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An Open Response to A+ Colorado Orange Paper: Learn Together, Live Together: A Call to Integrate Denver’s Schools (February 2018)

An Open Response to A+ Colorado Orange Paper: Learn Together, Live Together: A Call to Integrate Denver’s Schools (February 2018)Author: antwan jefferson, Date: 26 March 2018 University of Colorado Denver,
School of Education and Human Development——————————

In its February 2018 Orange Paper, A+ Colorado published a report entitled “Learn Together, Live Together: A Call to Integrate Denver’s Schools” (REPORT). The REPORT offers details, comments, and various forms of data to substantiate its claims about the need to integrate schools in Denver. In addition to citing out-of-state examples such as Providence, RI; Raleigh, NC, New Orleans, LA; and Atlanta, GA, the REPORT seems to reveal deep author bias against Black and Latin@ residents of Denver, positioning them as in need of the benevolence of White, middle-income, and more affluent residents of the city. In this brief response to the REPORT, I discuss four significant troubling patterns. There are more than four such patterns, to be sure.

On its website, A+ Colorado, an “Action Tank,” describes its objective as, in part to operate “at the confluence of practice, policy, and politics” in order to “challenge ourselves, educators, and policymakers to rethink public education.” This objective accompanies the mission of A+ Colorado to “sharpen public education by building public will and advocating for the changes necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in schools and districts in Colorado.”

A+ Colorado’s popularity across the state, and particularly in the Denver area, is important, as it is one of the only progressive organizations in the area advocating for discourse and idea exchange around public school policies and practices. And A+ Colorado does not shy away from tackling tough issues regarding education. During recent Denver school board election cycles, A+ Colorado published candidate survey responses as a tool to support citizens in understanding whether candidates would support the district’s trajectory on important issues such as the strategic plan (Denver 2020), determining criteria for High Quality Schools, and ensuring that the district responds to the needs of traditionally underserved populations. In 2016, A+ took on the difficult issue of teacher compensation in DPS, declaring the ProComp system a hodgepodge of incentives that needed to be streamlined. ProComp remains at the forefront of current negotiations between DPS and the local teachers’ union.

A+ Colorado uses high political capital to pressure Denver Public Schools in the face of its designation by the Brookings Institution as a leading school choice district in the US (as of March 2017, for the 2016 Index), stating that, despite these accolades, there remains significant work for the district to accomplish:

“Indeed, the best district for choice in the country should be one in which families are choosing between multiple quality options without having to trade off academic outcomes, proximity, and school model. The highest rates of academic growth in the country should also mean that more students are mastering the content that will prepare them for life after high school.”

A+ Colorado occupies a rare and important position as a critical friend of Denver Public Schools, providing a sort of conscience to a district that is made up of mostly Latin@ students, led by a school board of long-serving members who have overseen the formation of Denver’s current reputation, and that struggles to recruit and maintain an adequately diverse teaching force and that continues to struggle to provide a high quality education for many of its students.

It is in this spirit of critical friendship and in response to local organizing efforts to slow a fast-moving, long-departed train of school progress that I offer this friendly critique of A+ Colorado’s Orange Paper, highlighting concerns that undermine A+ Colorado’s overtures of goodwill towards the people of Colorado and the people of Denver.

The Separate but Equal Thing

In the Introduction to this REPORT, the authors cite US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s claim that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This is an important start to the REPORT because, for some, it effectively triggers our collective memory of white supremacist terrorism of Blacks during the middle of the 20th century, including the violent protests of white adults to young Black children integrating white schools. The sentiment of Chief Warren’s legal opinion captures an important essence of knowledge construction: the plaintiffs of the Briggs v. Elliott case (one of the cases heard in the Brown v. Board proceedings) were asking the courts for enforcement of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, providing freedom to choose by being given equal access to all public schools. The response of the highest court in the land concluded that young Negro children would feel inferior “as to their status in the community” and that this sense of inferiority would “affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Based on this language, it seems that the Court believed in the inferiority of Blacks rather than in the collective benefits of integration for all children and all of society. In fact, this opinion goes on to state that, based on the prior finding of the Kansas court:

segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for public schools has a detrimental effect the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

To be sure, it is not the invocation of the “separate but equal” clause to frame the A+ Orange Paper that is troubling. Instead, it is the persistent view of Black inferiority, and the inferiority of People of Color on the whole, that reflects the purpose of the REPORT as a plea to neoliberal Denver residents. Four key tensions in the A+ Orange Paper demonstrate this essence.

Deficit Perspective

Evident through the lack of assets of Black children, families, or community discussed in the REPORT, there is a clear default to assuming that Blacks in Denver are without strengths upon which opportunities for their children, and for schools, may be built. This is egregious, but it is not surprising. Throughout the history of examining Black children and families (as well as Latin@ families) researchers have maintained an assumption of deficit, assessing the abilities of Latin@ and Black children, the unity of Latin@ and Black families, and the social habits of Latin@ and Black communities by comparing them to whites, which have been a standard of sorts (Trask & Hamon, 2007).

Similarly, the A+ Orange Paper relies on deficits to build a case about low-income children and their families (the REPORT often conflates race and class, implying that all Black and Latin@ families are low income). For example, by evoking a selection of the Urban Institute’s findings about the impacts of poverty on well-being (see REPORT, page 15-16), the authors highlight negative outcomes in high-poverty areas without discussing the barriers to home ownership erected by housing and home ownership policies and professionals. However, the intent of the Urban Institute’s report is to advocate for vigorous enforcement of fair housing laws. In fact, the Urban Institute report states that “given what is currently known, policymakers cannot simply assume that geographic proximity will automatically overcome the pressures of inequality and prejudice or immediately yield all the potential benefits of diversity” (p.5). Rather than addressing the policy implications of the Urban Institute, and acknowledging the systemic exclusion of Blacks and Latin@s from home buying, relegating them, instead, to under-resourced communities of concentrated poverty, the REPORT states that “it is beyond the scope of this study to delve into the causes of gentrification and policies that can mitigate its effects” (p. 16). Selective use of resources such as the Urban Institute report only serves a purpose of constructing a deficit-based narrative about race and poverty that maintain systemic oppression and racism by avoiding tough issues.

Claims of Thought Leadership

Among the most fascinating aspects of the Orange Paper is the assumption of progressive thinking and a commitment to social justice. Reinforcing the deficit perspective of the authors, which I discuss above, the REPORT further negates the contributions of community members of color, as well as local and national scholars of color, by relying upon selected thought leaders. As the REPORT states, the authors’ aim is to explore “the current realities of integration in Denver through analyzing data and demographic trends, while considering the opinions of thought-leaders in the local community” (p. 5). The local community thought leaders who are included in the REPORT do not include educators of color, despite the REPORT’s focus on integrating schools. In fact, there are no teachers included in the REPORT. Local Education Scholars of Color, such as Dr. Terrenda White (CU Boulder), Dr. Luis Poza (CU Denver), Dr. Darlene Sampson (Metro State U) are not included in the study, despite their expertise in areas directly relevant to the REPORT. Local community organizers, such as Michael “Ill Se7en”
Acuna, also are missing from the study, despite his current work in implicit bias training on behalf of the Office of the Independent Monitor in the city. Rather than incorporating the perspectives of local experts whose racial identities are implicated in the integration focus of the REPORT, the authors practice selection bias, which only serves to reinforce beliefs that were likely previously held.

Racial Codes

No less important throughout the REPORT is the use of subtly coded language that reveals beliefs about race. Through using terms that suggest that Black and Latin@ residents of Denver are aggressive, and that Whites in Denver are harmless victims of this aggression, the author’s make revealing statements. Here are a few examples:

“former strongholds of the black community and Latinx community are changing as white families move in, and families of color move outside the increasingly expensive city limits” (p. 5).

“more affluent families who inadvertently contribute to displacement of lower-income residents from gentrifying neighborhoods, could and should become strong advocates for maintaining economically balanced neighborhoods—and schools” (p. 15).

“Denver’s political culture may be too nice to engage in the sometimes bruising battles required to make tough but much-needed change” (p. 8).

To be sure, these examples are taken directly from the A+ Denver Orange Paper.

(Un)Consideration of Historical Precedent

To begin this discussion of concerns about the REPORT, I explored the Introduction which cited Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in the Brown v Board decision of 1954. I return to that case here, to reiterate that a belief in racial inequality is the premise upon which the A+ Denver Orange paper is based.

In assessing the role of interests in the Brown v Board Supreme Court case, Black legal scholar Derrick Bell (1980) argued that the case must rely upon a neutral principle. Without the neutral principle, the Brown decision could not have been reached. Contrary to conservative legal scholars, Bell and colleagues held that the neutral principle was racial equality. The only way that the Brown v. Board decision could have been reached was to recognize that the races were equal in humanity, equal in dignity, were full citizens, and deserving of constitutional protection from discrimination based upon race. Professor Bell wrote that:

It is clear that racial equality is not deemed legitimate by large segments of the American people, at least to the extent it threatens to impair the societal status of whites (p. 522).

On pages 522-523, Professor Bell goes on to write two other really important statements that seem highly relevant to the racial nature of the A+ Denver Orange paper:

Whites simply cannot envision the personal responsibility and the potential sacrifice inherent in Professor Black’s conclusion that true equality for blacks will require the surrender of racism-granted privileges for whites.


The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.

A fuller reading of the Brown v Board decision and its key legal scholars would have been wise. Without it, as evident by the REPORT, a deeply-held belief in the inferiority of Black and Latin@ children and families persists, and recommendations to integrate schools would only acknowledge the benefit.

While there are other problematic linguistic strategies evident in the REPORT (including an absent analysis of power, superficial claims of honor and respect for children of color, ironic claims of the importance of children of different backgrounds learning together while silencing diverse perspectives in the REPORT; racism soft-peddling as implicit bias, and a lack of critical scholarship) my aim here was to present just a few. This is to maintain brevity and to invite further discussion about the assumptions of superiority espoused by a rather large cadre of foundations guiding the education discourse in Denver. This includes individuals and groups whose voices are amplified because they direct funds, are able to bend into submission the efforts of People of Color who are trying to make positive change in their communities, and who continue to exclude key voices from important conversations about the future of Denver as a city and as a community of schools.

-antwan jefferson, PhD| @antwancudenver |


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+ Colorado. 2017 Denver Public Schools – At-Large District School Board Candidate Survey. Accessed on 25 March 2018. Retrieved from: denver-public-schools-large-school-board-candidate-survey/

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