The front doors of North High School loomed large over Nayeli López in May as her first year of high school came to an unexpectedly chaotic close.
López found herself at the forefront of a student protest movement that swept her Denver high school in the spring after classmates learned beloved Chicano teacher Tim Hernández had been let go and would not be returning the following year.
Students frustrated by what they saw as school leadership pushing out teachers of color organized sit-ins, walkouts, flyer distributions, meetings with district leadership and marches through the city advocating for better recruitment and retention of teachers of color and for Hernández to be brought back.
After returning from one protest march in May, 15-year-old López paused before going back into her school building — the adrenaline of the day still coursing through her — and understood her life verged on the precipice of change.
“I just stood outside the doors for a minute because I was scared to go in,” López said. “I felt so good right then, standing up for what I believed in, and I didn’t want to see what happened next. I knew when I walked through those doors, that was the end of it all. And I was right.”
Hernández, an associate teacher, did not have his North High contract renewed, despite having the support of his English department. The 25-year-old who grew up on Denver’s Northside was put on paid administrative leave for the remaining days of the school year for leaving his classroom to march with his students in their protest.
Now, Hernández has started a new teaching gig at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy. The school’s new Chicano principal hand-selected Hernández, who is teaching a curriculum he designed based on Black and Latino liberation literature and protest movements.
Meanwhile, Hernández’s former students this week are walking back into a building of predominantly Latino students taught by predominantly white teachers without what they described as the safe haven that was his classroom. Denver Public Schools officials said they want North High students and families to know the district is striving toward a more equitable future that includes hiring more teachers of color.
“I really miss my North students,” Hernández said from his new classroom, pausing to collect himself amid tears. “I’m really sad for them. I’m nervous about what this school year is going to look like for them… They’re going to go back into the same school that told them asking for more Brown teachers is bad. I want them to know I am so proud of them and that we have nothing to be sorry for. I want them to know what we did was real.”
“We can’t let one person polarize us”
Virdiana Sanchez, 17, was a student in Hernández’s Latinx literature class and a member of the club he oversaw that focused on Chicano culture and community engagement.
Hernández fostered a love of reading in Sanchez that she said helped her come into her own. He recommended and loaned Sanchez new books by diverse authors almost weekly and talked with her afterward about their themes. He encouraged her to write short stories. He cultivated a community in their classroom, she said, that made it a place kids wanted to be.
“He created a safe environment for me which I hadn’t felt in high school,” Sanchez said. “There weren’t teachers who looked like me there, and then I found his classroom. You cannot explain to anyone how it felt to be in there unless you were lucky enough to be his student, and I am going to miss that feeling. Before, I was excited to come to school. Now, I’m excited to graduate.”
Denver Public Schools told Hernández last spring that his North High teaching contract was not being renewed for the following year. Hernández said he was told he did not interview well enough. Though he applied for teaching jobs at other DPS schools, he said he accepted the Aurora position before hearing back from any of those schools.
DPS declined to discuss Hernández’s situation, citing personnel issues. The new North High School principal did not return a request from The Denver Post seeking comment.
Sanchez said she wants school leaders and district administration to understand that the protests were about more than Tim Hernández.
Students want more teachers of color, she said, who will teach them about their Latino history and assign books written by diverse authors. They want teachers who understand where they come from, Sanchez said.
In DPS, 75% of students are students of color while 70% of teachers are white, according to 2022 data provided by the district. About 22% of DPS teachers are Hispanic or Latino, compared to 52% of students.
At North High School, 25% of teachers are Hispanic or Latino, according to 2022 state data, compared to 67% of students.
“We deserve more than just a poster put up saying the district believes in inclusivity,” Sanchez said.
Anthony Smith, deputy superintendent of schools at Denver Public Schools, said he wants North High School students to know the school district is not their enemy.
“We can’t let one person polarize us on the mission of equity,” Smith said, referencing Hernández. “I don’t want one individual situation to overshadow all we’ve done.”
For example, Smith said, the district is pushing to get more leaders and educators of color by recruiting in diverse areas, attending diversity fairs and providing job opportunities to diverse graduates.
Smith said it’s important to consider that diverse groups are not a monolith. He noted there are other forms of diversity that are equally important, including religious diversity and the ability to speak different languages.
As far as retaining teachers of color, Smith said there are professional development opportunities available to help improve the district’s culture and that pay is always a driving factor in attracting and keeping good teachers.
“I hope the students at North High School know that we appreciate their voice and their voice is important and the way they advocated and critically think is extremely important to us,” Smith said. “We want to partner with the community and allow and support and be collaborative with the desires and needs of our schools and families. We value what you say. In certain situations, things may seem differently. Everything we do is equitable. We are trying to build trust. We are here for you.”
Sanchez said she’s happy Hernández found a school that will value him.
“I hope his new kids really do appreciate and love him like how we did,” Sanchez said.
From a liability to an asset
Antonio Vigil first heard about Hernández when his daughter, a North High junior, began organizing to save his job.
“It was the first time she earnestly cared about school and was getting engaged at the level of raising awareness and consciousness and talking about justice,” Vigil said. “It was a radical change for us to see her go through that and how passionate she was about this.”
Vigil opened up his home to his daughter’s classmates as they planned their peaceful protests in support of Hernández and teachers of color in Denver Public Schools. Over bowls of pozole, Vigil listened to impassioned students fight for the Chicano culture Vigil cherishes.
Seeing the impact Hernández had on his students, Vigil reached out to Hernández about teaching at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, where Vigil would be stepping into a new principal role this year.
Vigil and Hernández credit their ancestors for bringing the pair of Chicano educators together.
“All the liabilities he had been mislabeled with were assets for the work we are intending to do,” Vigil said.
Aurora West is in need of healing and transformation, Vigil admitted.
In 2019, the then-principal was placed on administrative leave after another administrator allegedly threatened coworkers and showed the principal a gun at the school. Parents complained about how the situation was handled and the story made headlines.
“This school has had a lot of trauma, not only in the school but outside in northwest Aurora,” Vigil said. “Our young people are clamoring for that sort of transformative change. They don’t want schooling like it’s normally been done. Tim has a very deep and profound respect of how identity is inextricable with how students learn. The positive recognition of where they come from is a huge factor of why students feel respected, honored, dignified and humanized.”
While it’s early in his new job, Hernández said he appreciates the candor he’s heard from Aurora Public Schools acknowledging the work they must do to improve.
“DPS does a good job about speaking about the work, but they don’t actually do it,” Hernández said.
Smith, when asked what actions DPS was taking around equity, pointed to the district’s equity statement as outlining its path. The district said it provides culturally sustaining curriculum, community engagement, employee-built groups fostering inclusivity and professional development opportunities, among other initiatives.
Rob Gould, president of the Denver teachers union, said for years the union has heard stories from educators of color that mirror Hernández’s.
“The way they’ve described it is they’re either too much of something or not enough of another,” Gould said.
When teachers of color begin speaking out or pushing back on the way things have always been done, Gould said some people become uncomfortable and label those teachers as troublesome or say they’re not team players.
The union is bargaining to include language into its contract with DPS to better support educators of color, Gould said, including decreasing biases in teacher evaluation systems and recognizing and dealing with micro-aggressions.
When it comes to Hernández, Gould said DPS’s loss is Aurora’s gain.
“We have to rebuild”
The walls of Hernández’s new classroom are draped in flags of social movements: the Black Panther Party, Indigenous sovereignty, the United Farm Workers of America, Black Lives Matter. One wall is dedicated to the protest signs his students made and carried in his honor.
“It was the most honorable thing I’ve ever experienced to be able to follow these young people as they stood up for what they believe in in the streets,” Hernández said.
The activism was empowering at the time, López said, but now the rising North High sophomore feels exhausted.
“We put so much effort into it, and it’s so disappointing that we didn’t get what we needed,” she said.
López said she dreaded going back to a school where she fears the leadership will want to erase the past year from memory and offer platitudes without action. Students want more teachers of color and an environment that makes those teachers want to stay, she said.
“I want the school and the district to know how much it stings,” López said. “I’m so mad, and it’s so hard not to give up, but I have to go back and carry on and I will not sit and pout all year because, otherwise, nothing will change. Mr. Hernández was a pillar in our community, and now the pillar is gone and we are going to have to rebuild.”
While Hernández said he is thrilled to meet new students and is impressed by his Aurora school and leadership, he holds out hope of one day returning to Denver to teach at North High School in the community that raised him.
“I do not critique and give all of this energy to something I don’t care about,” Hernández said. “I’m deeply invested in working in my community and making the education system work for someone like me.”
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