Fighting for teachers’ rights in Colorado
On February 11, 2019, hundreds of teachers at Denver’s South High School exited the school single file. Forming a line along the road, they proudly hoisted signs reading “ON STRIKE FOR OUR STUDENTS” and “EVERY CHILD DESERVES A WELL-PAID TEACHER.” Passing drivers sounded their horns in support, raising cheers from the growing crowd.
Among the sign-holders was Renée Underhill ’13, a teacher in the Denver Public Schools (DPS). Like her colleagues, Underhill had spent many impatient months waiting for negotiations between the teacher’s union and the DPS to create more favorable working conditions for teachers. When the negotiations fell apart, teachers took to the snow-covered streets to strike.
Underhill didn’t always want to be a teacher. While a high school student in Denver, Colorado, her hometown, she was interested in international affairs and planned to pursue an education and career in the field. Wanting to challenge herself and to do something different, she enrolled in an Arabic course at a nearby college. Several months into her study of Arabic, Underhill was talking with an exchange student who had lived with her family for a year. She told Underhill about the new school she was attending: the first co-ed boarding school in the Middle East, taught primarily in English. Underhill was immediately captivated, and began preparing her application.
“I had a real academic transformation at King’s,” Underhill says of her experience in the Arabic Year Program. “Going to King’s made me see how well education could be done. Our classmates seemed to really enjoy learning, which was very different from the school I was in before.”
Although Underhill’s time at King’s was short, it had a huge impact on her future plans. Following her graduation, she enrolled at The George Washington University as a double major in Arabic
and Middle East Studies. In her free time, she began reading articles about education. Gradually, she tied her interest in education to her major in Middle East studies and Arabic, and, after graduating in 2017, she took a job as the first ever Arabic teacher at Denver’s South High School.
Of the 1,600 students at South High School, over one-third are immigrants. Some 67 countries are represented in the student body — with 62 different languages spoken. Many of the students are refugees or asylees, some of whom had received little to no formal education prior to moving to Denver.
Facing the challenges of creating an Arabic program from scratch as well as facilitating a safe learning space for students who carry severe trauma, Underhill was unflinching. She took preparatory classes in English language acquisition and on how to recognize and handle trauma in teenagers. “To be a teacher is a lot more than just knowing how to present material,” she says. “When students are doing something I don’t like, I understand that there’s a really good reason. I can recognize
that someone is hurting and work to make the classroom environment feel safer in some way. I know I won’t be the perfect teacher every day but I can have my eyes open to their experiences.”
Under President Barack Obama, the number of refugee students at South High School increased quickly. However, the funding for teachers and necessary staff such as nurses, trauma specialists and translators stagnated and salaries haven’t kept up with living expenses. “There are a lot of teachers who can’t take care of themselves,” says Underhill. “And if you can’t take care of yourself how can you take care of your students?”
The teacher strike that was launched on February 11 was officially about pay, but for Underhill, the strike was a chance for public school teachers to be recognized for the outsize role they can play in a student’s life.
“The role of teachers has been changing,” she says. “It’s no longer just instruction: we’re counselors, social workers, even cafeteria workers, as we have to have granola bars in our drawer so kids aren’t hungry during class and unable to focus.”
After three days of striking, negotiations between the teacher’s union and DPS finally came to an agreement, including salary raises for all public school teachers in the district. The agreement also paves the way for future discussions on the allocation of necessary resources for students and teachers.
Looking back, Underhill says that the nurturing environment at King’s allowed her to focus on her personal development and growth. “From my perspective as a student, it seemed so mission-based and students seemed to be really living the school mission,” she says. “It felt so positive, everyone was focusing on growing.”