Denver students, parents protest after beloved Latino teacher’s contract not renewed

Daniela Urbina-Valle went through Denver Public Schools without ever seeing a teacher who looked like her — Brown skin, Latino roots.

That is, until the 18-year-old walked into Tim Hernández’s North High School classroom.

Urbina-Valle was in Hernández’s “Latinos in Action” class and his English class. She participated in the after-school club Hernández advised, Somos Mecha, which focused on providing food to hungry students. She felt empowered reading poetry she wrote in his class at the state Capitol building to legislators who listened to Hernández’s students on gentrification, culture and Northside neighborhood pride. He helped turn their poems and photography into a book sold to raise money for the school’s community fridge.

“He taught me that I’m not just another statistic,” Urbina-Valle said. “And being in his regular English class doesn’t mean I’m not just as good as kids in AP English class — that I’m just as good and worth it as white kids. I’ve never seen a teacher that is Brown who comes from my community. A teacher that relates to my struggles as someone who has experienced racism. He taught me to speak up about injustices and say what I believe. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Leadership at North High School, located in Denver’s Northside at 2960 Speer Blvd., decided last week not to renew Hernández’s teaching contract for the next school year, meaning the early-career teacher who lives a few blocks from the school where he teaches will not be returning.

Students at the school are so outraged over the beloved teacher’s departure that a group of them lined the hallways Wednesday — some with signs — chanting in support of Hernández. A school walkout is planned Friday. And parents are asking school leadership to reconsider.

Hernández wants his job back next year.

“I don’t just teach here 40 hours a week,” Hernández said. “I’m the only Latino teacher in the school who’s from here and the only Latino teacher who still lives here. I spent a lot of time in my life doing everything I could to advocate for my community, but because of the discretion of a white man who is uncomfortable because of the ways I challenge him on diversity and inclusion issues, I was labeled divisive, aggressive, attacking. Because of that, I was not offered a job that was rightfully mine.”

Scott Pribble, a spokesperson for Denver Public Schools, said the district would not discuss specifics around Hernandez’s situation because it was a personnel matter.

In 2020, Hernández was hired at North High School as a traditional teacher. The following school year, Hernández said he was told the school didn’t have enough money to retain him as a traditional teacher but would hire him for an associate teaching position — a role that paid less, and was under a one-year contract.

Hernández took the role, knowing many of his colleagues transitioned from associate teaching positions to become traditional teachers.

This year, Hernández interviewed with North High’s school leadership team for an open teaching position for the next school year. The English department at North wrote and signed a letter of support to keep Hernández at the school.

Hernández said he was told shortly after his interview that he did not interview well and his contract would not be renewed.

North High social studies teacher Elizabeth Campbell said the process did not look anything like her recent transition from associate teacher to traditional teacher.

“In my experience, going from associate to traditional, it was a formality and I didn’t have a full interview,” Campbell said. “I had the job before I walked into the interview and that was the experience of many associate teachers who transitioned into a traditional role. Seeing what’s going on with Tim’s hiring process has puzzled me.”

Hernández said he and Principal Scott Wolf — who gets the final say over hiring — had clashed on diversity and equity issues during Hernández’s elected position on the school’s leadership team. For example, Hernández said he disagreed when school leadership chose to lock the school bathrooms during certain times of the day, advocating for students dealing with “menstrual crises” or other bodily needs. He said he also pushed back when school leadership asked teachers to “police the color of students’ clothing.”

Wolf did not return a request for comment about the situation.

Pribble confirmed DPS was facing a teacher shortage this year. “If a teacher is not selected for the specific position for which they applied, they are still encouraged to apply for other teaching opportunities within the district,” he said.

However, Hernández maintains that teaching about Latino issues in a predominantly Latino school — more than 60% of North High School students are Latino — where he lives is important for the Northside community.

North High School parent Manuel Aragon agrees. Aragon has two kids attending North next year who hoped to be in Hernández’s classes.

“As people of color, our voices are wanted in spaces as long as our voices align with the over-arching philosophies of those spaces, and any time we start to butt against or question, we’re quickly exited from those spaces,” Aragon said. “I would ask for school leadership to wrestle with this. I’d love leadership to hear that if they truly want to do DEI work, if they want to be innovators in culturally relevant teaching spaces, you have to have leaders like Tim in the classroom.”

On Wednesday, students held a sit-in at North advocating for Hernández to remain at their school. Video from the demonstration showed students lining the hallways chanting, “Who do we want? Mr. Hernández! Where do we want him? North High!”

Urbina-Valle said she will use the newfound confidence Hernández helped cultivate in his classroom to fight for his place at North.

“Just because someone rocks the boat and disrupts messed-up systems in this school doesn’t mean they’re disposable,” Urbina-Valle said. “He has made such an impact in the time he’s been here. If he has an opportunity for 20 or more years at this school, he can do much, much more.”

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