A Next Generation Tool to Tackle Denver’s School-to-Prison Pipeline

Members of Padres and Jovenes Unidos with Denver Public Schools Officials

By Jason Q. Sinocruz and Oscar Lopez


For more than a decade, the organized youth and parents of Denver’s Padres and Jóvenes Unidos, in partnership with Advancement Project, have been at the forefront of the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline.  Our work has resulted in groundbreaking national models such as one of the nation’s most progressive student codes of conduct, passage of Colorado’s Smart School Discipline Law, and a first-of-its-kind Intergovernmental Agreement limiting the role of police in Denver Public Schools (DPS).  These efforts have resulted in dramatic reductions in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement, especially for students of color.  Last year, we documented our story, key successes, and lessons learned in the seminal report Lessons in Racial Justice and Movement Building:  Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Colorado and Nationally.

We know that passing important public policies like these is tough, but ensuring they are implemented presents an even bigger challenge.  As a result, starting in 2010-11 our Jóvenes youth have led joint accountability meetings with DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg where we evaluated the district’s overall performance, graded its progress, and agreed on key next steps.  We since repeated the same process in 2011-12 and 2012-13.  Through this annual process, we have seen good results, but have also learned a few key lessons:

  1. We are making headway, but progress is uneven across schools in the Denver public school system;
  2. To be effective, it is imperative to develop tools to measures racial disparities and their impact;
  3. There is a direct parallel between school discipline data and school climate, and academic achievement.

This week Padres and Jóvenes Unidos unveiled the 2013-14 Denver Community Accountability Report Card, a next generation tool to tackle Denver’s school-to-prison pipeline.  This report card is particularly noteworthy for several reasons:

  1. The report card’s data and analysis is far more sophisticated than its predecessors or any other similar report in the field.  For the first time, we are providing robust data on all 185 schools in DPS, allowing us to analyze which schools are progressing best and faring worst.
  2. We are introducing two new metrics to help us tackle racial disparities: 1) the “School Racial Disparity Impact,” which allows us to measure the additional harm faced by students of color due to racial disparities; 2) the “District Inequality Contribution” which determines how much a school is contributing to overall racial disparities.
  3. We are taking a holistic view of the school-to-prison pipeline by juxtaposing it with key school facts, school climate indicators, and measures of academic attainment.

This tool truly is next generation not only for our work but the school-to-prison pipeline movement.  For many years, advocates on the ground have been seeking answers to specific questions about the school-to-prison pipeline in their schools such as:

Using this new tool, Padres and Jóvenes Unidos can finally answer these key questions, which makes our work better, stronger, and more targeted.  This is an incredible tool for our movement, and we are proud to be the first to debut it.  We also hope that other communities across the country will study this report and use it in their own communities as a way of strengthening both their local campaigns and our broader national movement.  The report also reiterates the importance of youth organizing and voice as a way of serving as a conscience of the community.  Our work would not be as genuine and compelling without tying back to student and community experience on the ground.

Jason Q. Sinocruz is a Staff Attorney and Oscar Lopez is a Skadden Fellow Staff Attorney with the national racial justice organization, Advancement Project. You can follow Jason on Twitter at @Sinocruz and Oscar at @Olopez129