The Education of Ms. Barsallo

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?

September 2010

A few days before school starts, outside Barsallo’s classroom and next to a broken water fountain with a yellow note above it that reads, “Don’t work,” a line of parents and children forms at her door. Barsallo sits at a table in the middle of her room with a girl and her mother, a mountain of papers and books between them. The fourth-grader, with an upturned nose and a blue, heart-shaped ring on one finger, looks away. Her wet hair runs down her back, and the water darkens her shirt.

“I’m so sorry,” the girl’s mother says in Spanish, pointing to her daughter’s head. “Sometimes I can’t brush her hair because I have to work in the morning.”

Barsallo flashes a crooked smile. “That’s fine,” she says in Spanish. “She’s a very beautiful young woman.”

To help guide her through the year, Barsallo will use a tool called the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), a one-on-one test that allows teachers to observe and score children’s reading levels. During her first week at Cole, Barsallo would test at least two dozen children. With few exceptions, their scores would be startlingly low.

Barsallo gives the girl a book and immediately sees that she’s struggling. Barsallo finds another book, this one about a boy who loses a hat. While the girl reads, Barsallo uses a pencil to mark words the girl doesn’t understand or mispronounces. When the girl finishes, Barsallo forces a smile. “We have some work to do, but we’ll get there,” she says. “Good job.”

Later, a third-grader named Ricardo* sits with his father, who tells Barsallo that English isn’t spoken at his house. “If you send something home,” the man says in Spanish, “I won’t know how to correct it.” After Ricardo, it’s Ronaldo, one of Barsallo’s six special-education students. As the boy reads, he gulps for breath between words that sound meek and scared. “That’s OK,” Barsallo reassures him. “Take your time.”

Next comes Jorge, a cute third-grader with chubby cheeks and spiky, gelled hair. He plops down in a chair.

“Did you read a lot this summer?” Barsallo asks.

Jorge looks out the door and sees two friends watching him. “No,” he says, loud enough for the boys to hear. “I didn’t read at all.” The friends nod in approval.

“What would you like to read about?”

“I like video games.”

“If I find books on video games, you’ll read those?”

Barsallo passes Jorge a book, and the boy starts to read. Barsallo soon sees his score has improved from last year—a jump from a high-kindergarten to an early-first-grade level. Barsallo offers a high five and takes the boy out to the hallway.

“He spent the entire summer reading,” Jorge’s mother tells Barsallo excitedly. Jorge looks at his shoes, and his face turns bright red while his friends giggle.

One by one, the parents and their children come into the room for the assessment. Eventually, the line outside disappears, and soon the classroom is quiet. A fan spins lazily overhead. Barsallo stares at the pile of marked papers: Nearly half of the children she’s tested today—all third- or fourth-graders—read at a kindergarten or first-grade level. Only a few are close to where they should be.

“My babies,” she says in disbelief. “They can’t read.”