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

Ana, a nine-year-old Cole student, calls Barsallo “the best teacher in the world,” and the “reason I come to school.” Ana has deep-brown eyes, and an easy smile. Her full, dark hair cascades down her back, and, from a distance, it’s as if you’re looking at Barsallo from 13 years ago. It’s not just her physical appearance that draws the comparison. “I either want to be a teacher or a lawyer,” the fourth-grader says. “When I grow up, I want to help people.”

Barsallo has taken an interest in Ana, who is part of a group of students that stays after school. Barsallo recommends books for her and keeps in mind that Ana likes scary stories. Ana almost always finishes her homework, and Barsallo is sure to draw a smiling face in black pen on her quizzes and tests, and to pin them to a bulletin board outside the classroom door so everyone can see.

By November, Ana has gone from a fifth-grade reading level to an eighth-grade level. It’s a jump that catches everyone’s notice and has teachers dreaming about the girl’s future. “She could really make it,” Panozzo says. Ana’s neighbors have noticed, too. On Saturdays, they stop by her home and ask her to translate letters from their landlords.

College is Ana’s goal, but she’s unsure if she’ll ever get there. She’s being raised by her grandmother and her grandmother’s boyfriend—Mexican immigrants whom she refers to as “Mom” and “Dad”—and she and her siblings live in the couple’s rented home. Money is tight, and Ana’s “parents” make ends meet by selling candy and burritos on sidewalks outside city schools.

Ana is protective of her books and of a girl named Isabella, a slightly built fourth-grader who’s one of Ana’s closest friends. The two live near each other, and they spend their free time running in the park or looking through magazines that feature one of their favorite teen stars, Disney’s Selena Gomez. Like most Hispanic children who grow up around here, Ana is Catholic. She carries her faith like a shield. “My mother said the first child is blessed by God,” she says, “and that’s me.”

It’s late autumn now and the brown leaves on the maple tree outside Room 208 rise and fall with the gentle breeze. The projector is on in Barsallo’s classroom; third-graders are huddled on a checkered rug near the dry-erase board. Barsallo steps in front of the children.

“Why are we here? Why are we working hard?” she begins. “Let me put it a different way. Why do we need to learn how to read?”

“To get smart?” one girl says.

“Did you know that one in four kids grows up not knowing how to read?” Barsallo asks. She steps in the middle of her students. She points to the children: “One, two, three, four,” she says. “You, number four: You won’t know how to read.”

The boy buries his face in his hands.

“Did you know 44 million adults can’t read well enough to read a simple story? Did you know that future prison inmates read at a third-grade level?” Barsallo asks. “They’re making a bed there for you right now.”

“Is prison like jail?” one boy asks.

“You all want to get to fourth grade, right?” Barsallo continues. “And you want to get through elementary school, middle school, high school, and go to college, right? Because, I’ve got to tell you, people are looking at your reading level and making a bed in prison for you. They’re betting half of you aren’t finishing high school.”

For the first time in weeks, the room is silent. The kids stare at the floor.

“How are you going to stop this?” Barsallo asks. “Because, you know, reading English is not something you can choose not to do. You will finish your homework. Stop looking for excuses. So, how many of you are going to work hard for yourselves, for your families, and for your futures?”

A bunch of tiny hands shoot into the air—every kid in the room.

“You will decide your future,” she says. “You will change those statistics. You will make your parents proud. But you have to want to do it.”

Another pause. More silence.

“How can we turn this class around to take charge of our future?” Barsallo asks. “I’ll start: Quit talking during silent reading. What else?”

“Don’t fight in the classroom,” one student says.

“Don’t talk while the teacher talks,” another says.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that you must always do your work. Is that hard to understand?” Barsallo asks. Now she gets to her point, the reason she’s been staying up nights, worried.

“This is the first year you take the CSAP,” she says. “That’s not the most important thing to me. The thing for me is that I want you to leave this classroom being good readers and writers. We need to know where we’re at, compared to other kids, and the CSAP will help us. We have less than 50 days until that test.

“So are we all going to be at the third-grade level?” she asks. Heads nod. “No,” Barsallo says, emphatically, “many of us are not. That’s OK, though, because we’re going to give this our best. Remember, when you come to class, it’s not about today. It’s about every other day after that.”

More stares. More silence.

“How many of you are going to change those statistics?” Every hand goes up.

“If you see someone struggling today, what will you say?” Barsallo asks.

The kids answer back in unison: “I believe in you.”

“Good,” Barsallo says. “Now let’s get to work.”

Barsallo worries later that she was too harsh with her students. But, she says, “That was something they needed to hear. I have to be honest with them, even if the truth is hard to listen to.”

By mid-December, about a month after her speech, there’s no question about the words’ effect on her students: The latest DRA results are in, and Barsallo’s stunned to see the improvement. Almost every child bested their previous score, and they’re on their way to reaching the individual objectives Barsallo had set at the beginning of the year. Some have already reached their goal. “I’m so proud of you!” Barsallo beams during class the day before winter vacation.

The children sit around tables and cut out paper snowflakes that they’ll give to the teachers as Christmas gifts. “You’re great!” one girl writes on her project. Outside, snow sticks to the maple tree, its bare branches covered in frozen clumps of white.

Although the reading work has paid off, Barsallo’s still concerned about her students’ writing proficiency—and writing is a major part of the statewide standardized exams. Heading into the winter break, Barsallo has never felt like this: simultaneously energized and defeated. She’s certain that most of her children will perform poorly on the written portion of the exam, but when Barsallo raises the issue with Cole’s curriculum adviser, she’s given a recommendation to carve out more time for writing. When Barsallo asks what instruction can be cut to make room, she’s met with a stare. If Barsallo was hoping to be rescued, help wasn’t coming any time soon. “This is a roller coaster. You’re up one day, and then you get test scores and you think you’re the worst teacher ever,” the administrative intern Rahn says. “Millie’s going to doubt herself, because we all doubt ourselves.”