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Student-driven Change through Social Justice Projects

May. 2, 2018
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“They don’t know how it feels to be me.”

That was the opening statement from a DCIS- Baker (Denver Center for International Studies) student submitting a plan– along with his Challenge 5280 team– to tackle the racial division at his school through a series of tactics that drive home the importance of cultural competence.

The goal of the Student Board of Education’s Challenge 5280 is to make DPS a better place, and specifically, for students to make our schools a better place to learn. Every student board challenge team identifies an issue within their school and implements a social justice policy that tackles an issue of equity, and ultimately improving our schools for all students.

Since 2013, DPS has invested in a number of priority initiatives to increase Student Voice and Leadership opportunities for students, including The Student Board of Education (SBOE), Challenge 5280, Young African-American Latinx Leaders (YAALL), as well as other events and programs. These leadership opportunities are part of the district’s commitment to preparing all students for college, careers and life through the lens of civic leadership.

The Student Board’s Challenge 5280 social justice policy campaigns span the course of nine months and begin with students being asked to engage with community members, organizations, and companies to brainstorm root causes, strategies, solutions and policy implementation.

From there, students thoughtfully prepare strategies to address the social justice issue, and implement and launch a policy campaign at their schools. They’re also asked to think through and include sustainable approaches for their policy, that is; develop ways their goals can continue to be met and maintained through ongoing efforts, and likely, a culture shift at their schools.

“I first joined the Student Board of Education so I can influence and plan events at my school, but then I learned about Challenge 5280 and its purpose, and was interested in helping make a real change. With our team’s project, we hope to eliminate implicit biases within our school, and in doing so, we hope that our broader community — including families, students and even the neighborhood — feels more welcome the moment they walk in our door at school events,” said Loi, a Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy student.

That’s the kind of thinking and energy the curriculum incubates — it’s based on the notion of turning curious minds into eager and driven students, and students into strong, influential civic leaders. It’s at the core of Student Voice and Leadership programming, growing students to lead and create change their communities, long after they’ve graduated high school.

With support, training and guidance from community leaders, no issue is too big for students to engage and lead. And why should it be?

“In my culture, young people represent the past, present and future of our society. They represent the past through our ancestors’ dreams, they are present leaders with strong, brilliant, creative minds and they will lead us into our future. They are the voices of today and the experts of their own educational experience and career, and their voices should be at the forefront of every decision-making body because it is students’ futures at stake,” said Solicia E. Lopez, DPS Student Voice and Leadership Manager.

She continued, saying, “Young people are the vision of change. SBOE Challenge 5280 provides students the opportunity to discover, explore and grow their innate leadership skills and apply them to real life challenges and lead the change that they want to see. I encourage all of my students to make leadership their sport!”

The high-quality work covers a wide range of topics from the 16 teams, including:

  • South High School students submitted a proposal for a comprehensive health class for 10th graders across the district. “It is unacceptable that we don’t have one now. It’s really important that we provide social, emotional and physical health, peer pressure, substance abuse, sexual assault education and more to students,” said Colleen Campbell.
  • West Campus students tackled an underlying issue that divides their school: two schools on a shared campus — West Early College and West High School — and better ways to partner as one cohesive unit. Their tactics center around what they can do to encourage more communication between parents, students and staff, and have led to a new Parent-Teacher-Student-Organization (PTSO).
  • In the case of Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS-Baker) students and their “From Muted to Magnified” project, they so eloquently pointed out several areas of racial and cultural division in the community, and brought forth real solutions.
  • Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) pushed for greater awareness and access to the many college and career paths available at their school — including options for AP classes, Concurrent Enrollment, Early College, CareerResidency and more. “There is a lack of diversity in which pathways students select. Our project is called Divergence because we’re encouraging students to diverge from the path they might feel is “expected” of them, but instead to research and find one that best fits the one for their career goals,” said Lauryn Bracken.

Teams went through rounds of presentations with follow-up questions from a distinguished panel of community judges. While all teams left as winners due to their ability to inform the community while implementing change, the following teams placed in the competition:

  • People’s Choice: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College
  • 1st Place: Thomas Jefferson High School
  • 2nd Place: Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD)
  • 3rd Place: Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy
  • Best Exhibit: Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS-Baker)

Congratulations to all 16 teams for their exceptional projects! Research shows, enhanced student voice leads to greater academic successes and engagement in school communities. Learn more about these opportunities for students at

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