Denver teachers are striking — here’s what to watch for

10 min. read
Kepner Beacon Middle School teachers picket outside of their school on day one of the Denver teachers’ strike, Feb. 11, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By  Chalkbeat 

The negotiating room is dark. Makeshift lesson plans are ready to be unpacked from boxes, if they haven't been yet. Bullhorns and picket signs are at the ready.

Denver teachers will go on strike Monday morning for the first time in a quarter century.

It's a big development not just in the ongoing dispute between school district and union leaders over how much and how teachers are paid, but also in the history of Denver Public Schools.

National attention will be focused on Denver, as it was on Los Angeles, Oklahoma, and West Virginia in recent months. Here are the things we'll be watching as the strike begins:

How many teachers will walk out?

It's hard to say. The teachers union's lead negotiator told us dues-paying membership has swelled to about 3,800. That's roughly 72 percent of the 5,300 teachers and special service providers covered by the district's ProComp agreement that is at the center of the dispute -- a big increase in membership that had been stuck at about 50 percent for years.

Teachers don't have to be union members to strike. Some members may stay in their classrooms because they disagree with their colleagues, can't afford to lose a paycheck, or are worried about their immigration status. Non-union member educators may walk out in solidarity with striking teachers, or find it too hard to cross a picket line.

One reason it's hard to get a handle on how may Denver teachers support a strike: Union leaders refuse to say how many people voted to walk out. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association said 93 percent of those who participated voted "yes," but did not disclose the number of ballots cast.

We've asked the school district for daily updates on teacher attendance during the strike. We'll keep you posted about what we learn.

Will the district manage to keep schools open?

We have no idea -- and the district probably doesn't, either. There are a lot of things that won't be known until bells ring Monday morning.

Probably the biggest wild card is student attendance. If attendance is close to normal, it will pose a big challenge to district officials committed to keeping doors open.

Other open questions: Will the district round up enough substitute teachers and central office staff to keep schools running? Will those in the district sub pool -- many of them retired teachers- cross a picket line? What about other employees who are essential to keeping schools open: paraprofessionals, support staff, janitors, and cafeteria workers?

The district has made clear that its roughly 1,400-employee central office staff should stand ready for deployment to schools as substitutes or, if they aren't licensed, hall monitors or lunchroom workers. Not only that, but the district has said that failing to do so could result in corrective action, which could include getting fired. These, by the way, are some of the same people who will lose their jobs because of cuts the district has proposed to pay teachers more.

The district has been getting reports from principals with projections about how many teachers might strike. The bottom line is that how schools are able to handle the strike will vary by school. The Denver district will be relying on principals to make the right calls on keeping doors open.

What will student attendance be like?

As we said above, it's a crucial piece to keeping schools open. The union has changed course on its messaging. A union FAQ document from mid-January urged parents to send students to school with the logic that schools will be forced to close if they're unsafe, "a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators." Some teachers distanced themselves from that, and union President Henry Roman eventually backed off, too. After Gov. Jared Polis declined to intervene in the dispute, clearing the way for a strike, Roman urged parents to make the decision "they believe to be in the best interest and well-being of their children."

During Los Angeles' recent strike, attendance was higher in high-poverty schools, where parents have less flexibility at work and may not be able to be with their children. In Denver, district officials say they're planning to send more personnel to high-poverty schools.      

What will school be like without teachers?

First off, many students and parents will experience a most unfamiliar morning drop-off -- teachers who usually are inside getting classrooms ready instead will be outside on sidewalks marching with picket signs. Denver police initiated conversations with union leaders to make sure everyone knows the rules. Any picketing must take place on public sidewalks, not on school property.

DPS's curriculum team has prepared material for use in classrooms: stand-alone units aligned to content areas and grade levels in English and Spanish. The district has sent two days' worth of material to start, and Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district has more ready online and will reassess after a couple of days. An English language development unit covers food groups, with group work for students. A sixth-grade science section on freshwater use in the U.S. asks students to make predictions about estimated water use.

District officials have been clear that school during the strike will not be normal. Some classrooms may be combined. Classes may move to auditoriums. Schools with specialized programs -- Montessori, Expeditionary Learning, International Baccalaureate -- may find the pre-packaged curriculum lacking.

At least initially, we won't be able to give you a firsthand account of what the school day looks like during the strike. The school district refused our request, and those from other media, to observe inside schools, saying it would be disruptive at a sensitive time.

Will older students turn to activism?

We've already seen Denver students speak out in support of teachers. An estimated 1,100 students at seven Denver high schools staged sit-ins, information sessions, marches, and other demonstrations during a school day two weeks ago, showing solidarity with teachers.

So it would come as no surprise if we see more as the strike begins. Or rather, if we see it in shaky video that ends up on some national news network. Everyone these days has a camera in his or her pocket and social media accounts on which to share videos and still pictures. The Denver Post found one middle school that will collect students' phones during the strike, but schools also do this as a regular practice. A district spokeswoman told us each school has its own cell phone policy, and the district doesn't expect them to change this week.

What will families with preschoolers do?

While DPS is telling families that schools will be open and operating on regular schedules Monday, there's one exception: district-run preschools. Cordova announced late last week that the district will be unable to keep its preschools open, leaving parents of 3- and 4-year-olds scrambling. Those who can will take off work or lean on relatives and friends.

Meanwhile, state regulators have said they can grant emergency waivers to allow non-district preschools with extra room to take some of those students, and some Denver preschools have raised their hands. Parents searching for licensed child care options during a teacher strike may call Colorado Shines Child Care Referral at Mile High United Way at 1-877-338-2273 or text "child care referral" to 898-211.

How will students who rely on subsidized school meals eat?

The district has underscored that meals will continue to be served at schools with large numbers of students in need. Preschool students will still be able eat at school if they are accompanied by a parent. About 65 percent of DPS students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The city of Denver also said it will have meals and snacks available at its recreation centers and libraries. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, following the lead of other local unions during a strike, has announced plans to open community food banks at four sites where it will collect and distribute non-perishable food from 7 a.m. to noon:

  • Northwest - Denver Firefighters Local 858: 12 Lakeside Lane
  • Northeast - IBEW Local 111: 5965 E. 39th Ave.
  • Southwest - National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 47: 5151 W. First Ave
  • Southeast - Unite Here Local 23: 5303 E Evans Ave., # 302.

Will charter schools be a target of pickets?

The current dispute has been focused on how much Denver teachers are paid and how they're paid. But make no mistake: The energy the teachers union has harnessed also grows out of a long-simmering frustration with Denver's brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools and replacing them with other types of schools the district believes can do a better job. That includes charter schools. Our rough count shows DPS with 99 traditional district-run schools, 60 charter schools, and 50 innovation schools, which are operated by the district but don't abide by all aspects of the teachers union contract.

The strike gives union leaders a chance to make charters an issue (in other cities, including LA, charter school growth was a major aspect of the dispute). Denver's policy of welcoming charter schools to use space in underutilized buildings that are home to district-run schools is a highly unusual practice for a U.S. school district -- and gives pickets a potential target.

The head of DSST Public Schools, the district's largest charter-school operator, wrote to parents voicing concerns about how a strike would affect its students and families, but didn't specifically cite concern over pickets. District officials have assured charter school operators that the district is doing everything in its power to ensure that it's business as usual at district campuses.

What happens next with negotiations?

Union negotiators made clear when they walked away from the negotiating table Saturday night that they won't be returning until Tuesday. That means all of the attention Monday will focus on picket lines, what happens in schools, and whether the district can manage to keep them open.

Teachers are ready -- emotionally, practically, strategically -- to strike. Imagine being asked to vote on whether to walk out of a classroom of students you are responsible for. You vote yes. You prepare yourself, you figure out what to tell your students what to expect, you decide what message is best for your picket sign. It's hard to walk back from that.

But a deal has to be reached at some point. The start of the strike should be a game-changer for negotiations.

How long will the strike last?

Probably no more than a few days. That's our best guess given the length of recent strikes elsewhere (Pueblo and LA both lasted a week) and how close the two sides are compared with disputes in other cities. Then there's this practical consideration: Teachers who strike don't get paid -- and a strike fund can only go far. The district put more on the table late in its attempts to avert a strike. Even though the union dismissed the move, it does get the sides closer.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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