This story is has been adapted from its original version in Give Magazine Summer 2018. Below is Part I of III. See a link at the end of this article to continue reading the story originally published in The Denver Foundation's Give Magazine.
In Aurora, a coalition of educators and community partners is working to create equitable opportunities for children to learn.
On a Thursday night in early spring, Principal Mary Duran welcomed roughly 50 parents and their children through the double doors of Park Lane Elementary School in Aurora. Walking the halls of the small, single-story building, with its low ceiling and hallways hung with inspirational messages written in Magic Marker—We are Panther Proud!—Duran called out greetings in English and Spanish. She asked parents about their jobs and families, setting at ease any who were anxious.
Inside the cafeteria, in the dinner line, Duran helped a little boy navigate a meatball onto a paper plate.
“Thank you, Mrs. Duran,” he said, giving her a quick side hug before running off to join his family at a nearby table.
It was the second time in the last school year that the community had been invited for a free meal and a chance to learn more about Park Lane and its commitment to supporting students and families. It was also a chance for them to spend time with Mary Duran. As Park Lane’s leader, she is a helper to nearly 300 kids in pre-K to fifth grade and a kind of coach to their parents.
She’s warm and open. She knows kids’ names and backgrounds, their struggles and strengths. She is their friend. But she’s also their advocate. Since joining Park Lane five years ago, Duran has led the school deeper and deeper into an educational philosophy that puts students at the center of everything. This means every decision she makes is evaluated against a basic question: Does it help my kids learn?
“Everything that happens in this building has to benefit our students,” she says. “Whether it’s teachers or partners or anyone coming into the school, I have to know what’s in it for the kids. How do they benefit? Because we are here for the whole kid; it’s all around the child.”
Our kids deserve to have the best opportunities and experiences.
Park Lane is not far from the Anschutz Medical Campus, in a working-class neighborhood characterized by small, single-family homes and a high rate of poverty. Sixty-eight percent of Park Lane students are Latino; 10 percent are African American.
In the hallways, out at recess, Park Lane kids are just like kids at any elementary school: They’re noisy, energetic, silly. Many of the younger ones look too small for their backpacks as they totter in and out of classrooms.
But as children of color who are also poor, most Park Lane students are doubly vulnerable to a host of risk factors that threaten to undermine their chances of success in school. Statistically, they face the probability of falling into the opportunity gap that separates low-income children of color from their more affluent, white counterparts—a gap that widens over time, driving inequality at every level of society.
"It's one of the biggest questions we face: How do you talk about bias in a way that feels safe, where teachers and school leaders can be vulnerable in discussing these issues?"
Principal Duran’s mission is to quell those risks through a disciplined, laser-like focus on her students’ right to thrive. With support from The Denver Foundation and Aurora Public Schools, Duran employs ground-up strategies that reflect the needs of Park Lane students and reduce systemic barriers to their success.
Called Common Sense Discipline, these strategies help educators orient everything that happens in a school—classroom instruction, disciplinary practices, and professional development for teachers—in a framework of equity. “Equity permeates everything,” says Duran. “It’s the overarching umbrella of the deep, intentional learning we are doing as a school and as school leaders to close the opportunity gap.
“Our kids deserve to have the best opportunities and experiences,” she continues. “Our goal is to build relationships with them and their families, and find out what they know. If we can figure out how to leverage what they bring with them, we can create opportunities for learning. And that’s when we really start transforming the culture at our school.”
The Common Sense Discipline equity work at Park Lane takes many forms. Sometimes it happens in a restorative justice circle, where conflicts between students, teachers, and staff are addressed in ways that are relational, not punitive. Sometimes it’s in a mindfulness activity that teaches kids, and teachers, how to calm down and listen to their bodies when they start to feel anxious or angry. Sometimes it’s a free spaghetti dinner, like those hosted by RISE Colorado, a longtime Park Lane partner. The meals, last fall, and this spring, were followed by workshops that helped parents understand the opportunity gap and gave them tips for avoiding it.
“As a result of this workshop, I will make a routine to read every day with my son at home,” one parent pledged after a family learning night. “I learned that we need to involve ourselves more as parents,” another shared.