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Eyewitness: Day one of the Denver teachers’ strike

Denver teachers’ first strike since 1994 began Feb. 11, and it was powerful.

Despite below-freezing temperatures, thousands of educators and supporters picketed at schools across Denver in the morning. At Montbello Campus in far northeast Denver, formerly Montbello High School, the picket lines chanted loudly as cars drove past. Across the city at South High School, students walked out to join more than 500 striking teachers and their supporters.

Students at East High School, in a video now gone viral, danced and sang in the hallways as the few substitute teachers and administrators there failed to keep them under control. According to a parent picking up their child at Montbello only an hour after the first bell rang, “There are no teachers in there. There are just cops roaming the halls. No kid is going to learn anything in there today; I’m taking mine home.”

Rather than close schools during the strike, Denver Public Schools has insisted to parents that classes would run normally. But nearly 3,800 of 4,725 non-charter teachers stayed out of the classroom today, and DPS has struggled to convince subs to cross picket lines even for double wages.

Susanna Cordova, interim superintendent for the district, said today in a press conference that she “visited many schools” and saw “a real range of things happening,” but insisted that she “didn’t see any classrooms where…there wasn’t supervision, where there wasn’t work going on.” Student walkouts across the city, in addition to parent testimonials on the DPS Facebook page, blatantly showed the opposite. This is just the latest in a series of poor spin jobs by the district.

A strike 15 months in the making

The Denver teachers’ union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, has attempted to bargain in good faith with DPS for the last 15 months. At issue is teacher salary, specifically a variable bonus incentive system called ProComp, which has virtually replaced base-pay increases. Like other corporate-backed school reforms in the district, ProComp has led to teacher attrition, a widening achievement gap, and worse conditions for students.

While DPS is trying its hardest to frame ProComp as a vital program that attracts more teachers to poverty-stricken schools, the numbers show otherwise. Many teachers and community members understand the bonuses are ineffective and are in fact a cover for declining average salary.

On this point, Ambria Reed, a middle school social studies teacher at McGlone Academy, said:

“It took me a long time to [support the strike], because I’m someone who works in a high-priority school, so I thought I would be taking a pay cut [without ProComp], that it wouldn’t help teachers who work in the neighborhoods that I work in. But as I’ve been looking at the data and hearing the bargaining, it’s been changing my mind. The current incentives really aren’t retaining teachers. I’ve been in schools where we get the incentives, and still I was one of only two teachers to return last year in the middle school.”

Throughout negotiations, DPS has refused to budge toward DCTA’s proposal to increase base pay. Instead, the district has attempted to play the media. In their latest stunt, DPS negotiators publicly “invited” DCTA to the bargaining table via Twitter, despite the union telling them they would not be there, then pretended to be “stood up” for the photo op.

Teachers deserve more

After morning pickets, rallies around the city brought out the community in support of teachers. Upwards of 2,000 people gathered at the Capitol Building to show solidarity.

Teachers in Denver cannot wait any longer for better pay. As many teachers stressed, they do not want to strike. They want to be in their classrooms with their students, making a fair wage. But, for teachers in situations like Andrea Legget, who teaches on the Montbello Campus, striking today means a better future for both her and her students.

“I took an $8,000 pay cut after my position was cut at another school. I am very happy where I am, but it was a huge cut in pay. I am now working two additional part-time jobs to my usual part time job–in addition to teaching. I mentally prepare myself for Tuesdays and Thursdays, because after working a ninw-hour day, I know will be working at another job for four to five hours. I’m not as quick in the classroom as I know I could be because I’m sleep deprived. Many of us work at least two jobs. Classroom conditions are another story, but I know that it would make it so much easier if we could say to ourselves, ‘yes I have 36 kids in my classroom, but I don’t have to go to another job after school.’”

Teachers deserve fair, consistent, and expected wages, not unstable and unpredictable bonuses on top of meager base pay. Denver Public Schools should stop saying they respect students, teachers, and the community, and show it: accept DCTA’s proposal now!

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