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

In late January, weeks before third-graders start the CSAP, an air of anxiety permeates Cole. There’s a rumor that a staffer was fired for drinking alcohol. A teacher stopped one of Barsallo’s students in the hall recently, but when the teacher realized the boy didn’t fully understand English, the teacher began to wave his arms furiously and bark like a dog.

Barsallo had to laugh about the incident, but privately the stress was suffocating. Today, nearly all of her third-graders failed a pop quiz in which Barsallo asked them to name five “tricks” to use when answering CSAP questions, advice such as re-reading questions and searching for key words. Barsallo looks worn. Ungraded essays sit on her desk. One reads: “…Fainali ai wuas riyi japi en dat wuas mai bes dei eber.” Finally, I was really happy, and that was my best day ever.

Outside Barsallo’s room, some of the teachers are prepping their students for the CSAP the same way cheerleaders might pump up a school for a football game with its archrival. Lopez-Crespin’s students are dancing and chanting in the hallway: “Jump, beat the CSAP! Jump, jump! Beat the CSAP!”

“You got it, guys!” Lopez-Crespin encourages the children as they swish their hips. “You got it!”

It all felt false to Barsallo. More than halfway into the school year, she’d sunk her entire life into this class, this school. If she wasn’t at Cole, she was attending required classes for Teach For America, or she was out with her colleague, Panozzo, which usually meant two hours of discussion on how to get a student to write a complete paragraph. And what had Barsallo gotten out of it? What had her kids gotten out of it?

The low hum of third-grade chatter fills Barsallo’s room as Cristina, an eight-year-old with a black ponytail and hoop earrings, pulls a chair up to Barsallo’s desk and prepares to take another reading test.

“You nervous?” Barsallo asks the girl. Cristina tugs at an earring.

“Kinda,” she says. “Yeah, maybe.”

“OK, then. Shake it out. I believe in you.”

Cristina’s scores have been uneven—hardly a surprise for a student learning to master a new language. The girl showed promise earlier in the year; since then, she’s bounced around, and, recently, fallen backward. Barsallo points to the scores in a blue binder, and Cristina cranes her neck. Her head drops.

“You’re falling behind,” Barsallo says softly. She moves her head close to the girl’s. “That doesn’t mean you’re not growing; it just means we need to work on your reading fluency. I don’t want you to get discouraged about this. It just means we need to work a little harder.” She pauses for a moment. “You know, we could all work a little harder.”

The morning of February 9 is the first CSAP day for Barsallo’s third-graders. It’s 7:30, and Barsallo’s breath blows white in the air as she heads from her car to one of Cole’s side entrances.

Inside the school, overhead lights cast a harsh glare on the freshly mopped tile. The walls are decorated with posters encouraging students to “Rock the CSAP!”

Barsallo carries paper towels and disinfectant wipes to her room and sets them on her desk. She silently starts to scrape tape from tabletops and spends the next half hour scratching away. She grabs a towel and wipes off a pencil mark.

One of the special-education teachers sticks her head into Barsallo’s room.

“You ready for this?” she asks.

“There’s nothing I can do about it now,” Barsallo says, shrugging her shoulders.

The other woman laughs. “A test they can’t read,” she says, mockingly. “Woo hoo.”

The posters and butcher-paper notes that decorated Barsallo’s classroom walls—sentence diagrams, book genres—are now covered. Boxes of granola bars are stacked on Barsallo’s desk. “Four kids told me they ate breakfast yesterday,” Barsallo says. “That isn’t gonna fly.”

The loudspeaker crackles to life. Strains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” begin to wail through the school’s halls. “Good morning, Cole Arts & Science Academy!” Murgel says over the driving guitar riff.

Barsallo scrubs the desktops. She scrapes and wipes without speaking. She works her way across one line of tables, then another. Then she stops. Warm air blasts from the wall heater.

Less than two hours before the most important test of her third-graders’ lives, Barsallo stares at a pencil sketch on a table in the last row. It’s a boxy crucifix scribbled into the wood laminate. Barsallo studies it for a moment. She picks up a towel to wipe it away; then she sets down the towel. “Maybe I should leave it here,” she says. “I’m not kidding.”