From sit-ins to social media: How student activists are backing Denver teachers in strike

Students at Denver School of the Arts stage a sit-in in solidarity with teachers. (Photo by Molly McGrath)

At Denver’s East High School, teens made a two-minute video that opens with a sober-voiced male student asking pointed questions of Denver Public Schools administrators: “Our question to you, DPS, is what is executive management? Why are there 38 people in DPS with this title, and why are they making at least $136,000 a year?”

One after one, a dozen more students, all dressed in red, follow him in the video, “RED FOR ED,” expressing frustration with the DPS administration in its current pay dispute with teachers. 

Two weeks ago, after months of negotiations, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association voted to strike. Gov. Jared Polis declined to intervene in negotiations, an option that would have postponed the strike for 180 days. Hours later, DCTA celebrated Polis’s decision and announced the strike will begin on Monday.

As the strike looms, many DPS students, especially high schoolers, have taken action to support their teachers. Students have attended district and union bargaining sessions, as well as marches and rallies. Others have gone a step further, staging sit-ins, writing emails to the state board of education and encouraging their peers to do the same, creating videos to voice their criticisms, and even posting memes on Instagram about the strike.

One student told The Indy she knows of a few fellow students who are quietly supporting the district, but she was unaware of any organized pro-district events.

East High School student Oneccia Garcia
East High School student Oneccia Garcia (photo by Lena Novins-Montague)

At East High, a group of students met during lunch to create the RED FOR ED video. In the video, students reel off statistics which strongly suggest the administration is bloated and teachers are under-compensated. “Teachers in other Colorado districts are receiving an average of $15,000 more for having the same credentials as DPS teachers, and doing the same exact job,” one student says. After filming the video, the students posted it to YouTube, shared it on social media, and sent it out to news stations.

Oneccia Garcia, an East senior who was involved in the making of the video, said, “We wanted to educate people, and that was the point of the video.” Garcia also stressed that the video was student-directed and produced on students’ own time. “People are always like, ‘Kids will do anything to get out of class.’ We met at someone’s house on Saturday and Sunday and we were there from 1 to 8, trying to come up with a plan and put things on social media so that people could come and support. Then we cranked the video out during lunch.”

Alexa Downing, a senior at Denver School of the Arts, has been similarly outspoken in her support of the strike because, “I really love and appreciate my teachers, and I don’t like it when bureaucracies are crooked.” Downing cited ProComp, DPS’s controversial pay-for-performance bonus and incentive system, as well as the gap between administrator and teacher salaries, as evidence of the need for a change.

Downing is leading her own activism efforts through what may seem like an unconventional tactic: an Instagram meme account, called @dsalibertarianqueens. Downing and a friend originally started the page of comical images, parodies and comments this past November in response to a conservative Instagram meme account started by two other Denver School of the Arts students.

The account name itself is a meme, Downing explained, “We’re not real libertarians.”

Over the past few weeks, as tension over the strike has mounted, she repurposed the account as a platform for information regarding the strike, as well as strike-related memes.

A post on the account last Thursday morning described dos and don’ts of striking: “Do peacefully attempt to persuade other individuals to honor our picket lines and support our strike.” “Don’t get in heated confrontations with another individual.” A more traditional meme posted on the account shows an image of organizational consultant and author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” Marie Kondo overlaid with text that reads, “Unnecessary administrative positions don’t spark joy in any of us.”

Molly McGrath at the DCTA rally and march
Molly McGrath at the DCTA rally and march (photo by Alexa Downing)

Downing explained that she has used memes as a tool to attract the attention of her peers. “What is the language of Gen Z? It’s memes. It’s also a form of transmitting information. In this day and age, when you’re just saturated with information all the time, how do you get people to pay attention? I think the answer is that you make them laugh,” she said.

Another Denver School of the Arts senior, Molly McGrath, has taken a different route in order to support her teachers. She organized a sit-in at her school on the same day the strike was initially supposed to start. She explained that the sit-in took the form of an information session because many of the strike-related issues, such as ProComp are complicated. McGrath also shared how low teacher salaries have affected her personally: her mother is a DPS teacher who has not received a raise in ten years. McGrath encouraged further action by sharing Gov. Polis’s constituent line and urging students to call and ask the governor to not intervene in the strike.

At South High School, senior Jorge Hernandez chose to take a stance because of the strong relationships he has with his teachers. “I admire so many teachers. They really work hard for us, and it’s amazing what they do,” he said. He was also shocked when he realized that many of his teachers must work additional jobs to make ends meet. Hernandez decided to send an email to the state board of education and DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova describing his love for his teachers and his frustration that they are not receiving what he feels is sufficient pay. He wrote in the email, “They [the teachers] come every day with a huge smile on their face  … they do the best they can to get us to be successful … I am hoping you guys open your eyes to see the passion these teachers have, to educate your students … to see how you let your staff, OUR TEACHERS, down is very frustrating.”

After sending the email, Hernandez took to Facebook to provide the email addresses of Cordova and the board of education, and he encouraged his peers to send emails of their own. The post was shared by other students, and Hernandez has received support from his peers for the action.

However, he added, he was disappointed by the board of education’s response to his email, a thank-you note from board’s secretary. “It was really frustrating, because I sent this really long letter and it wasn’t my story. I was saying make sure you give the teachers what they deserve,” he said.

Now that the strike is set to begin next week, many students have said that they will attend class, even in the absence of their teachers. “You want to be here to show DPS [that] my substitute can’t teach like my teacher can. This dance class we have, you think a sub can teach this? That’s my biggest thing, being able to prove that we need our teachers more than they think,” said Garcia.

These student activists cannot play a role in the bargaining between the district and the union. But they still feel a strong sense of responsibility. “There hasn’t been an issue I’ve felt this passionate about,” said Downing. “Yes, Donald Trump getting elected president is bad, gun violence is bad, but those felt like things I couldn’t really change. This is something where if I can’t change it, I can at least make people aware.”