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?

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.