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?


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”