Denver High School Students Tackle Issues Facing Their Community

AP Human Geography students at Manual High School in Denver have been focusing their learning on the causes and consequences of gentrification and urban renewal throughout the city.

This project was initiated as a way to engage students and ended as a community-wide project that brought people from across all economic and racial groups together to discuss this issue. The study of gentrification empowered students, their families, and their community and allowed students to become the leaders of this discussion and not bystanders in the process.

Before this project, I never knew what gentrification was or that it was even a thing, but now I know that not only is it important but it is something that has been happening to my family for years.
— Denne, Grade 10

Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, and the population boom is causing the displacement of minority residents because wealthier residents are looking to settle near the many amenities that Denver offers, causing income-based displacement.

Many of the students in my course were affected by gentrification so the project's goal was to give them agency to collect and analyze anecdotal data and present their findings on the impact of gentrification on minority populations throughout Denver, including their own stories.

It's important to name gentrification

As a teacher and a community member in the surrounding neighborhood, I was inspired to give kids a voice in a process that typically ignores those being forced out due to changing economic and demographic trends. I wanted to help my students name the process of gentrification, make meaning for themselves in context, and present stories and data from community members who are watching their neighborhood change and disappear before their eyes.

The project had many intentional stages.

  • First, students were asked to define gentrification and urban renewal and put it in their context and experience.
  • Second, students became experts on urban design principles and learned the root causes for the cycle of economic and demographic shifts in urban areas.
  • Third, students were asked to collect, analyze, and explain anecdotal data they gathered from residents in the community who were being displaced by gentrification in their historic communities.
  • Lastly, the students presented their findings to local community groups and leaders using their final products to speak their truth and express their ideas.

The gentrification work done by students gained so much momentum that the community began asking for more information and insight from the students. Young adults are often left out of the conversation and are difficult to access outside of teachers and once there was a taste of this work, the community wanted much more.

In a second iteration of the project titled "Altering the Eastside," students created podcasts that told their stories of gentrification and displacement. Their stories were published on a Facebook page so the community could listen to their stories of how losing their neighborhood, in many ways, meant losing their identity.

This project, the student voice, and the community engagement created pride, agency, and power in a group of students who initially did not know that gentrification was happening to them but now know that is a process that they can speak into and a change that they can approach as informed and empowered stakeholders.

Top image: Students in Chris DeRemer's AP Human Geography class discuss the impact of gentrification on their community. Photo by Jaclyn.zubrzycki from Chalkbeat Colorado.

About the Author
Chris DeRemer is a high school social studies teacher in Denver.

May 3, 2016