DENVER — A controversy is brewing at North High School on Denver’s North Side.
Beloved English and ethnic studies teacher Tim Hernández has not been rehired for the 2022-23 school year. A Chicano teacher at a predominantly Chicano high school in one of the most gentrified communities in the country, Hernández is being forced out of the school where he has taught for the past two years by a principal who viewed Hernández’s advocacy as too divisive.
While this may seem like business as usual for any high school in the midst of its annual hiring cycle, Hernández is more than just a teacher. Over the past two years, he has inspired his students in his language arts and “Latinx in Action” classes, sharing his love of books along with his respect for Black and Chicano cultures. His classroom is decorated with students’ posters inspired by the Chicano Movement and, most recently, the summer of social justice protests in 2020.
In a community devastated and disproportionately impacted by loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernández worked hard to build a community for his students. In his classes, students felt like their voices mattered, that they had an adult who looked like them, from the same neighborhood as them, who listened to them. So often students of color don’t have such role models in the classroom who share the same racial and cultural background.
This in itself makes the space that Hernández built with his students a sacred space. They connected with him and saw themselves in him. They felt comfortable sharing their concerns over the lack of COVID safety measures in his class, concerns that he shared with the school and the community. Students advocated for one another, building a community food commissary that evolved into a community fridge where students could grab much-needed breakfast or lunch.
His classroom became their home away from home.
Over his two years at North High, Hernández cultivated guests, Chicano and Latinx artists, politicians, and creatives who would help students see their full potential. Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre visited Hernández’s classroom this year to talk about activism, poetry, writing, and share his work, We Trust Our Wings, a collaboration merging LeFebre’s words with the photography of Juan Fuentes.
Inspired by the visit, the students in Hernández’s class then created their own interpretation of LeFebre’s work. They created their own book, Our Sacred Community, full of the students’ own pictures and poems about the North Side. For many of the students who have lost their housing on the North Side due to rising rents, loan scams, and gentrification, this book was an act of reclamation.
Hernández’s issue is not an isolated occurrence for Denver Public Schools. It’s a repeated pattern for the district, which is struggling to retain teachers, especially teachers of color. There have been countless teacher-activists silenced by administrators for giving students from BIPOC communities the tools to ask for more, to ask for better, to demand, simply, respect and dignity.
Hernández’s story closely mirrors that of Denver teacher-activist Alan Chimento, who was seen as too disruptive by the administration during his time at West High School and was eventually let go.
Denver Public Schools and North High are locked in a game of semantics with the community over the issue, referencing the fact that Hernández was hired as an associate teacher and knew it was a one-year position, sidestepping the fact that Hernández interviewed for a traditional teacher’s position weeks ago and was only told that he didn’t interview well for the position.
At a Collaborative School Committee meeting on May 9, parents and students showed up en masse to voice their support for Hernández. Outgoing principal Scott Wolf listened as a large number of students, parents, and community members shared their concerns about what it means to lose such a valuable member of the North High community. Unmoved, Wolf thanked students for showing up to the meeting but told them that the due process had been followed and that the decision had already been made.
For students, it’s hard to get past the feeling that the school and administration have themselves become hostile to the students’ culture. While the school might read “In Lak’ech” before an assembly or other gathering —a poem which comes from the Mayan tradition of recognizing one another not only as equals but as one and the same— and while administrators and staff might talk about the values of community and togetherness, it feels like mere virtue signaling if Hernández and other teachers like him, those who are unafraid to allow students to embrace and celebrate their culture, are unwelcome at North High.
Denver is the birthplace of the Chicano rights movement, home of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the Crusade for Justice, and the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, where the “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” laid out the struggle for Chicano liberation. And this Friday, the Chicano students of North High will use their voices and their power in a walkout in support of their teacher, Tim Hernández.
They’ve gentrified the North Side, erasing the deep roots of the Chicano movement. Now they’re trying to do the same to our classrooms by erasing Tim Hernández and other teachers like him who are trying to give dignity to students.
Manuel Aragon is a Latinx writer, director, and filmmaker from Denver, CO. He is currently working on a short story collection, Norteñas. His work has appeared in ANMLY. His short story, “A Violent Noise,” was nominated for the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Twitter: @Spacejunc