For her first job out of college, Millie Barsallo became a teacher in one of Denver’s most challenging public schools. She wound up facing two of the most profound questions of her young existence: Could she change the lives of 40 boys and girls? Or would the school change her?
This article was a finalist for the 2011 Livingston Award for Young Journalists. It was also a finalist for a 2011 City and Reginal Magazine Award in the civic journalism category. It will be included in the book Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists to be published in the fall of 2012.
Cigarette butts dot the asphalt and a beer bottle lies smashed on the sidewalk outside Cole Arts & Science Academy on Denver’s northeast side. A haze climbs from a grass-and-dirt field where children play soccer; nearby, young women in tight jeans push baby strollers past the dated American sedans that line the streets. A worn Ford truck is parked on Franklin Street, with signs asking for scrap metal lashed to the sides.¶ Millie Barsallo, a 22-year-old, first-year teacher at Cole, a preschool-through-eighth-grade public school, rolls past the Ford and turns into the school’s near-empty parking lot on this mid-August morning. The engine of her father’s 1998 Toyota Camry whines to a stop. Barsallo steps onto the asphalt. Ribbons of sunlight cut through the maple and pine trees that surround the school. She shields her eyes. It’s a few days before school begins for the 615 students here, and Barsallo has a sick look on her face. “I think I’m about to freak out,” she says.
She heads for the school’s side entrance. In the shadows, the area looks like a dead-end, open-air alley. Three stories of red brick and glass rise around her. A security camera the size of a baseball looms over the metal doorway. Barsallo pushes a button on the intercom.
“It’s Ms. Barsallo,” she says.
She waits a few seconds.
“Hello?” she says again.
She pushes the button again.
“It’s Ms. Barsallo,” she repeats, this time a bit louder.
The doors click open.
Seventeen of Cole’s 47 teachers are new for the 2009–2010 school year. Principal Julie Murgel’s corps of teachers is comprised, in part, by rookies like Barsallo, who were recruited from the Teach For America program, a national Peace Corps–like organization. Of all Murgel’s hires this year, the principal’s certain Barsallo, a recent Cornell University graduate, is special. A bilingual, minority woman with an Ivy League education would be coveted anywhere, but Barsallo landed at Cole, perhaps the most unlikely gift Murgel could have gotten. “She’ll be our superstar,” the principal guarantees before the start of the school year. “I just know it.”
Barsallo—pronounced Bar-SY-oh—was assigned to the school’s English Language Acquisition-Spanish (ELA-S) program as a literacy teacher for third- and fourth-grade students. It would be a daunting task. Not only would Barsallo have to navigate the bureaucracy of a chronically underperforming school, but she’d also have to teach 40 Spanish-speaking children, all of whom were expected to be able to read and write fluently in English.
Those already at Cole knew the Colorado Department of Education and Denver Public Schools were paying close attention this year. According to the 2008–2009 school year’s statewide standardized tests, 78 percent of the school’s third- through eighth-grade students couldn’t read at grade-level. For the Hispanic third- and fourth-graders, the figure jumped to 89 percent. Without significant improvement, Cole could find itself on the academic chopping block. If that happened, it’d be the third time in the past five years that a school in this building had closed. “There’s a lot to be done, but we’re going to give these parents something to be proud of,” Murgel, a roundfaced, 39-year-old former math teacher, promised at the start of the school year. “People will come in here and know we’re serious about education.”
Barsallo’s second-floor classroom is at the end of a long hallway bathed in fluorescent lights and lined with lockers—none of which have actual locks. Room 208 is small, a fact Barsallo becomes acutely aware of when she opens the door and a blast of heat hits her. Her new room is stifling.
Rectangular tables are bunched together and take up a majority of the room. Barsallo flips on the overhead lights, sets down the box, and fans herself with a folder. On her right is a small library with pillows, a beanbag chair, and National Geographic magazines from the 1960s. There are chalkboards on each side of the room, a dry-erase board at the front, and a bank of windows along the back.
As Barsallo pops open a window, the neighborhood is splayed before her. She can see the soccer field, a bodega, a Mexican restaurant, and a few homes. A maple tree—its green leaves shimmering—stands directly outside the room. Wooden branches stretch at odd angles toward the open window. “You can see everything from here,” Barsallo marvels.
After a few moments, she starts to cut blue butcher paper. Eventually, some of the lessons she will teach will be memorialized and taped on walls and on windows: reminders on how to draft a story, on subject-verb agreement, on recognizing and capitalizing proper nouns. Barsallo cuts a white piece of paper into the shape of a cloud and places it on the blue sheet. On the cloud, she writes a goal: Her students will improve one-and-a-half years in reading by the schoolyear’s end. “I’m so excited to watch them grow,” Barsallo says. She’s giddy: “Of course, they’re also going to write complete sentences, paragraphs, all that. I hope they’re coming here ready to learn.”
*All students' names have been changed