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Asian American students and parents in Colorado call for more support in the classroom

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado

After a year in which Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced violent hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic, students and parents in two Denver metro area school districts are calling for schools to better support AAPI students.

Among their requests are more mental health services for AAPI students, more assistance for AAPI student alliances on campus, and the inclusion of more AAPI history in the curriculum. Colorado and the West have a rich Asian American history that too often isn’t told.

“The AAPI community has felt very invisible for a long time,” said Kai Vong, a graduating senior at Denver’s East High School who is Chinese American.

As part of a nationwide reckoning with racism sparked by high-profile cases of police brutality against Black men and women, schools have been grappling with how to teach about race. But it wasn’t until a mass shooting of Asian women in the Atlanta area in March that the rise in anti-Asian hate became part of the national conversation in a significant way.

In the wake of the shooting, two Colorado mothers began pushing for change in their respective school districts. In Denver Public Schools, former school board member Rachele Espiritu sent a letter to current board members advocating for the inclusion of more Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history in the curriculum.

Though the school board passed a resolution in October pledging to diversify the curriculum, AAPI history was left out, Espiritu said. Only Black, Indigenous, and Latino history were explicitly named in the district’s Know Justice, Know Peace resolution.

The Cherry Creek School District AAPI Parent Task Force, founded by Colleen Chan (third from left), presented the importance of incorporating AAPI history into schools’ curriculum to the CCSD School Board on April 12. Chan founded the task force to address the urgent needs of the Asian American community and provide a safe place for parents to connect.

“We ask the board to right this wrong by amending the resolution to include the only other marginalized racial group not mentioned,” Espiritu told the board.

In the neighboring Cherry Creek School District, parent Colleen Chan formed an AAPI parent task force to advocate for changes to the curriculum there. The group testified before the school board, which led to a meeting with top district administrators.

“Asian American stories are left out in education, in society, and we can’t separate that from the violence happening right now across the country,” Chan said.

Both districts have promised to make curricular changes, and spokespeople said the work is already underway. Carrie Olson, president of the Denver school board, said that Denver’s resolution was meant to be inclusive of all communities and that the board will “amend the existing resolution to make clear our intention in honoring AAPI history.”

“I do look forward to working with them and learning more about, ‘Where are the holes and the pieces the board can fill in?’” Olson said.

At a recent school board meeting, three Denver students who graduated in May testified along with Espiritu. They said they learned very little AAPI history in school.

Denver students Hannah Im, Kai Vong, and Aidan Reidy testify at a Denver school board meeting on May 20 along with former school board member Rachele Espiritu. Photo Credit: Chalkbeat Colorado.

Aidan Reidy, who attended North High School, said she learned about Denver’s historic Chinatown, located a century and a half ago in what is now lower downtown, from a Buzzfeed video. In 1880, a white mob attacked the community, killing one man, brutally beating others, and burning businesses.

Hannah Im, who attended DSST Montview High School, said Asian history was taught in her sophomore world history class through a white Eurocentric lens. “We did talk about Asian countries but in the way they were colonized by European countries,” Im said.

Reidy, Im, and Vong each founded an Asian American Pacific Islander student alliance at their respective high schools because none existed when they were freshmen. Im, who is Korean American, said she wants the district to help more schools start AAPI student alliances and help the alliances that already exist improve and grow.

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