When Denver Public Schools pulled the plug on their contract for the 2015-2016 school year, the Escuela Tlatelolco board of directors could not replace the lost revenue with new donors. As a result, the school is closing and their Northwest Denver building is on the market.
Born in the tumultuous Civil Rights era by Chicano icon, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, Tlaltelolco has been both training ground for scores of activists and symbol of the movement itself. The impact on alumni was profound. When Corky’s son Rudy Gonzales heard of the closing, he lamented on Facebook, “At Escuela Tlatelolco I was: a student, a teacher, a boxer, a folkloric dancer, an actor, an author, a poet, a writer, a journalist, a publisher, a photographer, a dark room developer, a silk screen operator and button maker, a printer, an auto mechanic, a football player, an architect, an aviator, an explorer, an adventurer, a rancher, a farmer…” Now the Executive Director of Servicios de la Raza, Gonzales lists a dozen more roles he played at the school and credits the school community for making him what he is today.
Over the years, Escuela Tlatelolco served students from early childhood education through high school. The school was one of several sites offering preschool to 4 year-olds through funding made available through the Denver Preschool Program. Many of their high school students were also enrolled in college classes, earning college credit before graduating.
Now the building on 29th and Federal sits idle, awaiting potential buyers flying in from out of town to inspect the increasingly valuable parcel of land. Proceeds will be first used to pay down debt accumulated to keep the school going when the relationship with DPS ended.
According to a press release, “…the Board of Trustees and Principal Nita Gonzales have made the difficult decision to close the school effective July 1st, 2017” due to “unforeseen financial circumstances.” The organization has held successful and well known fundraisers each year – Champions of Change in the spring and Spirit of Tlatelolco in the fall - but the contributions haven’t been enough to bridge the financial gap.
The board hints at a potential rebirth, citing “time to reboot and to continue to explore avenues to have a business model that is sustainable.” In the meantime, Principal Nita Gonzales and her team have focused on placing former students in new schools that fit their needs and finding alternate employment for teachers and staff. “The board is dedicated to honoring obligations and ensuring a smooth transition for the children,” said Board Trustee, Jesse Ogas. Board Chair, Camila Lara echoes Ogas’ sentiment, “We will do all we can to help ensure the success of our students, and will maintain communication with staff, family and stakeholders during the coming weeks.”
After 46 years of operation, the educational product of the Crusade for Justice has accumulated a record of education grounded in social justice. The Tlatelolco web site still lists the school as a contract school of Denver Public Schools citing their push for academic excellence but also “cultural pride, confidence and developing leadership among Latino youth.” “Escuela Tlatelolco has served over 7,000 children and families since its inception in 1970 and 72 percent of our graduates thrive in post-secondary education,” said Principal Gonzales. “Because of the support from the community, donors and funders, and with 90 percent volunteerism from parents, Escuela Tlatelolco has seen and adapted to many changes in its steadfast mission to provide its proven model of bilingual, experiential and social-justice-driven education. Tlatelolco thanks our community.”
The loss of Escuela has been felt well beyond the realm of education. Board member Jesse Ogas has been fielding calls from as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles from Chicanos who appreciated the role of Escuela as a symbol of social justice. The conversations with Tlatelolco supporters near and far inevitably lament the loss of one of the only educational institutions that incorporated social justice and cultural background.
Tlatelolco students have been known to take on social issues, sometimes integrated into the school curriculum. In 2014, Escuela students took to the streets to protest the grand jury decision not to indict police officers who shot Michael Brown. They also brought attention to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Students marched from their northside campus to downtown Denver where they joined other high school students from the Denver area. In another project, students worked on the Troy Chavez Memorial Peace Garden, a north Denver garden bringing attention to the need to decrease violence in the neighborhood. The Escuela Tlatelolco campus also served as a meeting place for community conversations, visiting scholars, and politicians.
Ogas noted, “Our graduates became leaders conscious of social issues whether climate change, immigration reform, seniors, or working for our own community and culture.” Ogas says people are heartbroken that a Latino pillar and iconic institution is shutting its doors. He calls Tlatelolco, “One of the last remaining bastions of the National Chicano Movement”. For the Board of Trustees, Ogas calls the entire process humbling and heartbreaking but also an opportunity to rethink their educational model and ensure financial stability for whatever form a new iteration of the school might take.
Board member Tony Garcia discusses the spirit of Tlatelolco as he reflects on the school closing, “We knew this was coming. It may take a few months but one thing our community is good at is rising from the ashes. If anything the Escuela Tlatololco taught re-birth as it was built on the memory of the horrific massacre of students activists in the Plaza de Tlatelolco in 1968. We have but to remember the words of the founder of the Escuela, Corky Gonzales, ‘I shall endure, I will endure’…” García continues, “The Escuela Tlatelolco taught us independence and pride. It taught us that we were the descendants of giants and it is on their shoulders that we stand! Que viva la Escuela Tlatelolco!”