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

Cole Arts & Science Academy is a tired sprawl of 1920s-era brick and limestone that rises from a modest northeast Denver neighborhood. Statistically, the 400 Hispanic students who attend Cole are already lost. As minority children, many of whom live in poverty, they are more likely to drop out of school, and, when they’re older, to have a child out of wedlock or find themselves in jail. In their immediate future, they’re more likely to get “unsatisfactory” scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, the standardized exam, known as CSAP, used to measure core knowledge among third- through 10th-grade students in the state’s 1,769 public schools.

Colorado closely monitors the test scores and rewards districts, schools, principals, and staffs that excel—and disciplines those that don’t. It’s a dance Cole’s families know well. In 2005, the state’s Department of Education closed the then-Cole Middle School after four years of failing results. The school was replaced with a 6–8 charter school named KIPP Cole College Prep, which closed in 2007 after going through four principals in two years. That same year, DPS transformed the school into a storage facility for things such as theater costumes, an insult the families here still haven’t gotten over. “The district’s hurt us bad,” one parent says. “Our neighborhood has become a dumping ground.”

When DPS announced that Cole Arts & Science Academy would open in 2008, there was little reaction. “We’re asked to trust one more school,” a parent of several Cole students says. “How many times do we have to hear that things are fixed, that everything is going to be better?”

To lead the rebuilding effort, DPS chose Murgel, the former principal at Denver’s Whiteman Elementary School. Murgel is a bilingual math teacher by trade and a 15-year DPS veteran with a can-do attitude. She looked at Cole’s challenges through the eyes of her mother, a Montana native with a son who has Down syndrome. Nearly 40 years ago, she started that state’s largest work program for disabled adults. “She refused to let my brother fall through the cracks at a time when almost everyone would have given up on him,” Murgel says. Just as her mother had done, Murgel was determined to give these children a shot.

The summer of 2008 saw a flurry of activity. Murgel had an office on Cole’s third floor and used a borrowed 10-year-old computer. She kept murals of successful minority leaders—Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez—in the hallways and had colors, like tangerine and yellow, painted on the walls to brighten things up. Graffiti was blasted from the brick outside. “I was going to wipe away all the years of negativity,” Murgel says now. She devised plans—expectations regarding when students and staff would be in classrooms; parent contracts; a school uniform with a green shirt—and solidified her staff. In the midst of her preparations, someone burglarized her office.

Murgel pushed on. From the beginning, she envisioned Cole—known as CASA around the neighborhood—as a metaphorical home, a proving ground for a generation of academic castoffs, families who’d recently had their schools close and were searching for a viable option. “They needed hope,” the principal says. “The kids needed someone to tell them that they were worthy of a college education and a better life.”

A year after Cole opened, families noticed that much of Cole’s equipment had been salvaged from shuttered schools— “Wyman” and “Mitchell,” the names of two recently closed elementary schools, were written prominently in black marker on Barsallo’s classroom computers and overhead projector. Outside the school, no one bothered to remove the old, cracked, weed-infested “Cole Junior High” sign on Martin Luther King Boulevard. And when gang members marked up the iconic columns of Cole’s facade, the school simply put a coat of paint over the graffiti. For all the talk about making the school a place of hope, some parents felt their children were getting a hand-me-down education.

Despite the feelings around the neighborhood, the 2009 school year brought at least some opportunity. Not only had Murgel hired new teachers, but she’d also gotten Colorado’s Department of Education to designate Cole as one of a handful of “innovation” schools within DPS. Under the Innovation Schools Act of 2008, select public schools are given wide latitude to waive state, district, and union rules when it comes to how money is spent, which curriculum is used, and how teachers are hired and fired. The designation was a coup for Murgel, who’d sought more autonomy to run her school.

As part of the rebuilding, Murgel wanted teachers who would think outside of the failed methodology, who were ambitious, familial, and resilient. Among the crew was Rene Panozzo—Barsallo’s ELA-S counterpart on the second floor—a bilingual journalism major from Iowa who’d teach third- and fourth-grade math and science. And there was Emily Brown, the third-grade literacy and social studies teacher who’d recently earned degrees in anthropology and environmental studies from an elite, private college in Maine.

Around Cole, there was reason for optimism. One of Denver’s other innovation schools—Manual High School, just down the street—closed in 2006 but was becoming the highest performing low-income school in DPS. “We don’t have any time to waste,” Murgel says. “The kids don’t have any time to waste.”