By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver
“I think there is a kind of disconnect between how people have viewed their own success, versus how I think the district is viewing their success. At the school that I went to in the Denver Public School District (DPS), I was around a lot of high performing students. It felt like we were being pushed toward a four-year university, as if that was the ideal success. Obviously, that is not the only path to success, and I think a lot of students, they feel that disconnect between how the district or how their teachers portray success as – you know, getting into that four-year university, even getting into a top university…the Harvards and Stanfords of the world, versus not even going to a university at all, picking up a trade or not even doing that. There’s a disconnect there, and as a result there’s a bit of distrust that forms where it feels like the students don’t feel that their best interest is kept in mind a lot of the time.” -DPS alum
One size fits one
As an institution, local school districts have a tremendous impact on how students, educators and communities create common understandings of success. For students and alumni, it seems that Denver-metro school districts are more interested in using their power to foster environments where success is attached to students’ abilities to attend a four-year university after graduating high school, rather than building definitions of success that incorporate students’ unique ambitions and dreams. In conversations with community members, students, and alumni in the Denver area, we learned a lot about the way in which success is framed by the district, and the impact that has on how people understand and pursue success. As one DPS alum noted, “the district has real power in shaping success and what that perception is to the students. I feel like I was extremely rocked by that because there was a lot of uniformity between the answers, it was a lot of college, college, college. It’s in the way it’s internalized and affects each and every one of our lives and how that ends up, how that sits with us well into our early twenties. Just about how much impact the school system really does [have] on our perception of success and how it’s so reduced to just what you do if you get into college, or whatever the narrative is pushed from your school.” The pro-college messaging coming from the district seems to be working; between 2014 and 2019 the amount of DPS students enrolling in college after high school increased by 35 percent.
DPS, however, doesn’t picture itself as an institution that reduces success to students attending a four-year university after graduation. It views itself as an institution that prioritizes students’ self-actualization and in doing so, orients them towards success on whatever path they chose. DPS says it strives to promote an understanding of success that is informed by the various activities and occupations students may be interested in during and after their time in the district. As is clearly stated on the district’s website, the mission of DPS is to “provide all students the opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our diverse society.” Framing success as students becoming contributing citizens is broad and seems to be flexible enough to incorporate the plethora of ways students desire to contribute to society. However, in practice, the district makes students feel as though success is only attainable if they achieve a narrow set of predefined goals.
Students and alumni suggest that they would greatly benefit from being given the opportunity to express their future plans and have those aspirations supported by the district. Empowering students to define and pursue success on their own terms, helps students feel recognized and valued. For many students, the incongruence between their understanding of what success means to them and what the district suggests success looks like, makes school feel purposeless and uninviting. Without an inclusive and responsive approach to building a common understanding of student success, local school districts will continue to perpetuate a one-size fits all approach that fails to acknowledge the interests of their students. It seems that the district frames attending college as the best option for the long-term success of students, regardless of how students evaluate the importance of attending college in terms of their own long term goals.
In discussions about student success, alumni described being conditioned to believe that attending college was the most effective means of securing a high-paying job and enjoying a higher quality of life. Since most people see the school district as an authority on what is in the best interest of students, direction from the district on what students should do after high school has significant weight in discussions about student success. Given that most people want students to experience a high quality of life, this messaging about how to become successful after high school has largely been adopted, and echoed by students’ families and other members of their community. Learning that attending four-year universities is the golden ticket to having a successful life was not a subtle lesson for students. In fact, the importance of choosing a path with a trajectory towards college was stated quite frequently and explicitly for many of them. One alum said, “…how success was presented to me was college, and getting out of the neighborhood… they pushed the IB program, they pushed AP classes.” Framing being admitted to college as the first step on the road to a successful career and a high standard of living, makes students aware that they must use their high school years to be in a competitive position for college admission, especially at elite 4-year institutions. This hyper-focus on being a competitive applicant can detract from many of the other ways students may want to develop in their high school years, in preparation for life after graduation.
Presenting success as something to be attained through gaining entrance into elite institutions of higher education, has the insidious effect of framing opportunities for success as only available in already well-resourced communities. For students receiving this message, it can appear that there are always better opportunities somewhere outside the communities they are from. They come to believe that becoming successful requires getting further and further away from their communities. After years of encouragement to elevate their position in life, by removing themselves from their current environment, students can come to believe that the grass is always greener elsewhere. Under-resourced and often perpetually neglected communities are framed as places filled with impediments to success. Former students even noted that they were told that success may simply be surviving their environment. As one Manual High School alum put it, “…our view of success at the time was really about staying alive and kind of staying out of the streets, and being engaged in school. If you were to do that, you would be being successful and unfortunately, what I think my experiences that I’ve learned is number one, that was a low bar…I think we learn that once we become adults because success is so much broader, where did you get your degree from? Success is just not being able to live and work a 9-5 and not being engaged or involved in your community in any way.” Community members, students and alumni see success as embracing and developing the skills to change the environment as opposed to thinking of success as the ability to simply escape or divorce oneself from the community.
Finding success somewhere else
For students in the Montbello area, being successful is tied to being able to participate in the area’s long-standing history of resilience in the face of systematic neglect and deprivation. Located in a relatively isolated, highway-bound stretch of northeast Denver, Montbello has often been overlooked and underserved. Given the difficulties the community has faced, it has frequently been the subject of scrutiny, and debate. The Montbello Power Advocates (MPA), a group of community-focused neighborhood leaders, describe their neighborhood as a “far-away gem” akin to the promising but oppressed community depicted in the iconic play, A Raisin in the Sun. They believe their neighborhood is a diverse and loving community, with a history rooted in struggle and resilience.
For many years, local government and private sector businesses failed to adequately provide goods and services like transportation, grocery stores, and recreational facilities to Montbello. In 2016, RTD significantly reduced bus services, despite the community being 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 push back from the community, DPS closed the neighborhood high school, which will reopen in fall 2022. The district’s decision to reopen Montbello High School may represent a shift in how community requests are being honored. Allowing community members to have meaningful input in major decisions can help re-establish trust between the community and the district. A continued commitment to recognizing the requests of the community helps community members and students feel as though they have a meaningful say in the direction of the district. Empowering those affected by the decisions of the districts, can help with implementing community-led strategies for running schools and developing prosperous students.
For families of children in the Montbello area, it would be disingenuous to expect educational experiences and the evaluation of their students’ development to be divorced from the realities they encounter in the community. Several community members in Montbello asserted that definitions of student success should reflect the need for students to be able to impact and interact with the world that exists around them. To be successful often means having the tools to understand the ways in which the community has been systematically marginalized and then working for change and reform. This understanding and conceptualization presented by, and learned through school is not only desirable but necessary for students to achieve the type of success many of them are seeking.
Shifting the dynamics in the neighborhood requires that students learn to leverage resources found both inside and outside the communities. Developing a robust set of skills in students would allow them to enact their vision of success. As one community member stated, “if [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, it’s 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.” It could be that DPS and other area districts are unable to incorporate student success into the larger contexts of students’ lives. The inability to do so would indicate that student success is an individual accomplishment.
Not only do community members suggest that students should be equipped to advocate for themselves and others, they also believe that students should develop the self-awareness that comes along with civic engagement and an 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.” Students’ awareness of what it takes to improve the lives of those in their community is a direct result of their lived experience in the currently built environment of their neighborhood. For these students, success can look like bringing resources into their community as opposed to seeking them outside of their neighborhood.
For members of the community, becoming successful involves students’ developing a sense of connectedness to those around them. According to a former Manual High School student, success is “a lot about how I interact with people. When you’re really pushing for success when you’re younger and the school pushes you about this interaction with institutions versus interactions with people… how are you interacting [to have] the best application for college, that’s the only focus of your interactions and that’s like your make or break. And then, you get into the real world and it’s like no none of that really matters; [what matters] is how I interact with human beings…not this power structure.” Looking back, the student concluded that the incongruence between their self-developed definition of success, and those provided in their education caused distrust between students and the district.
Another Manual alum suggested that the definition of success presented to him throughout his high school education made achieving his goals harder in the real world. In his adult life, he has learned that success typically happens in conjunction with the opportunity to explore and potentially fail. Despite the benefits of learning how to pursue success, it is not until post-secondary education that some students effectively have the opportunity to explore their interests and fail in pursuit of their goals. Unfortunately, because many families can not afford college, many students never get to experience education in an exploratory environment. As he noted,“all this information we talk about now, about building community, expanding your network, all those real critical business tactics that build you generational wealth or make real impact in the world is always sold to us when we get to the next level… That critical information is always sold to us, but in the public education system, where it’s supposed to be like free education, it’s not given to us and I bring that up because I’m trying to wrap my head around why.”
To many community members, school districts reduce 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. It instead, reflects a competitive model of student assessment meant to determine how well students are doing based on externally imposed rubrics. As one educator expressed, ”as schools we don’t always recognize the cultural wealth that students bring to the table. We minimize that for a number or a benchmark and call that success, when that measure of success is built on capitalism and colonization.” Given the histories of deprivation and exclusion in Denver Metro’s economic, racially and ethnically diverse communities, it is troubling that, for community members, district articulations of student achievement and success are born from the logics of capitalism and colonization. The mismatch between how districts and community members are evaluating student success is a recipe for wariness and missed opportunities.
From success to successes
While seemingly everyone agrees that it is important to equip students with the tools to succeed in unfamiliar environments, singling out the ability to navigate elite institutions as the primary tool for success, can take the emphasis away from other developmental tools. Former students have noted that developing other skills such as networking, engaging other members of their community, and managing routine life tasks were critical in their postsecondary success. For one former John F. Kennedy High School (DPS) student, it made sense to prioritize college as one component of success. However, after receiving the “monumental piece of paper,” a diploma from a four year university, it became clear that it was going to take much more than receiving a diploma to consider herself successful. More importantly, she later realized that the four-year university path wasn’t the only route to success: “I didn’t realize my frame of reference of success had shifted until I was able to engage with people who didn’t go to college. Because I had such a strong identity in my 4-year institution, I didn’t realize you could be successful without going to college until 3 or 4 years ago.”
Currently in schools, administrators are seen by students as the representation of district visions of success which only acknowledge attending four-year universities of success. For students and alumni, teachers tend to provide guidance that incorporates a more complete understanding of the lives and goals of the students. Due to their roles in schools and relation to students, administrators are often unable to engage with students in a genuine way. Administrators’ commitments to reproduce the overarching approach of the school district, to seemingly advocate for all students to attend four-year universities, constrains their ability to engage students in ways that reflect the plurality of student aspirations.
An alum stated, “administration was kind of there, in a way, because they had to be. They’re the higher-ups or what-not, so they kind of had to enforce the idea of going to college, pursuing education past high school or whatever the case may be; whereas teachers themselves, I feel like I had a closer connection to, especially in high school. I was going through a lot of stuff in high school… I feel like honestly you have a tighter connection to coaches and teachers and things like that. Of course they’re going to encourage you to do better.”
Often, students organically develop complex relationships with teachers, as opposed to the unsentimental and sometimes robotic relationships they develop with those in administrative positions.These teacher-student relationships stand in stark contrast with the relationships, or lack thereof, they form with admins. As one alumni put it, “the difference between administrators and teachers is the connection.”
The differences in the types of relationships students develop with different adults in the school, like teachers and administrators, can help explain the distinction in the advice students receive about what steps they should take to be successful after graduating high school. It appears that students are aware and often dismayed by the notion of success being limited to the desires of the “higher-ups” who are unable to account for the plurality of aims students have for their lives after graduating high school. An alum aptly noted, teachers are not only concerned with “helping us get into college but also building personal relationships with us, knowing that sometimes if we needed somebody and couldn’t go to a family member, didn’t have a friend, you could go to them and that eventually will change your life in a way. They’ll always be someone you remember because they helped you.”
Even after graduation, many students stay in contact with their former teachers to give them updates, receive mentorship, and generally check-in. While these types of relationships are not in every school, the culture of Denver West High School is especially conducive for students to develop these types of close relationships with their teachers. “I think West just had a different energy when it came to that.” One student, after attending three other high schools in the district, stated that they felt a profound sense of relief after encountering the teachers at Denver West High School. Her teachers immediately integrated her into the community, and provided a sense of support and intimacy she had not experienced at any of the other high schools in DPS.
Schools would have to be radically different in order to produce students who are successful in a way that ensures healthy individual results and healthy participation in their communities. For instance, one educator in the Denver metro area 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 our school districts to determine whether students have in fact achieved success.
In order to rebuild trust between the district, communities and students, Denver Metro districts must display a serious commitment to providing students with a robust and inclusive understanding of success. Ardently elevating the attendance of four-year universities as the sole path to success for students has tremendous, and oftentimes a damaging impact on students and their communities.