Denver Public Schools lost its moral compass with the passing of district ombudsperson Sharon Bailey, 68, in December. A straightforward critic of the institutional racism she saw in the district, Bailey was also a compassionate leader who believed the system could change and was willing to help.
In 2016, Bailey authored a seminal report about the treatment of Black educators and students in Denver that served as a catalyst for the district’s current Black excellence efforts. “She knew all the research, all the data, all the negativity going on, but Dr. Bailey had this hope in her that things were going to be better, that we could do this,” said Vernon Jones Jr., a longtime Denver Public Schools educator and former school leader.
Three days before her death, she spoke at a meeting honoring outgoing Denver school board members. She urged the incoming board members to focus on three things: recognizing the history of institutional racism in Denver schools, changing mindsets so that creating equity becomes a collective responsibility, and sustaining those efforts through a mix of transparency and accountability.
Bailey grew up in Denver and attended schools in the northeast part of the city. Happy Haynes, a former school board member and city councilor who is now executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation, met Bailey when they were students at East High School in the late 1960s.
Haynes said she and Bailey advocated for the teaching of what was then called Afro-American history, an effort that resulted in the first such class being taught at East.
“Our advocacy was really all about, ‘We want our history. We want to be acknowledged,’” Haynes said.
After graduating from East, Bailey got her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and earned a doctorate degree in public administration from the University of Colorado. Her dissertation examined efforts to desegregate Denver schools.
Bailey witnessed those efforts firsthand. As a parent with children in Denver schools, she served on the Denver school board from 1988 to 1995, at times as the only member of color. She was on the board when a judge ended a decades-long court ordered program of busing students to schools in different neighborhoods to achieve racial integration.
Worried the district would lose sight of the importance of equity once busing ended, Bailey sponsored a resolution in 1995 declaring, in part, that the district give all students equal academic opportunities and that student discipline would be free from bias. The resolution passed unanimously, but the issues it aimed to address didn’t go away.
Her 2016 Bailey Report, commissioned by the district, found Black students were disciplined more harshly and had fewer resources dedicated to their academic success. It also found that Black educators felt isolated and passed over for promotions.
The report led to the creation of a districtwide African-American Equity Task Force, which made 11 recommendations, including that every school should be required to write a plan for how to better serve Black students and that curriculum should be culturally relevant.
“She always wanted us to know the history of Denver Public Schools and of Denver because a history unknown is a history repeated,” said former school board member and state Representative Jennifer Bacon.
Mentoring younger leaders was important to Bailey. “She knew one day the torch or the baton would be passed to us, and she wanted us to be ready,” Jones said.
After authoring the Bailey Report, Bailey took a job as a senior adviser for equity initiatives in Denver Public Schools before being appointed the district ombudsperson this year. The ombuds office was envisioned as a confidential space for employees to express their concerns. Bailey’s experiences made her “uniquely suited” to the role, the district said.
“In the old days, the revolutionary language was ‘working in the belly of the beast,’” Haynes said. “And that’s what Sharon was doing. Even though she was a critic, sometimes a harsh critic of the district and what was happening in public education generally, she was always willing to step in and help and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’”
Bacon, Jones, and others said they worry about how Denver Public Schools will fill the role Bailey played. Bailey’s husband, John, said she would want others to continue her work. “She would say, ‘Don’t mourn for me. Do more for kids and community.’”
In her last public remarks before the school board, Bailey herself issued a prescient call to action.
“There are lessons to be learned with the long view of the historical inequities in the school district. Genuine educational equity in our district and around the nation has been elusive. Where is it? How will we know it when we see it? What will it look like? What will it feel like? So I contend that we can’t simply believe in equity, fairness, and justice in education. We have to create it.”
Editor’s note: This story was edited for length. The original version can be found at www.chalkbeat.org. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.
Front Porch file photos by Steve Larson