School, so on the surface, the decision to delay the high school until 2022 doesn’t directly affect her. But it still hurts, and she has a strong sense of something having been taken away. It has added a level of anxiety and insecurity to her life during what is already a stressful time.

We have had such an exciting build-up at this school since its founding three years ago. We have grown stronger and more cohesive every year, and the culmination of this with our inaugural class — graduation and the move into high school — is being badly tarnished by this board decision.

My daughter is disillusioned. It’s little wonder this decision has given her a jaded view of school board politics. She can see that for some board members, the decision was aimed at gratifying a political base rather than on any analysis of data.

It’s hard not to be jaded after listening during the meeting to board members’ rationale for their votes. I was shocked to hear board members admonish us for advocating our case and shame us for celebrating our achievements. 

It was particularly galling to have board member Scott Baldermann tell us to “take down your banner” celebrating our accomplishments because it somehow demeans other schools. How insulting to the community we serve and the mission we uphold!

There was also more than a little hypocrisy in the board using performance conditions to punish us for other DSST schools’ ratings, while telling us not to celebrate our ratings. Apparently it’s only OK to use ratings for punishment, not reward.

And let’s not forget that all of the founding members of the DSST Noel leadership team are people of color, and currently five of them are women. This speaks to our values of disrupting educational inequalities and historical injustices. 

We are a family at this school, and we want to stay together. But that will no longer be possible. Next year’s ninth-graders will scatter, probably to lower-performing options, and many of them will not return to the DSST Noel fold.

I serve as DSST Noel Middle School’s Founding Director of Curriculum and Instruction. In my role, I coach teachers, and I oversee the curriculum and testing. We have been careful and intentional since day one in building a strong, affirming culture. We want our students to know that they matter, and that they can and will make a difference in the world. This is a unique place to be, and our students know that.

We build character at DSST Noel by talking about and living our core values in every space, not only academically, but in how we interact in classes, interact with adults. We go deep into what it means to share your identity and be unique in this space. We also try to enhance their awareness of others through what we read every day in social studies and science and literature classes.

Now, however, the community we have built so carefully will be fractured, and for no good reason that I can see. This board decision compromises our community.

As hard as I might try, I can find no real justification for this decision. I wonder whether, deep down, our school board members can either.