FOR THE STUDENTS
Since being elected to the Denver School Board, Auon'tai has worked hard for the students, educators, and families of Denver Public Schools. Within his first 50 days on the Denver School Board, Auon'tai passed a series of resolutions to combat gun violence in our communities, expand the right to vote to 16 & 17-year-olds, and the most comprehensive equity and inclusion package for the LGBTQIA + community.
School Safety & Mental Health
One of the biggest changes in the education landscape over the past generation is school safety and mental health, and it has been overwhelmingly negative. The risks of being hurt or criminalized at school have increased, while social and mental health supports have been defunded. These issues affect every student deeply, not just hurting their grades but their overall well-being.
SCHOOL SHOOTINGS: Many people in decision-making roles do not understand what it is like to be from a generation that has a legitimate fear that they will be gunned down at school. I know what it is like to go to school and wonder if someone with a military-grade assault rifle is going to bust through the door. That is why I have volunteered for various organizations that support common-sense gun laws, including my current role as a board member of March for Our Lives - Colorado. My number one priority on the school board is to make sure our school facilities are secure and safe. We must end the normalcy of students hearing “Locks, Lights, Out of Sight.” Parents should not be afraid to send their kids to school, but instead, feel assured that their child will come home every single day.
COUNSELORS, NOT COPS: Police officers, or “Security Resource Officers” as they are commonly called, have not protected students from school shootings and, in fact, typically escalate the conflict in schools. When you look at the threats to our students, it is clear that more mental health services will keep them safer, not more police officers. Right now, the Denver city government provides funding for the in-school police officers. As a school board member following the death of George Floyd, I led the charge to end our contract with the Denver Police Department.
CYBER-BULLYING: Many current decision-makers do not understand the psychological stress of having every one of their actions recorded and criticized in perpetuity on social media and the broader internet. Bullying at school is an age-old problem, but what we are facing now is a much bigger monster. I want to move DPS policy into this new era and make sure our students are taught the effects of social media on their lives and brains. We must give students the tools they need to protect themselves and others.
Equity should not just be a buzzword. It is the measuring stick of how students are truly getting access to their constitutionally-protected right to an education. Right now, in Denver, they are not. Our achievement gap along racial lines is one of the nation’s worst. This is absolutely shameful. It is within our power to fix it. Below are actions I will take as a school board member to make a change.
(PRE)SCHOOL TO PRISON PIPELINE: Discriminatory practices in discipline and curriculum, from preschool to high school, have led to students of color being expelled or suspended at three to one compared to white students. Most schools now have a police officer present in their buildings, so school altercations that used to result in a note home to your parents directly often result in arrests and the criminalization of our youth. To solve this problem, I would start by putting more counselors in schools, eliminating zero-tolerance policies, evaluating teachers based on student support instead of just test scores, and implementing curricula that counteract the negative messages students of color internalize about their heritage and potential.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE APPROACH: Our best teachers do not just teach us when we are perfect. They use our mistakes and failings to make us more intelligent and wiser. That is restorative justice. As a current Restorative Practice Coordinator in DPS, I have been trained in its research and techniques. Unfortunately, many educators are not so lucky. I see the stress and frustration on their faces and their students' faces. We could retain teachers AND students if we taught restorative justice techniques to all teachers, parents, support staff, and students. Student misbehavior is a natural part of youth development. We should ensure teachers feel confident and supported in using research-based discipline techniques to create a classroom conducive to learning and growth.
GENDER NEUTRAL BATHROOMS: Our students should never struggle at school because of hate. It is that simple. Right now, many students in DPS do not have a gender-neutral bathroom they can go to. As a result, many transgender and gender nonconforming students feel forced to go into a bathroom that doesn’t match their gender or appearance. When people try to tell me that this is to “protect women and children,” I ask them if they have a gender-neutral bathroom at home. Of course, they do-- we all do! As everyday human beings, we know that folks need a place to do their business and move on with their day. In my first 100 days in office, I ensured every Denver school with students in 6th grade and above provided at least one gender-neutral restroom. We confirmed that students could self-identify however they decided.
ENDING 'PERIOD POVERTY IN DPS: Imagine if schools did not provide toilet paper for students. It would be unhygienic. Students who couldn’t afford to bring their own may be too embarrassed to go to school. Students’ success and health would be thwarted because of one little thing. This is essentially a reality for students who menstruate in our schools right now. We don’t provide the basic bathroom products they need when they have a period. Currently, in the US, 1 in 5 young women miss class due to a lack of access to feminine hygiene products during their monthly cycle, an issue now being referred to as “period poverty.” Women are half of our population. They get their periods every month. Shame on us that it is 2019, and we have not started providing pads and tampons in school bathrooms yet. Following our students ' lead in my first year in office, we made this happen, and menstrual products began to arrive across the Denver Public Schools.
CONSENT DECREE: It has been almost 40 years since the Congress of Hispanic Educators first sued DPS for not providing adequate education for students learning English as a second language. We still have not gotten it fixed, even after another settlement (called a “consent decree”) in 2012. Speaking multiple languages is a considerable asset, yet we continue to treat it like a liability. My vision for DPS is to not only finally fulfill our fundamental obligation to all students but to become a global leader in educating students in multiple languages. I will use my position on the school board to shine a spotlight on our progress, or lack thereof, on this issue.
Educators are the backbone of our schools. If they are not supported, everything will eventually fall apart. Right now, the public is very supportive of improving how we treat our teachers. We just need our school board members to feel the same way. As an educator myself, I will be a champion for those who have chosen a career of serving students.
RESPECT FOR EDUCATORS: If students grow up in an environment where their teachers are treated poorly, they learn that it must be normal to treat people poorly. Our educators deserve a healthy salary, full benefits, and a voice in their workplace. As a school board member, I will make sure there is a sense of urgency on this issue. Treating our teachers with respect and decency cannot wait. Educators have bills to pay right now. Students are learning by example right now.
LIVING WAGES FOR STAFF: When we talk about supporting our educators, we cannot lose sight of our support staff. Our paraeducators, pro-techs, food service providers, safety personnel, and other support staff keep Denver Public Schools running. Currently, we pay them $12.00/hour. You cannot live in Denver on $12.00/hour, much less raise a family. I know because I was a paraeducator. No one working full time should choose between paying their light bill or their water bill. That is wrong. Everyone must be paid a living wage. I have advocated increasing the minimum wage from $15.87 to $20.00 an hour. In May of 2022, Dr. Alex Marrero, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, announced that the road towards $20.00 an hour would begin for those making less than $20.00. Before the end of 2022, I will work with my board colleagues to codify this into board policy.
RECRUITING & RETAINING EDUCATORS OF COLOR: Out of the 93,000 students in Denver Public Schools, 72,380 are students of color. We have 170 + languages spoken in our district, and we have one of the most diverse schools in the country (Denver South High School). However, the district has failed to hire and retain educators that look like the student body they serve. In the 2017-2018 school year, over 70% of our teachers identified as white, and about 60% of school administrators identified as white.
First, we need to home-grow our educators: We must better identify students who want to be future educators and help them concurrently enroll on the Auraria Campus to accelerate their degrees. Second, we must be intentional about recruiting educators of color and improve our reputation of how we treat and retain teachers of color. Third, we must move away from hiring teachers from alternative licensure programs-- those programs are not accredited education programs, and they do not teach equity pedagogy. Finally, I will mandate ongoing cultural competency and implicit bias training for all of our educators. There is no excuse for DPS not to be an excellent place to work and learn.
Private corporations should not run our public education system. Our education system is starting to look like our healthcare system-- a complicated “choice” system where private corporations control who gets what kind of service. It is the duty of the school board to make sure every single community school is providing a high quality education. Picking winners and losers is just an abdication of that responsibility. Education is a right. I will make sure our education system still treats it that way.
SCHOOL CHOICE: I am the only School Board Director who has lived “school choice.” School choice meant getting up at 5:30 am to catch two buses to get to school across town. I was told to be thankful that I got into a school that was a good fit for me. What I wasn’t told was to think about why I had to leave my neighborhood in the first place. As I run for the school board, that question is burned in my mind: Why do some kids have to “choose” good education and play a lottery to see if they get in? If you look at the current patterns and match them with historical ones, it is easy to see why: Students of color and poor students do not get the right to a good education. Instead, they get a false “choice.”
Let me clarify: I do not judge students or parents who use school choice. I understand that decision. I still think utilizing “school choice” was the right decision for me. I am just asking all of us to think a little bigger and figure out how we can slowly start changing the system so that every student can reasonably access their constitutionally-protected right to a good education.
SCHOOL CLOSURES & OPENINGS: With all the schools' openings and closings, we are having students and parents play ‘Musical Chairs’ with blindfolds on and the music turned off. There is confusion and frustration, and we waste an immense amount of resources. I committed to re-opening Montbello and reunifying West High School. We did just that with strategic community planning in my first two years in office.