He’s hard to ignore. Standing at 6’2” with a deep voice, bearded and black, when Brandon Pryor speaks, people listen.
They don’t always like what he has to say, but when fighting for high-quality schools for the kids in Denver’s far northeast, Brandon couldn’t care less if you like him.
But before he and his team received the charter for the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy, Brandon Pryor struck fear into the hearts of top brass in Denver Public Schools. He was known as an agitator of the loudest kind. They knew him well at the DPS School Board meetings. He and his advocacy group, Warriors for High Quality Schools, showed up regularly to challenge policies that could further disenfranchise the students in the far northeast.
To administrators, he appeared out of nowhere. In their eyes, his voice was passionate, but ill-informed. What they hadn’t realized was Brandon and his friend, Gabe Lindsay, had been sitting quietly in board meetings, gathering intel for months before they finally opened their mouths.
“They thought we were just a bunch of angry black folks in there,” Brandon says. “After a while, they were blown away by what we had to say.”
He began his work in education as a coach. After an invitation from long-time mentor, Tony Lindsay, the father of Gabe Lindsay, he joined as an assistant coach for the Montbello Warriors.
There, Brandon saw first-hand the inequities that plagued the far northeast … and that the district’s push for charter schools might be to blame.
In fact, there is evidence to support that charter schools contribute to educational segregation of not just race, but class.
More than half of Denver’s schools are actually segregated. When Brandon learned that structural inequity consistently affected districts with high black and brown populations, such as the one he was coaching in, a confrontation was inevitable.
He joined a coalition called, “Our Voice, Our Schools,” or, OVOS. This was a predominantly African-American collective of concerned parents whose children attended school in the far northeast.
From that, they formed the current “Warriors for High Quality Schools,” borrowing the mascot from the Montbello Warriors. This was in homage to the now-closed Montbello High School.
And that’s just it. When the last Montbello High School class graduated in 2014, the community was tossed into an uproar. It would be stated that the closing of Montbello was a catalyst to the conflict over the charter school debate in Denver.
“The charter models have been forced upon us,” Pryor says. One could assume that he’s against charter schools in general, but that would be incorrect.
“I feel there’s a place for every governance model, but in the far northeast, we’re nearly 70% charter-run,” he says.
He says a quality educational portfolio management means a diversification of options at the very least. Innovation schools, neighborhood schools, as well as charter schools should all coexist equally, ideally.
“But in the far northeast, we don’t have a community school, and that’s bad portfolio management,” Pryor says.
I asked his thoughts about what happened to Montbello.
“You’ve gotta be honest,” he says, “there’s definitely a racial component there. When we look at the schools that are under attack for closure, for co-location, and for turnaround, they’re all in black and brown neighborhoods.”
He says DPS was a primary factor in opening themselves up to charter models. “They use the property that they own, and rent it out to these charter schools. They make more money that way than if it’s a district school.”
But for Pryor, the Lindsays and Warriors for High Quality Schools, agitating just wasn’t enough. Talking about a problem with no solutions in mind would not help a single kid in the far northeast. Soon, they realized that one way to counter institutional racism is to create an institution of your own.
They did just that. After gathering feedback from parents and students in the district, Warriors for High Quality Schools proposed the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy.
They faced an uphill battle given their past friction with the school board, but in August, their idea was unanimously approved by DPS. The school will be district-run, and modeled after HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities).
The school district even helped the parents in their efforts to refine the model so that it solved problems for both parties.
“For black students, we designed a culture where they’re accepted, they’re visible, and can celebrate themselves,” Pryor says. “We’re creating a culture of excellence and high-achievement.” They are responding to the needs of the constituency, and the excitement around it is palpable on the football field where I’m interviewing him.
Gabe Lindsay and Brandon Pryor had an epiphany the day of the interview that sums up the vision for the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy.
“The DPS is in need of a Steve Jobs. Somebody with an innovative mind to create something which doesn’t exist. The DPS is a 1980’s Walkman. We want to provide the iPod in place of this Walkman we’ve been given.”
With all these brilliant minds working on the solution, there’s a glimmer of hope in the far northeast, thanks to your friendly neighborhood Warriors.
Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.
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