The Denver Public Schools Board, while sporting matching T-shirts, voted unanimously Thursday night to enact a historic resolution that weaves the narratives and knowledge of Black, indigenous, Latino and other communities of color into every part of the district’s curriculum.
The Know Justice Know Peace Resolution, which was first announced in September, calls for consistency across the district in assessing and revising curriculum to create “transformational, humanizing, anti-racist and asset-based” lessons in every school subject. It includes constant opportunities for feedback, especially from students and teachers, and requires specific internal and external reviews of 11th grade civics and economics and 8th grade U.S. history. K-5 students will have a revamped social studies curriculum as well.
Teachers and administrators will receive ongoing professional development training where they will learn how to discuss racially traumatic situations in a sensitive manner. They will also be supported in teaching lessons that celebrate the narratives of people of color and their contributions to the world. And libraries will get more support to celebrate literature from and about marginalized communities.
The resolution comes in the wake of an internationally acclaimed podcast of the same name, started by four students at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College.
The students had joined some of their peers in a fall 2019 school trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Denver Public Schools is a diverse district — 13.4% of students are Black and 53% are Hispanic — and DMLK Early College is even more diverse, with Black students making up 25% of the population.
Yet for many, the field trip was the students’ first time learning about renowned Black figures — such as Mansa Musa — and their accomplishments. It motivated the young Black women to advocate for more racially inclusive classes — with particular regard to Black history and culture — at their school. They also formed a Black Student Alliance.
This summer, in response to the police killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, students Alana Mitchell, Jenelle Nangah, Dahni Austin and Kaliah Yizar started Know Justice Know Peace: DMLK’s The Take. Over the course of eight episodes, the young Black women explored past and present racial injustice and what it means to be Black in the U.S.
And with the help of teachers, administrators and the school board, the students led the charge to draft and pass Thursday’s resolution. An official signing ceremony will be held Friday morning.
“Us standing here today represents us refusing to be complacent,” sophomore Kaliah Yizar said at Thursday’s meeting. “This change that we’re making is not just symbolic. We, together with you and your support, are making history.”
For sophomore Dahni Austin, all of it — from the field trip, to taking African American studies electives at school, to the podcast, to the resolution — has been incredibly empowering and inspiring.
“Learning your own history can do that,” Austin told The Colorado Sun.
There have been efforts at the state legislature to rectify inequitable school curriculum, such as a bill passed this year that requires Holocaust and genocide studies. But this resolution is the first of its kind in the state to explicitly incorporate racially diverse knowledge into a district’s curriculum.
“Thank you so much for your hard work to get to this day,” board director Tay Anderson said to the students during the board meeting. “When I think of our DPS Mount Rushmore, I think of each and every one of your faces, because you have changed the landscape of what it means to be a DPS scholar.”
The students hope that this resolution is just the start of a “positive domino effect,” Nangah, a senior, said. Many who spoke at the meeting called on other districts — and the state education department — to explore how to implement versions of this change in their own schools, in large part by listening to what students want and need.
“We have young people in all of our schools who are capable of advising us, guiding us on what would help them be more effective in their studies,” superintendent Susana Cordova said. “It is about our students being able to know their history and have a deeper understanding to know themselves.”
The students have not done this all alone. DMLK teacher Kiara Roberts and principal Kimberly Grayson have been enthusiastic supporters through it all, starting with last fall’s field trip. But far from the adults encouraging the students to act, they did so on their own, often texting the educators late at night or early in the morning with new ideas.
“Their ideas flourish from their minds, and we are here as supporters for that,” Roberts said. “It’s definitely a car driven by them, we’re just here to support them.”
The curriculum change has, in some ways, been building up for some time. In 2015, after years of Grayson’s advocacy, the school added “Doctor” to the beginning of its name, to honor King’s Ph.D. And earlier this year, the school board responded to widespread requests from the district’s community by voting to separate from the Denver Police Department.
While 2020 has involved a renewed racial reckoning for many, Roberts noted that Black people in the U.S. have always faced racism, and that the fight for justice — in the district and beyond — continues.
“Now people are listening, now people want to move,” Roberts said. “So let’s move.”