Behind Colorado walkout over 'patriotic' history classes, a power play

Colorado students and teachers in a district near Denver are skipping school to protest a plan to make controversial changes to history classes. But the roots of the disturbance go deeper.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Protesters at Bear Creek High School sit on a street with their signs near the school in Lakewood, Colo., last week. High school students in Colorado's second-largest school district staged walkouts to demonstrate against proposed changes to a history curriculum that would stress patriotism and discourage civil disobedience. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The controversy in a suburban Colorado school district that has led to both student and teacher protests and several closed high schools isn't going away.

On Monday, two more Jefferson County high schools, just outside Denver, closed for the day after numerous teachers called in sick, and on Tuesday, a number of middle school students skipped class to protest.

Most of the media coverage of the Jefferson County protests has focused on the local school board's proposed review of the new Advanced Placement US history curriculum – a proposal that is back on the agenda for Thursday's board meeting. But the roots of the conflict go much deeper, starting when the school board composition changed last year and a conservative majority took over.

Several of the board's decisions since – particularly about a new teacher pay structure that links raises to teacher evaluations – have been highly controversial, and relations with the local teachers union have deteriorated.

"It’s not about the money – it’s about the disrespect," wrote Tammie Peters, a teacher at Golden High School, one of two in the district that closed on Monday after most of its teachers called in sick, in an e-mail to Chalkbeat Colorado explaining why so many of her colleagues were unhappy. Ms. Peters did not actively participate in the sick-out.

"The board majority has refused to work with teachers to develop a fair and equitable pay system. The board majority blames teachers for the student unrest, as though teenagers can be intellectually herded like sheep, and they have shown great disrespect for the voices of our advanced placement students who are concerned about their educations."

The Denver Post, meanwhile, has been critical of teacher protests. In an editorial calling on teachers to stop calling in sick, the Post wrote that "what [teachers] are doing is indefensible both ethically and professionally, and it's terrible public relations to boot." While critical of the proposed history curriculum review, the Post added that "closing down school is an inappropriate way to protest such policy."

Many parents and students have joined with teachers in expressing unhappiness with the board decisions, and the discord has reached such a level that many have wondered about the path forward for the district, Colorado's largest. Heading into Wednesday, numerous administrators pleaded with students to go to school, since the day is "Count Day" for Colorado, when attendance is used to determine district funding.

On Monday, after two high schools were closed due to the teacher sick-out, Superintendent Dan McMinimee also said that some teachers may be docked pay for the day if they can't prove they were actually sick or had appropriately requested a personal day.

Some answers about the possible curriculum review, at least, may be answered at Thursday night's board meeting, when the proposal to form the committee will be discussed. A new AP US history course has been under heavy fire from conservatives in recent months. The new course, which has fewer specifics about what will be taught and doesn't require mention of many key figures, was designed to give teachers more discretion and to emphasize critical thinking skills. But critics have said it no longer teaches American exceptionalism, and puts some American actions in a negative context.

The initial board proposal in Jefferson County, which so many teachers and students took exception to, was to form a committee to review the course and ensure it doesn't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law" and that the materials "present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

In a letter to the Jefferson County community last week, Superintendent McMinimee praised the "passion and conviction displayed this week by our students" and encouraged parents to discuss the events with their children. In talking to students, McMinimee added, "I assured them that no decision has been made regarding the [US history] curriculum or the proposed citizen committee and much more dialogue is needed before anything is decided."

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