Day 1 of the Denver teachers’ strike: Scenes from the front line

The strike comes as the Denver school district and the teachers union fail to reach a deal over salaries and performance-based pay

Striking teachers and supporters rallied on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol Feb. 11, 2019. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography for The Colorado Independent)

More than half of Denver Public Schools teachers stayed off the job Monday, triggering mass student walkouts and chaos in the hallways of some high schools, and scheduling confusion at others. Most elementary schools apparently saw little disruption.

On Day One of a long-threatened strike, the district pressed some 1,400 central office staff and substitutes into service to fill in for teachers, who are demanding higher base salaries, among other policy changes. The district put the number of striking teachers at 2,630, out of a total of 4,725, but union members said they believe the number was higher. ​

DPS was also hit with a class-action lawsuit Monday by parents of the district’s 10,000 disabled students, who argue they are disproportionately affected by the strike, the Denver Post reported.

By Monday afternoon, the district had not released the number of student absences that day, but it said it served 22,796 breakfasts; the normal count is 31,600. Bus ridership was down by half, to about 3,300, the district said. The district is expected to determine tonight whether to temporarily close some schools due to low enrollment during the strike.

Talks with the union resume Tuesday morning.

The strike comes amid a national wave of protests and walkouts over poor pay and the lack of state funding for K-12 schools. In Colorado, some school districts have turned to a four-day school week to save money. Some teachers say they’ve had to buy supplies and snacks for their classrooms, and many teachers complain their salaries — which average $62,095, according to the district — are so low they can’t afford to live in the city in which they teach. 

Gov. Jared Polis last week declined a request by the district to intervene and prevent the strike, telling reporters at the state Capitol “the differences between the two sides are minor.” Over the weekend, union bargainers walked away from negotiations with Denver Public Schools but said they would return to the table Tuesday. Schools remain open, though many preschool classrooms will close for lack of substitute teachers.

The Independent posted reporters at schools throughout the district. Following are their dispatches.

Related: Ask the Indy: How would a Denver teachers’ strike affect you?

8 a.m., South High School — Several dozen teachers, bundled against the cold, formed a picket line on the east side of the school. Several carried signs that read, “I’m striking for my students” and “On strike because I support future students,” while chanting, “5, 6, 7, 8, DPS negotiate.”

Students had been told to go to the auditorium, where it was standing room only. The scene was chaotic. Principal Bobby Thomas told the students that just because school staff was not on picket line, it didn’t mean the are not supportive of the teachers. He reminded students anything that happens needs to be peaceful, and that each morning, the student body would start the day in the auditorium.

Don Reynolds, assistant principal, said there was a high level of uncertainty about how many students were going to show up and how much help the school would have. After he announced absences wouldn’t count against students, whoops and cheers went up from students. “We want you to be here. We have plans in place to allow you to continue your learning,” he said.

Students were told there would be a Google form to fill out at the beginning of every period, to track attendance. Then, as Reynolds was talking, a girl with a megaphone stood up and shouted, “Walk out for your teachers!” and the vast majority did.

Outside, students held signs that read “My teachers deserve better” and “I support my teachers.”

“We must remember that teachers did not want to strike,” said the student with the megaphone. “Of course they did not want to give up the little money they make now. Of course they didn’t want to lose valuable time with their students. DPS wants us to think that the DCTA made a choice. But there was no choice.”

Catherine Salis, a South senior on the student senate, said students had been planning a walkout since hearing their teachers would strike. Salis said she and many of her classmates would go to class immediately following the walkout. “We’re going to respect our school because as much as we’d like to leave with the teachers, that’s not going to get anything done.”

8 a.m., Garden Place Elementary — Outside the school, a small crowd of teachers held posters, sipped coffee and bounced on their feet to stay warm. As students and parents entered the school, many teachers greeted their students by name and occasionally gave them a them a hug.

“I know they’re in good hands. We still have some of the paras (paraprofessionals),” said Angel Velasquez, who dropped off her 5-year-old daughter before going to take care of her 2-year-old. “I hope that we can give them what they want,” she said of the teachers.

The teachers held signs that read, “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” One teacher, who did not want to be named, said, “We seek a clear, transparent and professional salary.”

South High students left classrooms to show support for striking teachers on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (Photo by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)

8:22 a.m. East High.: Student video provided to The Colorado Independent:

8:45 a.m. East High School — At Denver East High School, nearly 150 teachers came together to form two picket lines, one directly outside the school building and the other along East Colfax Avenue. Their signs read: “This is what we call a teachable moment! Susana, listen up!” and “I would rather be teaching.”

As teachers marched, their students poured out of the school. One student described how his peers had filled the halls, jumping and singing along to a popular rap song. “It was a riot. Somebody turned on Mo Bamba and everyone gathered in the hallway and started screaming.” Students reported it was chaotic in the building, and that the deans had instructed them to either go to class or go home.

“The teachers are saying you can either stay in the classroom or leave,” said the student. “And no one wants to stay in the classroom.”

9:00 a.m., East High — A “Denver East High School Strike Impacted Schedule” directed substitute teachers to rotate through class material including  “College & Career,” “Humanities,” “Gym,” and “Math/Science.” Substitutes were to receive a 45-minute break during gym period, during which they were instructed to drop students off at the gym, where the deans would provide supervision. Despite the plans, many students joined their teachers in the picket lines or got into their cars and drove home.

Teachers had been picketing since 6:45 a.m. “It’s been cold and fun and empowering, and there’s a level of joy that you have not seen from teachers before. I’ve craved it for so long,” said Matt Murphy, who teaches theater at East. “I felt like we could have struck last year.”

Meryl Perlman, who teaches U.S. history, said, “We can’t afford to not strike anymore. We take the hit right now, and hopefully in the long run it’s worth it. When I started at DPS 12 years ago, I made $39,000. I could live comfortably. But as the cost of living has increased, it hasn’t kept up at all. I’ve seen my bonuses decrease dramatically. When we do get a raise, they increase something else, like health care costs. Or they cut positions we really need in the building, like tech services or custodial. We see those impacts increase our workload,” said Perlman.

“We’re really optimistic, we’re really supportive of each other, and I think the camaraderie is pretty evident.”

9:45 a.m., on the phone with Brett Hann, parent of a Denver School of the Arts freshman. — “I sent my kid to school today but within an hour, I got a text from my boy who said, ‘They put us all in the concert hall and we’re doing nothing.’ (The district) said classes were going to be held, but the kids are just being warehoused. … Frankly, I’m surprised. If they said they are not able to hold classes, then they should tell us that. To me it’s a bit disingenuous to say, ‘Send your kids — they’ll be good.’ I’m not going to send my kid back tomorrow just to sit in a concert hall for seven hours. The district needs to communicate clearly, so parents know.”

He added: “But the strike is just symptom of our failure as a state to adequately fund education in the first place. Voters want good public schools but don’t use their votes – and tax dollars – to provide the money to adequately fund schools. According to US News we are 30th in the nation in school funding and according to the most recent US Census data, we are 39th. Denver has a strong tax base, which should be used to invest in education. The city needs to work with DPS to divert tax dollars toward legitimate base pay and incentives for fair and equitable teacher salaries.”

Striking teachers in Denver march upon state Capitol building on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (Photo by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)

9:45 a.m., Speer Boulevard near West High School — About 100 teachers chanted “DCTA” and “If they don’t pay us shut it down.” Cars honked. One middle-aged white man put  his head out the window and shouted, “Get back to work.”

Many of the teachers said they want to be at work, but said they’re thinking of the bigger picture. “I think about my students’ education on a daily basis,” said a woman who teaches at Knapp Elementary School. “I think this is important,” she said of the strike. “I’m not thinking short-term. I’m thinking long-term.”

She said she teaches at a Title 1 school, where teachers received a bonus, but she still can’t afford to live in Denver. She said she’s constantly on Zillow looking for a more affordable place. Bonuses have not improved staff turnover, she said. What matters more is a positive culture, sense of community and supportive administration, she added.

“It’s like having a bad roommate no one wants to live with,” one woman said, adding she basically lives at school. Another chimed in: “I’ve almost always worked at a Title 1 school without a bonus. Nobody is doing this for the money.”

10:00 a.m., Speer Boulevard near West High   Students walked with the teachers, stepping over boxes of donuts and patches of ice. Ethan Yoder, a junior at the Denver Center for International Studies, said he probably won’t go to school Monday. He said there were a lot of assignments to do that day, but no teachers. He said he wants to stand in solidarity with the teachers, “as long as it takes.”

10:30 a.m., King Baptist Preschool —  Denver Public Schools has closed early childhood education programs during the strike, but preschools around the city are opening their doors to DPS kids displaced by the strike. Relays Purchase, an administrator at King Baptist preschool in Park Hill — one of the sites accepting DPS preschoolers today — said the arrangement “could get hectic.”

So far, only one strike-affected family had dropped off their child, but staff said many families didn’t know where to send their kids and that they expected more would show up this week as word gets out. “But we’re here to serve,” she said. “So we’re just going to try to accommodate the need. It’s going to be a change, for sure, because we’ll have these additional children.” 

Staff at the preschool said that they typically keep the student-to-educator ratio at 10 to 1, but that they were prepared to up that ratio closer to 15 to 1 in response to the strike.

11:30 a.m., Manual High School —It’s so far been a notably uneventful day inside Denver’s Whittier neighborhood, in stark contrast to the mass student protests observed at East and South. There were no teachers picketing and no students walking out. One student described the day as “normal as heck” and another said that some of the teachers on strike from the school were still assigning homework from afar, via Google Classroom. A school secretary told The Independent that only one out of about 300 Manual high schoolers called in absent today because of the strike.

11:30 a.m., DPS offices — Superintendent Susana Cordova says the district will resume negotiations with the union at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The district reported that 2,631 of Denver’s 4,725 public school teachers, or about 56 percent, had joined the walkout — a far lower percentage than reportedly voted for the strike. The union claimed that 93 percent of its voting members supported a strike. Approximately 1,400 employees from the DPS central office staff are filling in at schools, and 400 substitutes have been hired.

1:00 p.m. Denver School of the Arts — The lunch period was quiet. Parents filtered into the attendance office to sign their children out for the remainder of the day. “Is it going to be the same deal tomorrow?” asked one parent. The administrators nodded.

In the hall, a group of eighth-grade girls ate lunch and described the events of the morning to a reporter. In the morning, they said, students were directed to the cafeteria, where they were then split up by grade and sent to different parts of the building. Eighth-graders were assigned to one of the school’s theaters, where they sat for an hour and a half. “We did nothing. It was free rein, but we weren’t allowed to leave unless we had to go to the bathroom,” said one of the students. 

After sitting in the theater, the eighth-grade girls were assigned to a classroom with a non-striking teacher and a DPS finance administrator. There were not enough desks, so some students sat on the floor. They were given a math worksheet, which some of them were unable to complete because math curriculums vary from student to student. This lasted for three hours, until lunch began. The students didn’t know what would happen after lunch, but one said, “All we know is we really don’t want to go back to that class.”

“I’m staying home tomorrow,” said one of the girls. “Yeah, me too,” said another.

2 p.m., Colorado State Capitol — A crowd at least a couple thousand deep, dressed in red and waving signs, rallied on the Capitol steps and vowed to be back on the picket line tomorrow.

“Today was a bit of an awakening for the district,” said Rob Gould, the union’s lead negotiator, to the frenzied crowd. “Today’s awakening has come from the realization that the district can’t run a school district without their teachers. We know how to teach, and we know what our kids need.”
Kevin Adams, a Denver teacher who co-emceed the rally, explained why he feels strike is so important.
Students, he said, “deserve the best educators that they can get.
“They deserve to learn from who taught their parents, who taught their tíos and tías, who taught their cousins, from the people who know their community. I believe students are first. That’s why I’m on strike.”
At the base of the Capitol steps were about two dozen students, and many more students were scattered elsewhere in the crowd. A marching band comprised of Denver Public Schools teachers played “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”
One fifth grade teacher waved a sign listing all the classroom items she’s been forced to spend her own money on: “breakfast, socks, tampons/pads, deodorant, soap, a sex ed curriculum, toothpaste,” and so on. On the flip side of her sign was her Venmo handle. She was soliciting donations.
Among the messages on the hundreds of other signs: “A district that fails to value its teachers fails to value its future” and “I teach my students to stand up for what they believe in. Now it’s my turn.”

3:00 p.m.,  South High School  As the school day ended, small groups of students filtered out of the front doors. In the parking lot, non-striking teachers and substitutes declined to speak with a reporter. One paraprofessional stopped briefly and said that there were only two students in his classroom.

A South administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said South has a student body of 1,598, and Monday morning, approximately 800 students came to school. After the student-led walkout at 8 a.m., 180 students remained. By the end of the day, the number had dwindled to 60.

The administrator said six teachers came to work, including a couple members of the military, who are prohibited from striking. The others are in the United States on work visas and did not strike out of fear that they would be reported to immigration authorities, a claim that DPS made in a letter, then later retracted.

South has ten paraprofessionals, who staffed classrooms along with the 16 substitute teachers the district provided.

Monday was intended to be a practice test day, for sophomores and juniors to take the PSAT. Seniors, who do not take the PSAT, were not required to come to school today. The administrator noted that despite this, many seniors showed up to support the walkout and the picket line. “I love how our students came out. It was peaceful.”

However, she noted, “There was no education going on.” She estimated that only half of the students who were supposed to take the PSAT actually did so.

She said she is one of a few administrators at South who is supportive of the strike.

Alex Burness contributed to this report.

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