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?

outside the box

How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Test scores were rising at Fuller Elementary School when Marilyn McCottrell took over in 2016. Yet troubling trends loomed behind the numbers.

“A lot of growth has been made,” said McCottrell, Fuller’s third principal in six years. “But that growth is not equal among students.”

She’s talking about black boys.

Black girls had driven most of Fuller’s academic improvement since the 2012-13 school year, when Chicago Public Schools handed management of the Bronzeville school over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which replaced the staff and principal in a turnaround effort. Black boys had improved much slower. They got most of the school’s Ds and Fs, and were much less likely than girls to meet or approach expectations for college readiness on state tests.

PARCC Scores

Last school year, McCottrell and her staff crunched the data and made changes at Fuller to shorten the gaps between boys and girls. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. As adults, they are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, or chronically unemployed. McCottrell believes what Fuller did, starting with painstakingly crunching data at the school, classroom and individual levels, could help other schools do better for black boys.

But she wants to be clear about something: Black boys don’t need to be “saved.”

“They need to be respected and appreciated for the differences and the unique gifts that they bring to the educational experience,” she said.

Black boys
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Fuller Elementary School students (from left)Tyrese Robinson-Guy, Terrell Johnson, and Jasean Waters at a community garden in Bronzeville.

 

Fuller, a Level 1 school in good standing, occupies the corner of St. Lawrence Avenue and 42nd Street in Bronzeville. Nearly all of its 370 students are black and come from economically disadvantaged households. When CPS turned over management of Fuller, it was seeking to lift up a school that had been on academic probation five consecutive years. Fuller still has far to go. In 2017, only 10 percent of Fuller students were ready for the next level compared to 26 percent across the school district and 34 percent across the state. Growth has been above average, but, as McCottrell said, that growth hasn’t been equal.

PARCC Scores

Last August, McCottrell arrived at Fuller for a training session for teachers bearing handouts packed with data on black boys’ grades and test scores. Middle school reading teacher Arlicia McClain was shocked to see the stark disparities.

“It made me buck up and say I need to talk to these students,” she said. “I need to know what is going on that is preventing them from improving. Is it me? Is it something going on with them individually? Is it something they are missing?”

Girls’ math scores had increased by 193 percent compared with 90 percent for boys since the turnaround effort began in the 2012-13 school year. The gender performance gap was even more striking in reading, where black girls’ scores jumped 140 percent compared with 31 percent for boys. 

As McClain and other teachers reflected on the numbers, they recounted their  own experiences in the classroom. For example, they could all name which students were removed from class the most for disciplinary reasons, and nearly all were black boys.

Arlicia McClain
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arlicia McClain
Fuller Elementary School teacher Arlicia McClain.

McClain realized she tended to call on black girls more in class.

McClain, African-American herself, wondered if she was favoring girls or failing to challenge boys enough, and how that could affect their learning. She resolved to push black boys more during her second year at Fuller.

She also left the session with another big take-away: A lot of boys who wouldn’t participate in classroom-wide sessions engaged more in small groups. Wedding the data to her realizations has helped the young teacher come up with tailored approaches for struggling students.

“Look at them as individuals who want to learn, but who sometimes need the individualized attention to do that,” McClain said. “If you really are about the progression of black youth, you’re going to need to be individual-focused, and you’re going to need the data to do it.”

In the 2016-17 school year, for the subjects of English language arts and math, about 70 percent of all Ds and Fs at Fuller went to black boys.

In the first quarter of last school year, McCottrell and her staff revised Fuller’s grading policies in hopes of addressing the disparity.

They switched to what McCottrell called “a more equitable grading scale,” where the lowest a student could score is a 50, adopted a “no-opt out policy” for homework, so children who failed to turn in their homework by deadline wouldn’t automatically get a zero and had to make up assignments, and allowed students to redo certain parts of failed tests and quizzes after reteaching.

By the end of the first quarter, the numbers of Ds and Fs had decreased by nearly half.

But black boys were still getting about the same percent of them as before.

So McCottrell decided to go in for a closer look.

“The numbers only tell part of the story,” she said.

McCottrell ate with boys in the lunchroom. She played flag football with them at recess. She sat with them in class, assisted their teachers, and taught her own lessons across grades and subjects.

She talked to the boys — and listened.

Jasean Waters, a black boy

Jasean Waters, 13, said he found it hard to focus on his school work.

Some distractions come from inside the classroom, like the bullies Jasean’s run into. Other distractions live in the world outside Fuller, like the gun violence whose victims are overwhelmingly black males.

“It’s a big struggle for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dying around here, so we gotta watch our backs, and when we’re walking home we feel like we’re unsafe, so we just focus on us being safe. It’s hard to focus on school.”

Boredom is another issue. Jasean said that he does well in math, but struggles sometimes with reading, and that his interest wanes with the lack of characters and authors he can relate to in school texts. That sounded familiar to McCottrell.  When she spoke with boys, she heard that school amounted to a seven-hour suppression of their personalities, interests, and voices — especially in reading and English classes, where black voices and black writers were missing.

“When kids have to pick a book for independent reading, they don’t relate to the characters in those classroom libraries,” she said. “It’s really hard coming to a class everyday when nothing relates to you.”

Parcc Scores

McCottrell decided to teach an optional African-American literature class every Friday during a weekly “intervention time” for students needing help in reading and math  About 17 boys showed up on the first day and read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose protagonist proclaims, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

McCottrell said many of the boys could expertly analyze the Harlem Renaissance classic, because they related to the idea of not being heard, seen, or understood for who they really are. The students offered examples like the portrayal of black men in the media.

“Many of them were saying things like, ‘I’m not a gangbanger, but this is what people think I am, because I’m dark or because I’m tall,’” she said. “They talked about it in the context of their teachers not knowing who they are.”

The class soon doubled as word of mouth drew others in. Jasean, a C student at the start of the class, joined them. He said he learned things he hadn’t been introduced to before. He read about segregation, speeches by Martin Luther King, and books like “Bud, Not Buddy,” about a 10-year-old black orphan during the Great Depression.

He said he rededicated himself to doing 100 minutes of reading a night and by the end of last school year earned an A in reading. He said he raises his hand to ask and answer questions in class more.

“It feels good,” he said.

Jasean’s grandmother, local school council member Regina Waters, praised McCottrell’s hands-on approach with students and her efforts to build one-on-one relationships with the boys.

“She’s upfront with the kids, and she knows all the kids by name which is unusual in the short time she’s been there,” Waters said.

McCottrell
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Marilyn McCottrell

Fuller’s boys closed the gap with girls in several ways over last school year.

They went from getting 70 percent of the Ds and Fs in English and math to 60 percent. In 2016-17, 46 percent of boys compared with 55 percent of girls were on track, meaning they earned a C or higher in reading and math and had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. In 2017-18, the percentage of boys on track increased by 23 percentage points compared to 19 points for girls. But sitting in her office at Fuller one day earlier this summer, McCottrell admitted something about her efforts for black boys.

“Nothing is solved,” she said.

Despite some progress last school year, when the 2018-19 school year stars, black boys at Fuller will still lag behind black girls. Forces outside of education like poverty, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination will continue to disadvantage black youth in ways that manifest in classrooms, where they land heaviest on black boys.

The odds aren’t yet even for black boys at McCottrell’s school, or at most schools across America. However, Mccottrell believes that educators learned a lot that they can build on down the line.

Next year, McCottrell said she’s urging teachers to incorporate more of the black experience and black voices into lesson plans and to increase small-group instruction.

Teachers are having more data conferences with McCottrell and with each other to guide instruction and target specific students’ needs. McCottrell is also promoting more social-emotional learning techniques and restorative practices rather than punitive approaches to discipline.

Marlene Aponte, AUSL’s director of coaching,  said that in some ways Fuller’s story resembles other schools’ in the years after turnarounds. After focusing on rigorous instruction and ambitious growth targets,“we’re starting to really hone in on some of the pieces that we may have overlooked, such as gender bias, gender equity, access in equity,” she said.

McCottrell wants her boys to have the tools to succeed. She knows there are some issues that her school won’t be able to solve.

But it’s a start.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.