Grace Davis is many things: a 16-year old incoming junior at Ponderosa High, a member of her church’s youth group, school choir and golf and volleyball teams, and a concerned student.
What she isn’t – not even close – is a puppet.
That’s how one Douglas County School Board member depicted Davis after she organized a student demonstration in March decrying high staff turnover and teacher dissatisfaction at her school. Jim Geddes, a director on the board, accused her of being used by the teachers’ union to advance its agenda against teacher evaluations, pay-for-performance and other reforms instituted by the board’s conservative majority.
“What happened at Ponderosa is unfortunate. I don’t think that was an appropriate way to express your-all’s agenda, through your students, to use your students that way,” Geddes told teacher representatives at a March 15 board meeting. “It was tremendously derogatory of Douglas County schools.”
Davis finds the district’s narrative of her being puppeted “infuriating.” Part of the problem in the school system, she says, is that it’s being run by a board majority that doesn’t believe students – the group most affected by school board policies – have their own opinions about those policies or their own free will to express them. She’s disheartened by the assumption that students can’t think or act on their own.
“What that tells me is there’s not much respect for children and that their expectations for us are very low,” she says.
Contention on Douglas County’s school board has ripped apart the south Denver area district for several years as the majority let its teachers’ union contract expire, instituted market-based pay and set up the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program. The district also required academic standards that were purportedly a more challenging substitute for the Common Core, which Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen has derided as “the Common Floor.”
Faculty, in the meantime, have struggled to balance the board’s latest buzzwords and paperwork requirements with their responsibilities to students. This past school year alone, at least 12 of the district’s principals walked off their jobs. Scores of teachers have retired early or resigned in frustration with a system they say puts anti-union ideology and a conservative agenda to “Reinvent American Education” above teaching kids.
Speaking with The Colorado Independent on her first day of summer break, Davis says teachers’ frustrations have for years been as clear to her as the handwriting on their blackboards. She hears them grumbling about the red tape required by the administration. She notices them altering their teaching styles before evaluations. She sees them staying late after school uploading “evidence” of their compliance with the system’s ever-changing teaching standards. And, she struggles with them to understand the latest jargon imposed by the administration.
Take, for example, the district’s commitment to “World-Class Outcomes” – a set of ambiguous academic expectations set out in Douglas County’s “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum.” Davis sees her teachers stressing out over applying these concepts in their classrooms, and shares their bewilderment over what, exactly, it’s all supposed to mean.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally for applicable teaching – using what you learn in your life,” says Davis, who has a 3.6 grade point average. “But I actually have no idea what World-Class Outcomes mean. And if I don’t know about it, I’m telling you that at least half the kids don’t know about it.”
Davis’ activism started over the winter when she heard that one of her former teachers, a beloved Social Studies instructor at Sierra Middle School, was resigning. Davis signed onto a student petition to get that teacher to stay.
Then she noticed the departures at her own school – “Pondo,” as kids call it – including a science teacher and volleyball coach she has known since elementary school.
“I was like, well, ‘Darn, I’ve got to look into this’… I asked some of my teachers about the evaluation system and things they were unhappy with and realized it was a big problem not just at Ponderosa, but other schools, too,” she says.
Davis launched her own petition, which 1,869 students, graduates, parents and even teachers have signed. Originally, it was to draw attention to the March 9th demonstration she planned at Ponderosa, but the petition’s Facebook page became a sounding board about pay-for-performance and other reforms that, in hushed tones for fear of losing their jobs, teachers have been complaining about bitterly.
A recent survey shows that most DougCo teachers wouldn’t recommend the district to friends.
“It became something that I realized was more important than just what was happening in our classrooms – how our teachers were treated by higher up administrators,” Davis says.
Some girls mark their coming-of-age with sweet sixteen parties or Quinceañeras. Davis did so this past school year through activism. She learned how to write press releases and use social media to galvanize support for her cause. She alerted her school’s administration about the protest she was planning and worked with them to address safety concerns. And days before she marched and carried signs with 100 fellow students, she endured a 90-minute meeting with school board members Meghann Silverthorn and Judi Reynolds, who tried to intimidate her into cancelling the protest.
Davis had the foresight to tape record the conversation, having learned on-line from when she once hoped to become a criminal profiler that tape recording is legal in Colorado. The audio of their blatant threats and strong-arming embarrassed the board members, triggering calls – including by Davis herself at a school board meeting – for their ousters.
The district has appointed an attorney to investigate the incident. His report is expected later this month.
“I think that once the investigation report comes back, there’s no way they’ll keep their seats. I think that when the report comes back, fellow board members will have had enough,” she says.
The chips may not fall where Davis hopes.
Silverthorn and Reynolds have refused to recuse themselves from voting on whether they’ll keep their seats. They’re part of the board’s conservative majority – a highly organized political machine in Douglas County that’s fearful that the Davis controversy and a loss of seats in last November’s school board election will lead to further defeats in 2017. A video of former school board member Justin Williams speaking in April spells out the majority’s political strategy of staying in power by parting ways with Fagen, the superintendent they hired to put in place their controversial reforms. Less than a month later, Fagen announced that she’s leaving to take a job in Texas.
Whether or not Davis wins the ouster of the two board members who tried to silence her, she’s hell bent on continuing to speak out for teachers and other district personnel who are too fearful to speak for themselves.
“I think it’s because I’m in less of a vulnerable position than they are. I’m not going to lose my job. I’m not going to lose my salary or something as drastic as that,” she says. “Even though I’m a student, even though I have something to lose, I’m more free to speak, I guess, than they are.”
At the same meeting school-board member Geddes derided Davis for her activism, member David Ray – part of the one-vote minority – praised her for starting a much-needed conversation among students about the environment in which they’re being educated. Ray, unlike Geddes, attended Davis’ demonstration at Ponderosa. He described her as “one of the most poised, articulate individuals that I’ve seen in a long time at that age.”
“It was a 15-year-old student who felt that was the way she could get a voice, she could get attention,” Ray said of the protest. “It bothers me greatly that people who weren’t even present (are) making judgment.”
Davis wasn’t preened as a rabble-rouser. Her mom, Sarah Davis, sees her daughter as far more of a rule-follower than a rebel. Sarah Davis is a Republican who may well have voted for the school board members who later tried to push Grace around.
“We weren’t paying much attention,” she says.
Mother, father and daughter had many conversations over the school year about the risks of Grace’s political involvement. They even made a spreadsheet gauging possible outcomes such as suspension, expulsion or worse.
“For me, certainly, it always came back to you can’t not do what you think is right,” Sarah Davis says.
She marvels at her daughter’s strength, her ability to sit through 90 minutes of threats by school board members “without crying.”
“I can’t stand confrontation. It astounds me that she can do that,” says the interior designer. “It saddens me that Douglas County in itself can’t take any ownership or pride in this student they had a hand in raising.”
Other than Geddes’ harsh words accusing Grace Davis of allowing herself to be used and puppeted, there has been no other backlash. Fan mail and Edible Arrangements flowed in after news of board members’ attempts to intimidate her. A teacher who coaches an opposing golf team thanked and congratulated her for speaking on his and others’ behalf, and asked to take a selfie with her. And teachers in Ponderosa’s Science department showed up to school wearing T-shirts reading “# I Stand With Grace.”
Davis will spend her summer camping, volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico and reading up on ways to improve the school district she thinks has gone astray. She aims to create an alliance of students and teachers at Ponderosa to propose reforms to the administration. She’d also like to find a way to incorporate student voices into teacher evaluations because she thinks the current framework undervalues some who are most effective in the classroom.
Beyond high school, Davis doesn’t envision a future of political involvement. She aims to go to college to study photojournalism. The teachers for whom DougCo schools’ loudest firebrand has been rallying are cheering her on.
“One of my teachers came up to me and said ‘Grace I was thinking about it and you’re going to have a really good college essay’”