Episode 5: Better Together
Students help reunite two high schools to create opportunity for all.
Staff and students from West High School in Denver, CO, talk about how they mobilized and partnered with their school district to successfully reunite and rebuild their high school years after it was split in two.
JONATHAN: It’s been said that, “a house divided against itself will not stand.”
On the surface, our differences, be they differences of opinion, cultural background, class, or gender, can create division and conflict. But not all conflict is created equal.
While it may seem like a threat to unity, conflict or contestation as community organizers might call it, is often quite the opposite.
In many cases, true unity is aided by an open and honest examination of the roots of our disagreements and the presence of conflict is actually an opportunity - for our voices to be heard, our needs to be met, and our shared goals to be accomplished.
That’s what we’re exploring on today’s episode of Changing Course.
We’re taking you to West High School in Denver, Colorado. We’ll look at how a school district partnered with its students to successfully reunite two high schools, rebuilding a school that would not only meet their needs, but also, better serve future generations.
Andrea: We kinda got to experience what it was to be like divided. We kinda wanted just to create the change for the following generations, so they could actually like take the advantage that we didn't get to take. I have sisters. And I wanted to make that change for them as well, so they could have more opportunities than what I had-
Andrea: .. when I was still here at West.
[Music Note: Have the beat drop in before Jonathan says “what’s up y’all!”]
JONATHAN: From Teach For America’s One Day Studio, you’re listening to Changing Course.
I’m Jonathan Santos Silva, a 2010 Teach For America alumni on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and since leaving the classroom, I haven’t stopped partnering with educators, students, and communities to reimagine education.
We have so much to learn from schools across America moving education in a new direction, and a change in course will happen one school at a time.
Today, we’re taking you to Denver Colorado’s West High School, where student-led activism has transformed a school for generations to come.
You ready? Let’s go!
JONATHAN: Elevated a mile above sea level, Denver, better known as the “Mile High City”, was originally home to Arapaho, Cheyenne, Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu (or Ute), and Ochethi peoples. With over 700,000 residents today, it is the most populous city in Colorado.
Located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of West Denver, West High School is the second oldest of four historic directional schools in the city. Although originally established in 1883, by 2012 the school would find itself split into two smaller schools — West Early College and West Leadership Academy in hopes of boosting academic scores and graduation rates.
Although the two schools shared the same building and remained unified for extracurriculars such as athletics, they functioned separately academically, and while the schools did see an increase in test scores and graduation rates, the district would soon see the split also came with a price.
Let’s hear from our guests, starting with Mia Martinez Lopez, principal at West High School.
Mia: My name is Mia Martinez Lopez. [Spanish 00:04:41]. I am the very proud principal of West High School. [Spanish 00:04:47]. I am also, uh, a mother of three. Um, I've been an educator for 20 years. I was a teacher. I was a Dean, I was an AP and I sort of labeled myself as just a big mom around here, because I definitely put forth a lot of care, and refer to the people, the students here as my kids. So sometimes people have to ask like, "The kids at home or the kids at school?"
Mia: They're all my kids.
Jonathan: That's beautiful, and it sounds like your kids at school are, um, a group of phenomenal leaders. You know, when we started first hearing about West High School, uh, what rose to the top was this amazing story of students stepping up, to have a say in how their school would operate. Um, and I wonder if you could share in your own words, a little bit of the background of that situation, and what happened with the reunification at West?
Mia: Absolutely. West has been around since 1883 officially, but where we are in West Denver is the oldest part of the city of Denver. And the very first school started in 1865, um, just a few blocks from here, just wasn't called West High School.
So, you know, we have a very long history, but in that history of time, demographics have changed, expectations have changed, and definitely actions regarding, you know, low performance and enrollment, went through a change about 15, starting about 15 years ago with this idea of schools within schools.
In 2011, it was proposed that West High School be phased out, um and new programs brought in. One school was created for a AP focus and then the other school was more of like experience, career experience focus. Those schools started in 2012. And so when that happened, while there was some community input, it was very, very limited. It was a small group of community members that were informed that this might happen. I was, uh, a Dean in my position here at West High School at the time-
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mia: I started in 2009, but I remember conversations starting to happen.
And so since 2012, you know, the two schools were set up to serve the same exact grade levels with very minor differences in programming. And really what occurred was, uh, a competition between the two. And in this building, it was basically split down the middle. And, while it used to house, you know, hold about 2000 students, we didn't have quite that many, but it was very interesting because, there was this invisible line that was throughout the building and, staff from either side of the schools didn't really speak to each other nor did students.
And, depending on either school's performance, and rating, um, in the school performance framework, uh, it was deemed either that was the good school or that was the bad school. And so that just created a lot of animosity, between a, a div- community that was like completely together (laughs) you know, previous to that (laughs).
Jonathan: It's so fascinating. So like there's this invisible line of demarcation between the two, uh, schools.
Mia: Yeah. So we had shared spaces. Um, you know, cafeteria, the auditorium, the gym, we also in the design of the, the two new programs, we maintained, the mascot, the colors. We did, actually compete together in athletics. So it was very strange because during school hours it was, you don't go over there, you don't go over there. And then after school we would all go to the gym and, you know, be on the same basketball team. And so, that's why for students, it, it just never made any sense.
Jonathan: And you were there p- prior to the split. Did you, did it... I don't want this to come out weird. Did it take you that long to realize that this wasn't gonna last, or did you sense earlier that, that this wasn't gonna, that the community, that the students weren't gonna support this forever?
Mia: I don't know if I, I really understood, that the students in the community were not gonna support it further. It just created a very uncomfortable environment and just a feeling that like, you know... I wasn't sure how long we could just, uh, sustain a scenario where we were competing against each other. I feel like that was probably the hardest part. And then just over time, just noticing that, uh, it wasn't, uh, the best use of, you know, strong people in a space.
Mia: If it was not for the students, we would not be unified. Th- the adults would not have done it, um-
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mia: Because that would mean large scale change and also, um, loss possibly.
Mia: And, and we're afraid of those things.
Jonathan: So when does it "become a district problem?" When are they alerted that folks aren't happy?
Mia: I would assume that it started with Student Voice and Leadership.
JONATHAN: Student Voice and Leadership or SVL is a district program created by West High School alumni about a decade ago. Frustrated with the way the school district often ignored student voices, founding members launched SVL as a new initiative of the public school system, giving voice to students who wanted to have a say in how their school was run. Although it started off small, SVL is now run in over 20 high schools across the district, helping thousands of students actively hold their schools accountable.
Here’s Dan Walter, better known as Wally, a teacher at West High School and staff lead of the Student Voice and Leadership program.
Dan: My name is Daniel Walter and I'm a teacher at West High School. Uh, I teach social studies, so for me that entails personal finance, predominantly.
And I've only been a part of the, the program and for three. Um so the reunification year was, was my first year as, uh, um, the, one of the leaders for West.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you were able to work in the split school?
Dan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: What was that like from your perspective, and, um, when did you realize that, uh, kids were unhappy to the point of wanting to make a change?
Dan: Yeah, so man, this is such a good question. So it got to a point, after maybe five years of split schools, where we really started to question how healthy this was. Um, you know, we offer this, we travel every year, they don't. We do speech and debate, you know, they don't do that. Little things like that just aren't healthy for communities, and the moment really was the prom of 2019.
We always share proms and events and things like that, the bigger ones, and I was looking around, it was a pretty packed party, you know, good size venue and students were having fun. And I looked around and at tables on the dance floor, there were nobody from these opposing schools interacting with each other. And so, after four years of high school and being in the same hallways, and even playing on the same sports teams, at a prom, they're completely separated. Nobody from other school is really interacting with each other. There's two separate royalties. They would do a West Leadership Royalty, they would do a West Early College Royalty.
And I, I just, that night, I was like, "This is, this is BS. This has gotta stop." Like this, this is just unhealthy, it's we're not making the most out of our resources, and this is just a sad representation of what, what school should be for young people. And so I was already kind of in the mix to be the new SVL leader for our school or help the, the current leader. And so that just kind of helped us create focus for that following year when, when I helped, uh, lead it.
Jonathan: So you realized from the prom, it's so funny when you think of like, you know, these pivotal years in American history, you know, 1776, or, you know, whatever. In the prom of 2019, right, like that's the pivotal moment (laughing). You realize that something's wrong, do kids come to you? Do you propose it in SVL? Like how does it, uh, begin to gather steam towards a reunification? And when did that even become a conversation?
Dan: Yeah, so that next fall, it was, so this is my first year as the lead- leader of the club. And it was just a part of our advisory class. I was just, you know, we had students apply to be a part of it. They knew it was about social justice and, and creating change in our school. But, it was kind of being reborn anyway, and so these 20 or five or so students applied and then we put them all in my advisory or my homeroom. And as we started to brainstorm like what project will we choose this year? The conversation was going back to what it had been for years, and even though I wasn't an SVL, the, the leader of that club, um, in years prior, I had a really good beat on what they had been working on.
So they, uh, one idea they had had it prior was, uh, developing an app that can somehow send out notifications about events. So it helped us feel more united. One of them was let's create a community service program and let's get students volunteering together to feel more united. None of them hit particularly well, I guess. And so as we were going over like what have, what has SVL tried over the last few years. They wanted to do the same thing, like let's make our community stronger, let's unite our schools. And so I just asked them, "Wh- why don't we just think deeper? Like what's the root of the problem that's causing the division in the first place?"
And so thinking like let's not put a bandaid on this wound, let's see if we can actually heal this wound from the very foundation. And so that's when we started asking, "Why are we two schools? Is it better that we are two schools?" And so they really narrowed it down on, immediately, like no, and the answer why or the question why was there are fewer classes to take since one school offers these and the other school doesn't. That was their one kind of focus. And then the second piece that was really important to them was that they, we claim we're a cowboy family, with a very long history of proud alumni, and it was just that, it was just a claim. And everybody in that building knew that, that, those were just words and that tore them up.
They were like, "This is BS. We've been, you know, we're not a cowboy family. We, we do hate each other (laughs). We, we don't necessarily fight, but we clown each other's school, we say, "Y'all suck at this and we're better at this." And they were tired of it. So those, those two pieces right there is what, where they found is like their, their root causes or the root issues that they thought, you know, didn't necessitate two schools. So two schools needed to go.
Jonathan: Having that conversation and actually seeing reunification like two different things, when did you begin to believe like we actually can do this?
Dan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So the first conversations that they had with, with anybody outside of myself was with the principal of each school. So Ms. Lopez who, who you've spoken to and Ms., uh, Teresa Klava. And both of the principals, we were like, "Oh, they might hate this idea. This might, one of them might lose their job. This is gonna be... they're never gonna like this." Both of them in different, very different ways were like, "This is what we've been waiting for."
So when the principals came to class and the students asked them questions and they were each individual, they weren't even together, we, we interviewed both of them separately, they both got essentially the same answer from both the principals. So that blew their minds. You know, I'm getting tingly right now, they were like, "Wow, like we're onto something." You know, the leaders of our school think that this is what's best. And so they, it was just a, you know, a snowball rolling downhill from there on, to be honest and you know, we, they gained a lot of momentum really quickly and they, at that point, they were like, "We can do this."
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Was there any opposition? And if so, where was the biggest opposition and how do we get around it?
Dan: I think the biggest, I think the, the, the main opposition came from students that were worried about losing the relationships with some of their teachers 'cause reshuffling two schools into one requires a lot of change and so some students were more vocal about that, again, I think most people were really aware that it would be painful but that the end goal was well worth it.
Jonathan: What was the moment like when you found out it was gonna happen?
Dan: Well, it was an online stu- school board meeting (laughs), which is a little unfortunate.
Jonathan: Which is the world, right? The pandemic world, right?
Dan: We had our last community meeting on, uh, May 12th, 2020, and you know, we basically didn't go back to school after that. So the rest of the, the nitty gritty was done online. Google Forms and surveys and online board meetings. It was bittersweet because it wasn't as exciting as it could have been,um but it, it was a great, it was a sense of relief, and I think it was really powerful because the students knew, they felt, they just, they were just so proud of what they had created.
Jonathan: That's cool. In closing just, what has it been like teaching in the reunified, uh, West and that one cowboy family? What's that been like for you?
Dan: It's, uh, I'm just excited to meet so many more students, and for us to be able to expand who we offer things to. So meeting, you know doubling our population, essentially, has been fantastic. You know, each school had such bright and amazing young people that were, you know, separated by this invisible fence. So now to have them all coalescing together just allows more brilliance to, to occur.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dan: And then the other added benefit is, you know, they had some dope teachers. We had amazing teachers, and so combining everybody into one is, has really created a lot of energy around, just great teaching, um, brilliant students. The energy and excitement is palpable, and so, yeah, it's been, it's been exciting so far.
<insert music break/transition>
JONATHAN: Reunifying the school was a huge accomplishment driven by student leaders, but it was far from the first time students have spoken up to make change at the school. Again, here’s Mia Martinez Lopez.
Mia: In March of 1969, a group of students of Mexican descent, they had interactions with a teacher, a Mr. Shaper who made some very disparaging and racist remarks regarding Mexicans and they went to their administration, were not heard in any sense so they went to a community organization called the Crusade For Justice that was based out of Denver and was an organizing unit for the Chicano movement in Denver. And brought forth their concerns and so the students, along with the help of the crusade organized a walkout. The walkout started with a relatively small group of students. It was about 100 students at the time (or even less).
They were tired of the racist remarks. They were not allowed to speak their own language, they had no representation in the curriculum, did not learn about their history and just really did not feel a part of this community and so, they went to, some of the neighboring schools including Baker Middle School, which is a few blocks away. Gathered some more students and then came back to West High School, where there was a huge police presence. There was a new police chief at that time and Denver Police had just received some new riot gear. And so, when the students returned, they were met with the police force.
And so, on our front steps with students as they tried to protest and had signs for, we want Chicano principals, we want Chicano teachers, they wanted to be able to st- All these things that should be some basic fundamental rights, as far as being treated,equitably, and they were met with resistance. That protest and, and you know, blowout, I guess they call it lasted about three days.
I grew up knowing about the West High blowouts. Dad would tell stories. We grew up with a lot of influence of the Chicano movement. My father was also, he's an artist, a local artist, his name is Emmanuel Martinez and he marched for the Poor People's Campaign with Dr. King and others.
So, I grew up learning about this, hearing about what it was like, on those days of that protest.
When I first came to West High School was actually during the 40th anniversary. I came in 2009 and I remember entering the steps and being like, “whoa, this is, this is where it happened.”
For the 50th anniversary in 2019, we brought back alumni, people who were there. So it was, it was definitely, I think eye opening for a lot of students because we spent a lot of time explaining that they came from people who spoke out, not just in their history, but in their school history.
Jonathan: Wow. And so now you're principal of West High School-
Mia: The Unified West High School.
Jonathan: The Unified West High School. When you look back at your entire tenure, you know, all your, you know about the history, what emotions come to mind knowing that you're now the principal of this unified school?
Mia: So for me, I mean, this is such an extra- extraordinary place because of, of the school community, the people that are here, um, and that's absolutely the students, the families and, people make a lot of jokes, like there is no place like the West side, like, this is very, this is a different place and people don't, and it's... So, for me, it's just, a ton of excitement and pride. I mean, I don't, I just have an immense amount of pride. Immense amount of pride for, um, my school community and what they do every single day. How they show up despite so many different challenges, and they try, and what I'm excited about now- so my emotions are, I guess, pride and excitement, is the fact that they are finding their voices and their job is to kinda tell us what they need and our job is to, to put it in front of them, and to give them that opportunity.
<music bed starts back up>
JONATHAN: Next, we’ll hear all about those experiences from the students themselves, but first, we’ll take a break.
MIDROLL AD BREAK
JONATHAN: In 2021, The Denver Public Schools Board of Education approved reunifying West Early College and West Leadership Academy into West High School beginning in the 2021–2022 school year. Students and staff advocated for reunification in efforts to embrace the school's history and end what some saw as a rivalry between the two small schools.
Let’s hear from Andrea and Aurelia, West High School alumni from the class of 2021.
Andrea: My name is Andrea. I'm a fresh, first generation freshman in college. I am bilingual. I speak Spanish as well.
Aurelia: My name is Aurelia. I'm a first generation freshman in college as well. And then I am bilingual as well. I'm an alumni too.
Jonathan: When you got to West and your freshman year, it was two separate schools, right? Can you tell us what school was like for you then on, in that system?
Aurelia: So, freshman year I came in and then it was two separate schools. So it was pretty much cut right in the middle. So one school was on this side and the other school was on the other side. And there was a lot of division and like Academics and school spirit, and other things like that where we didn't have school spirit as a whole. We played for one team, but yet we didn't know the people across the building. Or, in academics where it was pretty much a competition of like, who was better, even though we were in the same building, same school pretty much, just competition.
Jonathan: So you find yourself asking like, "We're playing together, but we don't really interact with them. I don't really get why we're separated." When did it get to a point where you thought there was even a possibility to change it? What, what, what made y'all start looking into this?
Aurelia: Well, I mean, we had the same teams, so we played for the same team. We had a couple things that we did to, the same, like the FACES program and yeah, like internships where both schools combined. Um, and then we were hearing about like stuff that they were doing around their school and they were hearing about like the opportunities we had in our school. And it was just like, why can't we do that and why can't they do our opportunities? So it was kind of like, it didn't make sense if we were able to combine for other things. Why can’t we combine for the rest?
Andrea: Yeah, I think I would also like to add onto that it created a lack of resources among students, because like she said, one side of the school, which was like Early College, which is the one I graduated from, they had concurrent enrollment classes and the other side of the school had like the fun art classes that we didn't have that we wanted to take as electives, or like they had like-
Andrea: Yeah. AP courses or like multi-language courses. And, we were like... 'cause we had friends from the other side, like later on like in the, as the years passed. The only reason why we became friends is because of like sports, like sports would come-like combine us and bring us together. And then like also pep rallies, we had 'em together, which is like, it was-
Aurelia: Very weird (laughs).
Andrea: It was weird, yeah. And then it kind of created an awkward tension as well, because you could see the little groups, like, even though like we were there together, like in the pep rallies, like half of the school would kind of like go more towards one side and then the other towards the other one. And like you did have people that you knew from the other side, but you would just kind of like say hi and stuff. Like you wouldn't actually go and sit and conversate with them. So yeah.
I think the breaking point was for me, at least, was when I wanted to take like different languages, I wanted to learn a different language, but we didn't have any on our side of the building. And I remember, I talked to the counselor and they were like, "Oh." Like, "No, you can't do that because like that's their course." And then I also wanted to take, I think it was pottery, and I talked to them as well, and I was like, "Oh, like, if they can do internships and like the FACES programs with us, why can't we go to their building and take the class with them?" And then they just basically said that it wasn't a course under our school, so I couldn't take it. And that's when I was like, "Oh, like this is, pointless, so why is this a thing?"
Jonathan: Mm. So then ... So now walk me through it. So you had enough. You, you couldn't get the, the courses you wanted. Where you see these events happening and that, that it makes you ... It doesn't make sense to you cause we some things together, why can't we do this? So then what starts to happen? How do you ... How do the students start to mobilize? What are some of the action steps that, that, that were taken to learn more and begin to raise your voices about what you wanted?
Aurelia: So, like she said, she talked to the counselors, and then we talked to our teachers and asked, "Well, why is this happening? What can we do about it? Why can't we have the event with them, why can’t we have the classes together?" It was more of like, "Well, what can we do to actually take the class over there? If we could do this class together.” So it's just more of asking questions and then informing our staff, our teachers, "This is what we want. This is what we see. Um, how can we apply that?"
Andrea: And then I think the re- reunification of West actually came to be, was a lot. A lot of it had to do with SVL.
JONATHAN: Again, SVL as in Student Voice and Leadership.
Aurelia: And it was only like in one side of the school, so we had to invite like the other people to see if they wanted to unite.
Aurelia: So it was started by one side of the school and then we invited the other school.
Jonathan: So they, they asked or they invited you to suggest things to change. But this was not something they were expecting, was it?
Aurelia: No, I don't think so.
Aurelia: Not at all.
Jonathan: So how did they ... I mean, from what we heard, it wasn't that the school was, uh, split for an incredibly long time. Right? I think it was 2012, so it was before y'all were there.
Jonathan: So some of the people that helped make that happen might've still been there. What ... How did they respond when y'all are like, "Well, actually, we do have something we wanna do, we wanna unify our school?" How did they respond to that at first?
Andrea: As far as like the district people go, I'd ... some of them were opposed in the beginning, um, but majority of them were actually on board. Uh, I think it was just, uh-
Aurelia: Budget, funds, and stuff like that.
Jonathan: When did you begin to believe that you might actually affect change? Like, did you begin from the beginning believing that it would happen, or did that k- kind of slowly progress as you begin to advocate for your ... for your position?
Andrea: I knew it was gonna take time, so, uh, it was my senior year. So I knew, like, it was gonna take time. I wasn't sure if it was gonna continue, um, at like the grades below us were gonna continue it into actually making it a reality. But, yeah, I did know it was gonna take time, so I was kinda iffy about it. I didn't know if it was actually gonna go through. And also the, the school on the other side, I feel like they weren't very ... didn't really want the change.
Aurelia: No, they weren't really on board for it.
Andrea: There was a lot of students who were, but I feel like a lot of them weren't.
Jonathan: Yeah. Well, change is hard for anybody. You get used to something. You know? So that's interesting. And I don't even ... You probably didn't even realize that it was interesting, but this idea that you are advocating for a change that you knew you'd never benefit from, what motivated that? Like when you, you could've just been like, "You know what, y'all don't wanna change. Uh, whatever. I'm gonna graduate. I'm gonna be gone." Why was it so important for you to address this issue that you would never directly benefit from, as a student?
Andrea: It was important because we, we kinda got to experience what it was to be like divided. We kinda wanted just to create the change for the following generations, so they could actually like take the advantage or like the ... yeah, the advantage that we didn't get to like take. And, also, like I'm the first generation student, or like the first one to graduate, so I have sisters. And I wanted to make that change for them as well, so they could have more opportunities than what I had-
Andrea: ... when I was still here at West.
Aurelia: Yeah, I would say the same thing, just the opportunities that I didn't get to have. I don't want like other people to not be able to have 'em as well if they're in the same building. Yeah.
Jonathan: Are any of your siblings that you were thinking of there yet or are they still coming?
Andrea: Um, one's a freshman right now, actually. Yeah.
Jonathan: Yeah? Have you ... Have you talked to her about her experience? And, and like does it feel ... Like when you look back at it now, does it feel worth it?
Andrea: Yeah. Um, I feel like her experience is like different than mine, it's better. (laughs) Yeah.
Jonathan: Yeah. Wow, that's so cool. Um, I mean, I feel like there's so much more I wanna ask you. The first one is, so the S- SVL started this ball rolling and now we have a completely different experience for your sister.
Jonathan: We read, in our preparation that West has a long history of activism, especially, uh, back ... all the way to the 60s, like Chicano rights, like, Mexican American and other Latin American students. Do you ... Were you aware of any of that history, um, when you were there?
Aurelia: I wasn't aware until the 50th anniversary, where we actually commemorated that.
Jonathan: Oh, so you were there as students and that, and then you came aware of the history. Did that in any way ... When you learned that history, that legacy, did that in any way, uh, provide additional motivation or inspiration, as you were working on this project, or to reunify the school?
Andrea: Uh, mm, yeah, because it was ... it kinda tied up ... It was a ... It was a Chicano movement, the, the blow out, the West High School blow out. And, um, we also did a lot of research and we f- figured that schools who were divided were predominantly Hispanic schools, so you don't see like that happening to like East, where it's predominantly white, or South, where it's predominantly white. It was ... It just happened more in like lower-income communities as well.
Andrea: Uh, so I think that had a lot to do with it.
Jonathan: So you, you learn about the blow outs. You, you see ... You do your own kind of analysis, like this isn't happening in those schools, it's only happening in our community, like what are some of the emotions or feelings that run through your body when you're ... when you're mak- ... you know, you're coming to awareness of both that history and legacy, but also of this, what feels like, um, inequity?
Andrea: I think anger, for me. I think we were gonna go to East, I think, or South-
Andrea:... to just, um, shadow the school, 'cause they had a lot of the programs that we had, but as a ... as a whole, instead of two. Um, so it was lot of anger, that they were able to have all these decisions and options of like, "Do I wanna go through an AP program, or concur enrolment? Or do I wanna do honors or just general?" And then all the other, um, classes that they were able to take, and then we're not available to those.
Jonathan: When you look back on, um, the entire experience, right, from th- the coming to awareness, the research, the empathy interviewing, going out there, testifying at the school board meeting, like what i- ... what is the ... what is the walkaway feeling? Like, when you think back on all that you were a part of and you see the legacy, i- in terms of the reunification, what is the feeling that y- ... that, that comes to mind? What are the emotions that you feel in your body?
Andrea: Uh, I feel proud. I feel proud of not only myself, but all my peers that, uh, were part of this movement. I think it was all, like basically class of 2021, a lot of, um, the students were involved in that.
Aurelia: Yeah. I would say proud too, just walking inside of the building, seeing just West, not West Leadership or West Early College.
Andrea: I really hope that the students that are here right now can take advantage of it and, uh, have fun. (laughs)
JONATHAN: Let’s talk to Kikae, a current student at West High School, and a leader in the SVL program.
Kikae: I'm Kikae, I'm a senior at West now. I've been going here for, I, I think about like five years. This school is where my parents met, so I don't know, it's pretty like it has a lot of background for me and my family. I really love it here.
Jonathan: So you were there at West when it was split into the leadership and early college?
Kikae: Yeah. Yeah. That's how it was when I went here for seventh and eighth grade. And then I came back, uh, during my 10th grade year and 11th grade year. And then the end of the 11th grade year is when we ended up reunifying it. So now that this is my last year here, I'm a West High School student instead of a West Early College student.
Jonathan: Okay. If you, and, and if you can't, it's all right, but I wonder if you can speak to maybe stories or experiences that your parents shared about West 'cause my, they were there way before the separation ever occurred, right?
Jonathan: So did you, did they ever share any of their personal feelings or their pride or anything like that about being a part of West?
Kikae: Uh, yeah, from what I gathered, it was like a much stronger community back then. And there was like, you know, obviously there was no division and stuff like that. Like growing up as like a West Early College student opposed to a West High School student, there was a lot of kids that like would be like hundreds of feet away from me on the other side of the building attending leadership that I don't even know now because of the separation. Whereas when my parents went here, you know, it was just one bigger community, so everybody knew everybody else. And I don't know, there was like, there was more like long last friendships that they built and stuff.
They still talk to some of the people that they went here with. You know, I consider them now like my uncles and aunties and stuff like that. So I think, now that it is West High School again, that's, that paves the way for maybe me to have that same connection with people that, you know, I'll maybe be able to, uh, pass on to my kids and future generations.
Jonathan: That's what's up. So when you were attending school in, in the split reality, um, did you know that you... L- like were you yearning for reunification or were you kind of just like resigned to the fact that this is what school was like there?
Kikae: Um, I think that's kind of an interesting thing because for a lot of the students, it became like, like a, a strong rivalry between these two schools. So it wasn't more like I wanted it to be connected, it was more like animosity towards the other side for no reason other than the fact that they weren't early college like we were.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kikae: But I think,I definitely was younger and more, I think, nearsighted in a sense. So now that, um, the schools are together again, it's easier to see how much more beneficial it is. And also like while we're working on the project and stuff like to reunify the schools, that's really when I started seeing like, like it's kind of pointless to have the two different schools, two different communities residing in the same building. And it was just something that we felt like we had to change, so.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Can you give me like a high level of what that process was like, um, raising your, doing the research, the empathy interviews, raising your voices and, and, and, and requesting this change be made? Like what was that like for you? What did you learn along the way?
Kikae: Mm, I think along the way I learned like the reasons. Well, we, we delved a lot into like systemic racism and the background that, that has in like Denver Public Schools. Even all the way back to the fact that Denver Public Schools was founded by like members of the KKK and stuff like that. We learned about like redlining and stuff like that, and how that had a hand in separating the schools. Why West was a failing school that had to get split into West Generations Academy and Leadership and Generations failed and we had West Early College and Leadership. And now we finally have West High School again. But it definitely was like a learning experience to see how like so many different like social justice issues took place in creating the divide in our school, which also led to like a divide between- in the community and stuff like that.
So I think that's like one of the most important things that I learned along the way. But the process was, I don't know, it was, it was interesting. We did like research on that. We, um, had, um, meetings with like the board to talk to them about our findings and propose the reunification. And they were pretty on board with it. They were supportive, and yeah, we just ended up just, I don't know, really pushing for it until we got what we wanted and now look at us.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, for real. What strikes me about it is you're talking about race and, um, systemic racism and oppression in the school system at a time where it feels like nationwide, those are conversations a lot of adults aren't ready to have. But, you as students, were not only having the conversation, but you were delving in and pushing and prodding and trying to unearth like what's really behind this. Like what was it that drove you all to, you know, step into these, you know, difficult conversations and have the courage to ask the questions and to, and to bring it to the school board?
Kikae: Definitely the inciting factor was our teacher, Wally, I believe because, you know, he... but he didn't, he didn't drive the whole thing. He kind of put the situation in front of our faces and said, "As minority students and students that are attending a school like West, what do you think we should do about this?" And then the more that we started looking at it, it was, it became like we had a sense of duty to transform like the norm, you know? We didn't want it to be like that anymore. It wasn't something that, you know, 'cause like redlining all that, that was like back in the day, but it still affects like our learning experiences today.
And we can see the effects like in our classes, in our, the school resources that we have, the fact that we are attending a failing school, that was only labeled failing because of the test scores. Which is something that like our research has shown that like test scores are not as important as they are made to seem. So to label a school failing like undermines all the potential of the students, the families, the work that the teachers put into it because they don't know how to take a test properly?
I think it just made us more passionate to- like we, we felt like we had something to prove. Because going to a school that's labeled as a bad school that's not, that's not what we wanna be seen as. This is our community and I felt like it was up to us to prove to people that that's not, like that's not all that we were.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Man, there's so much in there, so much wisdom. That I think, like I said, uh, uh, more adults we need to have the courage to ask those, the questions that you all asked, and then lean in when the answers come back and they're not as, you know, uh, uh, uh... so not, it's not all happy, you know, roses and butterflies, right? But it's the real deal. Flash forward to now, so you got to navigate that process with your peers, with your, with your advisors. You're now attending the school, reunified West High School more like what your parents went to, we- went through. Um, what, you know, when you look back at that experience and all you learned, are there any emotions or feelings that come to mind? Like how, how you look back on the experience?
Kikae: Mm, I think one of the most important feelings is, well not most important, I'd say one of the strongest ones is disappointment that it had to be like that in the first place. But I think the most important one that I still hold onto is the pride that we wanted something and we made it happen, you know?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kikae: Like that was something that was important to us, to our families, to the staff here. And, you know, we just went out and made it a reality for us. So, I do feel a lot of pride about that. And I know a lot of other members in the community too, do too, so.
Jonathan: That's, that's dope that you can hold those in tension, right?
That you all could grapple with these difficult topics, that you're able to mobile, uh, you know, organize and mobilize, um, that you're able to speak so, you know... What it says to me is like, if all teachers were more teachers, look at young people the way that Wally does and sees that they're capable of transformational leadership. Who knows what this world will look like? And so on that point, I wanna ask you, as you look forward now, knowing what you're capable, capable of as a young leader, what does that, like, what does that, um, mean for your future? What do you, what are your hopes and dreams? What's next for you, you know, with graduation on the horizon? What do you see for yourself?
Kikae: I do think that a major first step is for people in power and older people to put more faith into, you know, younger generations because really, like, those are just ideas waiting to happen in those young minds and sometimes all they need is like a little help, a little confidence in them to make a chance like that, you know? For me, I think that that means, you know, I definitely do wanna continue the path of social justice, especially throughout, um, you know, my college experience and hopefully even, you know afterwards, but I think that it's just important to like recognize, you know, there was something that we wanted to do, which was reunify the school and it wasn't hard to make that happen. It's not really hard to make social change happen. Just as long as, like that's what you really want, then you can advocate for it.
Just get people to support you, believe in you. Like, you can really make anything happen and I hope to make more positive change throughout my lifetime.
JONATHAN: Unity requires an openness to understanding difference and beyond that, a leaning into the unknown for the sake of new understanding. When all voices are heard and are given space to feel supported, true unity is finally made possible.
There is power in unity and there is more we can do together than we can apart.
Here are some final thoughts from West High School alum, Andrea.
Andrea: My message to, educators would be to actually take the time to listen to their students, because most of the time students are speaking out of what they ... what they feel and what they, uh, deal with every day. So it's, eh, like for us if like teachers would've not listened to us, or even like paid attention to us, none of this change would happen. And I think students would've still not had the resources that they have right now.
JONATHAN: And here are some closing thoughts from Kikae.
Kikae: I definitely think educating yourself is very important because there's a lot of issues affecting you that you don't even know about. Stuff that is like low hanging fruit, things that you can actively change, stuff that is not even hard, you just aren't aware that it needs to be changed, you know? So I want you to get up on that knowledge. Like, it’s just- like you have the keys to make your life better, you just need to know where to put that key at, you know? And then, on the same sense like, if you want something in life, like if you want to make a change happen, if there's something that you feel like you need in your life, nobody's gonna make that happen for you. You have to be the one to take the first step, you know? Like, if you never try to change it, it will never get changed for you. So, I just, I would like people to keep that in mind when there's something that they feel like they need to see in their life.
[Theme music fades in]
JONATHAN: That’s it for this week. Thank you so much for listening to Changing Course, from Teach For America’s One Day Studio. I’m Jonathan Santos Silva. Peace.
SFX: School Bell
JONATHAN: For the last episode of season one of Changing Course, we’re taking you to my old stomping grounds in South Dakota to visit Todd County Middle School where we’ll look at the ways the school is leaning into Lakota culture to foster safe, inclusive community across cultural lines.
Dana: My kids mean everything to me, and my kids mean everything to our staff. Seeing them develop and succeed has been far more rewarding than getting any principal of the year award for best, most improved test scores. Our test scores will get there, but kids have to know that they're cared for, they're loved, and that, we believe in them.
JONATHAN: That’s next time on Changing Course. And if you loved the podcast, be sure to rate, review and subscribe to ‘Changing Course’ on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
JONATHAN: Changing Course is produced by Teach For America’s One Day Studio in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to my main man Michael Kress, Craig Hunter, Laura Zingg, and Georgia Davis from Teach for America, and the production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Danielle Roth, shout out to Chris Jacobs and Shaneez Tyndall, and Erica Huang.
Last but certainly not least, thank you to the students, alumni, and staff at West High School who shared their time and experience to help us make this episode: Andrea, Aurelia, Peyton, and Kikae, and Daniel Walter, and Mia Martinez Lopez.
I’m Jonathan Santos Silva. Peace.
About the Show
Changing Course is a podcast from Teach For America’s One Day Studio that explores what’s possible when schools empower students in their own educational paths. Every episode, host Jonathan Santos Silva shares stories from students, teachers, and administrators about how they’ve reinvented traditional approaches to traditional education.
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Jonathan Santos Silva (South Dakota '10)
Jonathan Santos Silva is the Founding Executive Director of The Liber Institute and creator and host of The Bored of Ed, a podcast that amplifies the voices of inspiring BIPOC educators who are changing the face of education. He has provided technical support to South Dakota’s Native American Achievement Schools and has served as a school founder and principal, instructional coach, and education consultant.
Mia Martinez Lopez, Principal, West High School
My name is Mia Martinez Lopez and I am a proud West Cowboy. I am a Denver native and I have worked in both the North and West Denver neighborhoods. I have lived in the Westside of Denver since 2006, with my husband and I have raised three children. I have worked in Denver Public Schools since 2001, as a guest teacher, middle school teacher, Dean of Students, Assistant Principal and Principal. In 2009, I came to West High School as a Student Advisor or “Dean”. I fell in love with West and decided early-on that I would be a Cowboy. I had the fortune of working for the traditional West High School as well as be a founding administrator for West Early College.
Daniel Walter, Social Studies Teacher, West High School
Mr. Walter has been an educator at West for 13 years where he is devoted to empowering students.
Andrea Valencia-Rodriguez, West HS alumna '21
Andrea is a first-year college student at Community College of Denver studying Business.
Arely Cardenas, West HS alumna '21
Arely is a first-year college student at Community College of Denver studying Architecture.
Kikai Edwards, 12th grade student, West High School
Kikai is currently looking at both in-state and out-of-state college options.
Peyton Morrison, 11th grade student, West High School
Peyton plans to enlist in the Air National Guard and join ROTC at the college of her choosing.
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