“A school that is individually and community-centered and focused and provided with exposure to skills that empower youth to continue growing beyond the walls of a classroom.”
The Montbello neighborhood is no stranger to fighting for the necessary resources to sustain a community. Located in a relatively isolated, highway-bound stretch of far northeast Denver, the neighborhood has often been overlooked and underserved. Given the difficulties the community has faced, it has frequently been the subject of scrutiny, debate, and observation. The Montbello Power Advocates (MPA), a group of community-focused neighborhood leaders, describe their neighborhood as a faraway gem akin to the promising but oppressed community depicted in the iconic play, A Raisin in the Sun. They say the neighborhood is a diverse and loving community with a history rooted in struggle and resilience.
For many years, local government and private sector businesses have failed to adequately provide goods and services like public transportation, grocery stores, and recreational facilities in the area. In 2016, RTD significantly reduced bus services, despite the fact that the community is difficult to navigate without a car. In 2014 the community lost its only full-service grocery store, despite community members voicing concerns about the lack of fresh and healthy food options available. In 2010, despite well-documented pushback from the community, DPS closed the neighborhood high school.
Over the course of the neighborhood’s history, the most critical power brokers in the area have seemed unresponsive to the wants, needs, and desires of the Montbello community, leading many to believe that the neglect is a consequence of the neighborhood’s population which disproportionately consists of marginalized people groups – immigrants, Latinx, Black, and people of low socioeconomic status – in relation to the rest of the Denver Metro Area. For the Montbello Power Advocates, the way to have structural change is to empower the community’s youth to shape the neighborhood’s future.
For kids in the Montbello area, being successful is deeply tied to being able to participate in the area’s long-standing history of resilience. It would be disingenuous to expect that their educational experience is divorced from the reality they encounter in their community. Therefore, community members in the Montbello area assert that definitions of student success reflect the need for students to be able to impact and interact with the world that exists around them. To be successful for these students means having the tools to understand the ways in which their community has been systematically marginalized and then working for change and reform. As one educator put it, ”as schools we don’t always recognize cultural wealth that students bring to the table. We minimize that for a number or a benchmark and calling that success when that measure of success is built on capitalism and colonization.” This understanding of success is far more robust than the one often imposed by institutions like the school district. Thinking of students’ success in areas like learning to value their cultural identity, mental health, and pursuing education with joy seems to be beyond the current capabilities of DPS performance evaluation methods. In the eyes of community members, the school district reduces student success to quantifiable metrics that allow for simple and standard comparisons between students, classrooms, teachers, and schools. Such an understanding of student success does not reflect community-led ways of assessing student development but rather reflects a competitive model of student assessment meant to determine how well students are doing based on an externally imposed rubric. These measures of success do not reflect the values and vision of the community according to the members of MPA.
Shifting the dynamics in the neighborhood requires students developing the skills to implement their vision of the world and understand how to leverage community and individual resources. As one community member put it, “if they [students] were taught to speak up, if they were taught to look at themselves, to look at others and advocate for their needs and the needs of others then that is what life is about sometimes – making sure you’re out there and recognizing what your needs are and trying to pull those resources for you or for your family. After K-12, that advocacy piece should be a value and a skill that a student has to be successful.” Not only do community members suggest that students should be equipped to advocate for themselves and others, but also that they should develop the self-awareness that comes along with civic engagement and empathy that allows advocacy to be positive and meaningful for the community. Empowering students to ambitiously embrace their own sense of agency seems to be critical to developing successful students. As a longtime Montbello resident noted, “I think for students to be considered successful they need a sense of core values and an understanding of their identity and their place in the world, and the ability to set goals and reach their goals independently. Also knowing how to leverage and build community to achieve those goals and the basics of being able to communicate to the best of their ability to make their life better and to improve the lives of themselves and their community.”
In the Montbello area, schools would have to look radically different to produce students who are successful in a way that ensures their emergence into the community upon education yields positive results for them individually and as community members. For instance, one educator in the neighborhood suggested that for students to be successful they would need to “attend a school that’s rooted in liberatory practices, facilitated by educators who uplift their lived experiences. A school that is individually and community-centered and focused and provided with exposure to skills that empower youth to continue growing beyond the walls of a classroom.” Such a school could not be rooted in the type of top-down quantitative measurement currently used by DPS to determine whether students have achieved success.
Nearly a decade after its initial closure, Montbello High School is set to reopen this fall. This is an opportunity for DPS to showcase its responsiveness to the community’s needs and implement strategies that develop successful students. Students from Montbello have been historically underserved and neglected, and for current students and future students, a better future includes expanding the definition of student success to include how they learn to show up for their communities–not only how well they perform on assessments. As one community member defined it, “for a student to be successful in school is the ability for that student to feel like they belong to all the better aspects of society, they belong in any room, they belong in any activity, they belong to anywhere in the society…for them to have the confidence and the optimism and the ability to imagine themselves as being either leaders of or a part of the leadership of any project of belonging in the society. Any student is a successful student who fundamentally believes they are not an Other, that they are not lesser than anyone, that the world is theirs, and that they can participate in the world fully, regardless of whatever zip code, etcetera, etcetera they are from.” If the Montbello Power Advocates are correct, propagating more successful students will be the path forward towards community empowerment and deep structural change for the Montbello neighborhood.
The Montbello Power advocates are a group of individuals from the Montbello neighborhood that have made it their mission to empower the residents of the area to make changes that positively impact the community. For the Montbello Power Advocates, student success is fundamental to the health and well-being of the community. Currently, the organization is focusing on education within the Montbello neighborhoods, because they believe educational spaces are key to transformational change in the area. The Montbello Power Advocates are a group of community members who are deeply invested in ensuring that members of the Montbello neighborhood are empowered to be successful. This conversation was hosted by MPA. DJEC and MPA will continue to collaborate to learn more about community perspectives in the far Northeast.