teacher voices

Three teachers of color on what it was like to be wooed by Denver Public Schools

PHOTO: Courtesy Rachel Sandoval
Rachel Sandoval was recruited to teach in DPS.

In early March, Denver Public Schools spent three days wooing 15 top minority teaching candidates from Colorado and around the country to come teach in the Mile High City.

DPS called the event the Mile High Showcase. The goal? To help diversify the overwhelmingly white teaching staff in a district where 77 percent of students are children of color, the majority of them Latino.

The teaching recruits were flown to Denver, put up in a hotel and treated to school visits, a job fair, a pro basketball game, meals and meetings with local dignitaries.

But for the effort to truly succeed, DPS officials acknowledge the district will have to retain its teachers of color, not just recruit them. Retention rates for minority teachers are comparable to the rate for white teachers, according to district statistics.

This year’s showcase was the second the district hosted; the first took place last year. Of the 18 candidates invited to the inaugural event, 14 ended up teaching in the district.

However, three of them have since resigned, including one who left for a DPS charter school. Chalkbeat attempted to contact them but was unsuccessful.

But we did speak with three teachers who stayed, about everything from the recruitment process to their experience working in DPS. The teachers are:

Rachel Sandoval, a midlife career changer from Colorado. Sandoval, who is Latina, teaches second grade at Godsman Elementary School in southwest Denver.

Alexander Saldivar, a former Indianapolis private school teacher. Saldivar, who identifies as Afro-Latino, teaches language arts, social studies and English language development at Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver.

Nathan Thompson, a former Marine who worked in finance before becoming a public school teacher in Maryland. Thompson, who is Asian, teaches math at Emily Griffith High School, a downtown alternative school that serves students ages 17 to 20.

On why they wanted to work for DPS and how they were recruited:

All three applied to teach in DPS, had an initial screening interview and were invited by DPS to take part in the first-ever showcase last spring.

Sandoval said she was attracted to DPS because of its positive approach to biliteracy and teaching English language learners. A discouraging student-teaching experience in a suburban school made her value DPS’s philosophy even more.

One of the schools I was placed at, I asked the principal, ‘Can you tell me how you support our English language learners?’ And she said, ‘No, we don’t have those kinds of kids here.’ And I thought, ‘Did she just say “those kinds of kids?”’

Sandoval herself is bilingual. In her job application, she wrote about being the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who raised his family in California.

I grew up in a strawberry field. The school bus picked us up there. I can relate very well to immigrant children. We were that.

The older we got, my parents relied on us a lot to help with the fields. In order for us to play sports after school, other farm workers had to help my parents with their portion of the lot. I always felt like I need to give back to them.

Saldivar said he and his girlfriend wanted to leave the Midwest. He applied for teaching jobs in several western cities, including Denver.

They called me and said, ‘We’re going to have this thing. Do you want to come out?’ I said, ‘I can’t afford to go.’ They were like, ‘Oh, no. We got this.’ I’d never heard that before.

Nathan Thompson on DPS's Homework Hotline show.
Nathan Thompson.

Thompson said he was planning to move to Denver regardless, lured by his love of skiing and climbing. The showcase was “basically guaranteeing a job in some Denver public school,” he said.

It seemed like a good opportunity to set up interviews and explore the city some more. All the time I’d (previously) spent in Denver was driving past it to go to Breckenridge.

On what the showcase was like:

Saldivar called it lavish.

We went to Elway’s. … We met the mayor. … Honestly, it was pretty crazy.

A black Lincoln Town Car was waiting for Saldivar at the airport and took him straight to a diversity hiring fair at North High School, he said. He’d already been in touch with the principal of a school he was interested in, so he spent time at the fair talking to her. Even though he didn’t get that job, the principal connected him with others who were hiring.

I gave her a list of three schools I wanted. I got offers from all three schools.

At the time of the showcase, Sandoval had already interviewed for an open position at Godsman, where she’d done some of her student teaching. But she hadn’t secured it yet.

Part of it was, ‘Oh, I hope I get this job. But if not, there are other possibilities out there for me.’

Sandoval lives in Lakewood, so DPS didn’t put her up in the downtown hotel with the out-of-towners. But she made friends with one of them and ended up crashing in her room.

We went to a Rockies game, they took us out to dinner and we toured Denver to see what it’s like. … Everybody wanted to move (here) badly.

We ate it up because we know we’re not going to get this kind of treatment as teachers.

Thompson had also done his research on Denver schools and knew where he might like to teach. Emily Griffith was his first choice, he said. He was inspired to teach in high-needs schools after realizing in college that his classmates from affluent East Coast communities had had educational advantages he didn’t have growing up in small-town Alaska.

It’s important for me to teach in an area that has a need for it.

They made a point to ask me if there were schools I was interested in and reach out to them for me. It seemed like the process was getting to know the schools and what they were all about.

They said, ‘Let us know when your interview is.’ And they set up an Uber to bring us there. Finding a job was the top priority.

On their first year of teaching in DPS:

The job is demanding, the teachers said. And the pay is modest.

Sandoval: I got my first paycheck in September and cried because I was like, ‘How am I going to live off of this?’ When you take the amount of hours I was working divided by my salary, it’s less than minimum wage. I absolutely thought about quitting.

In October, Sandoval hit a breaking point. She’d been routinely working from 6 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., when the cleaning crew would kick her out. She said she felt she needed to pour every ounce of herself into her new job, but she was becoming burned out.

I sat in my car and I bawled. For 30 minutes: ‘This is crazy. I can’t do this. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know if I’m an effective teacher. I don’t know if I’m doing it right.’ I really wanted to leave.

My principal heard about my moment and she pulled me in. She said, ‘You gotta rein this in. You gotta find a work-life balance or you won’t survive.’ The janitor has held me accountable. I have to leave by 6 or she’ll kick me out. She’d say, ‘You have 15 minutes. Pack your stuff and go.’

Our job is literally never done. There is always something to do.

Alexander Saldivar.
Alexander Saldivar.

These days, Sandoval has a set schedule: she’s home by 6 p.m., doesn’t do work past 7:30 and doesn’t do work at all on Sundays. It’s helping, she said.

Saldivar said he also felt squeezed at the beginning of the year. But he had the support in his building to rearrange his schedule to allow for more planning time.

Expectations are very high. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a heavy workload. That’s something that all teachers have to manage. But there’s a level of micromanagement I had never experienced before.

The high cost of living in Denver has also been difficult, Saldivar said. He argues that the issue isn’t unique to teachers; it’s about ensuring everyone who works in the city can live here.

The only way I can live here is because I have a live-in partner.

I can’t think about having kids or owning a house.

Thompson said he’s also been surprised by the prices in Denver.

I did think it was going to be cheaper here, but it’s the same as outside D.C. That could have been explained better. I didn’t have a clear expectation before I came.

On what it’s like to be a teacher of color in Denver and why it’s important:

Sandoval said her school has a diverse staff and she feels supported in that way. She’s seen the impact that having a Latina teacher has had on her students of color.

Not to take anything away from our white co-workers, but it’s different. … When I step in my classroom, I can tell my babies, ‘I’ve been there. I know how hard you have to work but you can do it. I know you can.’

She points to an example involving one of her students who comes from a traumatic background. It took months before the little girl trusted her, Sandoval said. But she eventually started talking in class. And recently, she let Sandoval pull out her loose tooth.

I asked her, ‘So you didn’t like me in the beginning of the year. What happened?’ She said, ‘You look like me.’ She said, ‘You talk like my mom.’

Saldivar also feels a connection to his students. But his experience has been different.

I’ve felt isolated. I am the only Latino in our building that is a teacher that is outside janitorial and cafeteria services and male. How do we say that we’re committed to dismantling racist systems, how can we say that we’re devoted to equity, when my kids show up and I’m the only one?

all clear

Newark’s North Star Academy charter schools are cleared after discipline policy investigation

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

New Jersey’s largest charter-school network did not violate state regulations when it disciplined students with disabilities, according to a state investigation triggered by an advocacy group’s complaint.

The complaint, which was based on parent reports and state data, alleged that North Star Academy charter schools suspended students with disabilities for minor infractions, causing them to miss class and be separated from their general-education peers in violation of federal disability law.

After interviewing North Star officials and reviewing school documents, state investigators concluded that the network of 13 charter schools followed the appropriate procedures when disciplining students with disabilities, which includes continuing to provide required educational services after suspending students.

“North Star was able to demonstrate compliance with the procedural regulations for disciplining students with disabilities,” according to the Oct. 15 investigation report.

The report does not address North Star’s suspension rate for students with disabilities, which the complaint alleged was among the highest in the state during the 2016-17 school year. The complaint, using state data, said the rate was 29 percent; North Star said it was 22 percent. The report called that data “informational” but said it was outside the one-year timeframe of the investigation.

Esther Canty-Barnes, director of the Education & Health Law Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, which filed the complaint in August, said the report did not delve into all the issues raised in the complaint. For instance, it called for an investigation into how North Star’s special-education students are affected by suspensions and how often they are forced to repeat grades.

“It only addressed whether the charter school followed procedures,” Canty-Barnes said, “which is a very limited scope of what we asked them to do.”

North Star serves nearly 5,000 students at its Newark sites. Founded in 1997, it is one of New Jersey’s top-performing charter-school networks. Part of the national Uncommon Schools organization, the Newark campuses are known for their rigorous academics and strict discipline policies.

About 9 percent of North Star students had disabilities last school year, according to the report — just over half the rate in Newark Public Schools, where it was 16 percent.

Thirty-eight North Star students with disabilities served 10 or more days of suspension during that 2017-18 school year, the report said. The network gave in-school suspensions to students who disrupted class or refused to do work. It issued out-of-school suspensions to students who used threatening language, stole staff property, or displayed “defiance and aggressiveness.”

The investigators found that North Star administered the suspensions properly. For instance, records indicated that schools held legally required meetings to determine whether students’ disabilities contributed to the behavior that triggered suspensions. The schools also came up with plans to help de-escalate the students’ behavior or give them “break time” to refocus or talk to a school staffer.

When North Star did suspend students with disabilities, it made sure they continued to receive their legally mandated support services, the report said. When students were suspended for 10 or more consecutive days, North Star sent teachers to the students’ homes to provide instruction.

Barbara Martinez, a North Star spokeswoman, said the network takes “great pride” in the education that it offers students with disabilities. Those students perform in the 75th percentile or above on the state PARCC tests, she added.

“We are glad to have the NJ DOE official confirmation after their thorough investigation that these baseless and biased allegations are unfounded and that North Star is fully compliant with all procedures surrounding discipline for students with disabilities,” she said in a statement.

Michael Yaple, a state education department spokesman, said the agency’s special-education office does not have any other open investigations into North Star. He added that complainants can appeal the office’s decisions.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights currently has three open investigations into North Star’s special-education practices that were launched in July 2015, according to the agency’s website. Martinez, the North Star spokeswoman, said the agency “fully investigated” a complaint from 2015 involving one student and made no determination “that we are aware of.” The agency did not immediately respond to a request for information about the investigation.

Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said that some schools’ strict discipline policies deter families of children with disabilities from enrolling. She added that even though North Star appears to be following special-education laws, it still serves a relatively small share of students with disabilities and has had a high suspension rate.

“It does raise questions as to why that’s the case,” she said, “and what could they do to increase access and success.”



down ballot

A guide to the critical education race you’ve never heard of

The Democratic and Republican candidates for the Michigan Board of Education (from right), Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone. Seven candidates from other parties are running.

It’s no secret that school closures are on the ballot in Michigan this November, with candidates for the state’s highest office taking different positions of that hot-button issue. But the gubernatorial race isn’t the only one on the ballot with sweeping implications for the state’s schools.

The race for the Michigan Board of Education will appear at the bottom of the ballot, but the winners stand to make a major impact on the lives of thousands of students. They will help shape state policy on issues like school closures, social studies standards, and the level of reading skill below which students will have to repeat the third grade.

The board was added to Michigan’s constitution when the state’s founding document was rewritten in 1963. It was designed to keep day-to-day politics out of the staid world of education policy, with each member of the eight-person panel insulated from electoral challenges by a lengthy eight-year term.

Much of its power lies in the single task of hiring a state superintendent, who will likely play a major role in deciding whether to close low-performing schools, not to mention in setting the standards for attendance and academic performance that could be used to close them.

That position is currently vacant, and the education department has said it won’t be filled until next year. That means whoever is elected to fill the board’s two open seats will play a crucial role in picking Michigan’s top education official.

The selection of the superintendent “is the single most important decision for the next year,” said Judy Pritchett, a Democrat and former chief academic officer at the Macomb County Intermediate School District who is among the 11 candidates running for a seat on the board.

Controversy over school closings exploded last year, when Gov. Rick Snyder used an executive order to assume control of the office responsible for closing schools from the state superintendent and ordered the office to close 38 low-performing schools, most of them in Detroit. The move prompted a public outcry, and Detroit’s main district sued to stop the closures. Snyder backed away from the plan, eventually handing the power to close schools back to Brian Whiston, then the state superintendent, who took the threat of closures off the table at least temporarily.

But Whiston’s death in May reopened the issue, leaving the future of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools in the hands of the person selected to replace him.

Snyder’s short-lived takeover of an office previously overseen by the board was just the latest sign that the board’s power has waned in recent years. For most of its history, the board’s recommendations on the state budget and learning standards were heeded by the legislature, says John Austin, a former board president who lost a re-election bid in 2016.

In recent years, however, politicians have become more willing to wade into education issues, and the legislature has increasingly ignored the board’s advice, making clear the limits of its power, Austin said.

The board “has few direct controls over policy,” said Austin. “It’s mainly policy recommendations and exhortations.”

The board’s scope is still too broad for some. The new state superintendent — and by extension the board — are responsible for technical decisions about state policy that will have enormous implications for students across the state. For instance, the superintendent would have the power to decide what it means for a third-grader to read on grade level, which will determine the number of third-graders held back under Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law when it goes into effect in the  2019-2020 school year. The law, which Democrats have pledged to alter if they gain power in November, requires that third-graders be held back if they can’t read on grade level.

The state superintendent is also responsible for creating measures of student growth and chronic absenteeism, which would likely factor into a statewide A-F grading system for schools if the legislature succeeds in creating one.

What’s more, the board itself is tasked with approving state learning standards, giving them the final say in an ongoing controversy over an attempt by conservative lawmakers to remove references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and climate change from state social studies standards. The standards serve as a guide to local districts when they adopt new curriculum.

An education commission assembled by Snyder proposed that members of the board be appointed by the governor. Lawmakers followed up on the proposal, making attempts in recent years to eliminate the board and allow the governor to directly appoint the state superintendent, but those proposals have failed to win the votes they’d need to amend the constitution.

Speaking Wednesday night before a few dozen education officials in Lansing during a candidate forum, live-streamed online, the four major-party candidates insisted that they would honor the board’s history of remaining above the political fray. (Watch video of the forum here).

The Democratic and Republican candidates for Clockwise from top left: Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone.

Tami Carlone, an accountant and Republican education advocate who wrote a bill that would have forbidden Michigan schools from using the learning standards known as the Common Core, said: “politics is a huge part of the problem in education.”

Yet the candidates laid out starkly different visions for the future of Michigan’s schools.

Richard Zeile, a one-term Republican incumbent from Detroit who has spent his career running private Christian schools, said he has pushed to shutter struggling schools.

“I felt that most of them should have been closed,” he said.

Carlone, whose website promises to “hold people accountable for the failures, or our schools will never be excellent.”

By contrast, Pritchett and Tiffany Tilley, a former political director of the Democratic party in the 14th congressional district in the Detroit area, said they oppose school closures.

All four candidates insisted that experience is the main quality they are looking for in a potential superintendent, but Carlone made clear that she would also look for “someone who would push the goals in my platform.”

As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the candidates are posting their platforms online and attending forums where they explain their views. But they understand that because few voters know their names, the race will likely be determined at the top of the ticket. The benefits of a strong election for either party will likely trickle down to the members of that party in the school board race.