Demonstrators scramble away from a cloud of tear gas used by police in the area of West Ninth Avenue and Fox Street on March 21, 1969.
Demonstrators scramble away from a cloud of tear gas used by police in the area of West Ninth Avenue and Fox Street on March 21, 1969. (Denver Post file photo)

They suffered years of segregation in Denver Public Schools, and endured racist remarks and what seemed a never-ending inequality for educational opportunity.

Then, on March 19, 1969, a group of 150 Latino students said enough was enough and walked out of their classrooms at West High School.

The students and adult civil-rights leaders who joined them on the steps of the school were met by helmeted police officers, a barrage of tear gas and handcuffs.

The clash, like many of the era, ended quickly, but some effects are still felt 40 years later.

The confrontation gave rise to a list of student demands. They sought diversity among district faculty and in curriculum; additional cultural training for teachers; outright dismissal of racist teachers; and bilingual study options within the school system.

Denver police and a crowd of about 300 people, many of them students, clash on the steps of West High School on March 20, 1969.
Denver police and a crowd of about 300 people, many of them students, clash on the steps of West High School on March 20, 1969. ( Denver Post file photos )

Four decades later, some progress has been made toward meeting those demands.

Curriculum has been modified and enhanced. DPS's teaching staff now is more than 14 percent Latino, compared with less than 1 percent in 1969. And funding inequality among schools has been balanced by state school-finance laws.

And yet, some say, with a dropout rate for Latinos that is more than double that of the state average, the gains should not be overstated.

The blowout

When students walked out of West High that spring morning, nobody expected violence.

The protesters said they were tired of a specific teacher who they said made a habit of weaving racist remarks into his social studies lectures.

Although the group that walked out represented only a tenth of the Chicano student body at West, and 6 percent of the school's total population, their message could not to be quieted.

Once outside, adult activists led by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, the head of the Chicano organization Crusade for Justice, joined student protesters.

Holding a bullhorn, Gonzales was trying to lead the protesters off school grounds and across the street to Sunken Garden Park when 15 Denver police officers began hitting people with billy clubs and shoving others to the ground, protesters claimed.

Officers later said they were acting in self-defense against punches thrown by protesters and by Gonzales, who was the first person arrested that day.

After the dust and tear gas settled, 25 people — including 12 juveniles — were detained. More than a half-dozen people were injured, including one officer.

Reba Yepes, a teen then and a bookstore owner in northwest Denver now, remembers her fear as the clash escalated.

"I mean, to be Maced, to have to run while trying to get out of the area just to keep safe, that was hard," Yepes said. "I don't think anyone believed that was going to happen."

The confrontation between protesters and police sparked a series of neighborhood protests in the days that followed. Many included clashes with police.

Rocks and glass bottles were thrown and vehicle windows were smashed. More people were arrested and more injuries — of both police and protesters — were reported. After a couple of restless days, protests subsided. Of the more than a dozen protesters who were arrested, only one was convicted.

Gonzales, the protest leader, was acquitted of assault charges by a mostly white jury.

Meanwhile, the demands of the students began to take shape.

March to 'equality'

Although DPS is a different school district now, it still fights many of the same battles.

The high school dropout rate of Latino students in DPS remains high today at 11.9 percent, or more than double the state average of 4.5 percent.

In DPS, more than 53.2 percent of students are Latino, 21.5 percent are African-American and 20 percent are white. Latino students have the lowest graduation rate, with fewer than 58 percent earning a diploma, compared with 75 percent statewide.

One of the West High protesters, Corky Gonzales' daughter Nita, who was 18 at the time of the walkout, has spent her life working to educate Denver's youth.

As principal of Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios in north Denver, a school her father helped found, Gonzales said that although progress has been made in DPS, there hasn't been enough to say the mission of the West High students has been accomplished. 

"For me, the question is have the DPS schools become more successful in addressing educational quality for Latino students? I think statistics bear me out when I say we are not doing as well as we could," she said.

Luis Torres, an English professor and deputy provost at Metropolitan State College of Denver, has worked closely with DPS over the years to help build a better curriculum model to reach Chicano and African-American students.

"We have progressed, certainly, there is no doubt about it," he said. "Two or three of the West High walkout students' list of demands had to do with what has become known as Chicano and Chicana studies, and that field of study, the textbooks on literature and art, are so much more available today than back then."

For example, the DPS Alma Project has built a large collection of curriculum that offers titles from Chicano and African-American authors, as well as music and art that demonstrate the uniqueness of different cultures, he said.

"Now, whether the district is using those materials with students — all students, not just the Chicano and African-American students — is another story," Torres said.

Torres said many of the Alma Project materials don't make it into classroom curriculum on a district-wide basis. "Having the materials and curriculum and putting it in front of the students are two different things."

Susana Cordova, DPS's executive director of teaching and learning, said the district is trying to incorporate materials from the Alma Project into classrooms district-wide for use when units on Chicano and African-American history are taught. But so far, the diversified curriculum is not mandatory reading for any classroom.

"There is a ton of research on this very topic, and particularly as students get older it becomes more important for them to feel they are relevant to what they are learning about. A big part of that is to see themselves in the curriculum," Cordova said.

DPS administrators also have stepped up efforts to attract a more diverse faculty and are expanding outreach campaigns to involve the community in the education of its youth.

"I think we have really improved our efforts around recruitment, but we are not where we need to be yet," Cordova said. "You don't have to be a person of color to teach people of color, but we also know that we need to have adequate support for teachers of all backgrounds to understand cultural and linguistic capability and best practices to support kids."

Challenges to overcome

For Yepes, who went on to college and has spent much of her life in education, including work with Head Start, the measure of progress is subjective.

"We were standing up for something we knew was right, to be proud of heritage and to demand more from (a system) that wasn't treating us fair," Yepes said. "There are still major challenges in front of our youth. In many ways, we have not come as far as we would have hoped."

Still, Yepes said she sees hope today for the lessons learned to live on.

"I think if anything can come from this (40th anniversary), it's that it serve as a reminder for people that giving back to our community through our work, through our time and through social justice is still as important today as it was back then," Yepes said. "We can still make a difference."

The story originally appeared Thursday in Viva Colorado, The Denver Post's Spanish-language publication.