Why Student Voices Matter in Denver

By Christian Esperias

When our youth leaders gather for an annual planning retreat, conversations about the opportunity gap, college readiness, and the lack of representation in schools take center stage. Back in 2018 in Denver, our members found that many of these systemic problems all had an outsized impact on mental health. Both the mental health damage these problems cause young people and the lack of resources provided to them were highlighted as key issues, and throughout 2019 our membership began advocating for Denver Public Schools to have a mental health expert on every campus.

 While we are committed to solving problems like the opportunity gap and the lack of equitable funding, we believe the system must simultaneously address the mental health challenges each of those unique barriers create. We believe that school systems must act dynamically to solve these complicated problems. 

With some significant successes last year (including finding school board members as co-sponsors to our recommendations), we still wanted to learn more about the power of young people and their demands and experiences among the greater Denver community.

This past winter, we conducted focus groups with many different adults to learn how our mental health campaign compared to other popular education policy recommendations. 

While there were several fascinating learnings from the focus groups, three were the most concrete. 

  1. Mental Health is the most popular policy change. This rose to the top among a field of eleven others, which included increasing teacher pay, college readiness, and equity funding. 
  2. Funding. Denverites believe that the main hurdle to achieving an equal and high-quality education system is found in school funding.
  3. College readiness vs. Critical thinkers. There were two schools of thought around the goals of a high quality public education system. One group wants a public education system to prepare young people for a career. In contrast, the second group wants an education system to produce thought-leaders of the future, with less of a focus on career and college readiness, and more focus on being well-rounded and a critical thinker. 


Perhaps the most dangerous take-away from the focus groups came when we asked participants how to create the education system young people deserve; 

These adults threw their hands up and responded, “I am not sure we can.” 

Yet, two years before these focus groups, our student members not only identified the problem adults are just now raising as their primary concern, but also provided concrete solutions to fixing the failed education system. 

We know young people rarely have been extended an invitation to not only identify the issues, but design solutions to the problems that directly impact them. This may be because so many previous interventions have failed. 

Our Turn believes that our peers, siblings, and communities deserve more than a well-intentioned shrug of the shoulder. We know if we want to dismantle the cycle of poverty and ensure educational equity for all students, we cannot allow defeated adults to continue the status quo, which picks winners and losers based on income and skin color.. This is why we at Our Turn are furthering our investment in young people. They are proximate to the issues, and bring a solutions-oriented mindset with fresh ideas on solving complex issues in our educational system.

We will continue our mission to ensure those currently in, and recent products of, the K-12 system are not only heard but have decision-making power when it comes to creating an educational system that serves all. 


If you are interested in learning more about our movement, please contact us at [email protected]