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?

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”