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

By March, there was growing concern about gang activity in the neighborhood. There are stories of gang members attacking Cole students near the school. Graffiti covers the school’s brick-and-stone exterior, and sharp-edged, black-marker scrawls dot playground equipment. On the school’s front door are the scrubbed remnants of a vulgar greeting that had been removed: “Fuck Cole Frevr,” it read.

A police cruiser is parked on a sidewalk a few feet from the school. An officer sits in the vehicle, but the teachers inside the school don’t know why he’s here. Police have been at the school three days this week. An ambulance was parked outside days earlier.

No one in the administration is talking about what happened, but the buzz is that a student was seriously injured, maybe on the playground, and that the mother of the hurt child vomited in Murgel’s office because of shock. There’s skepticism about the veracity of the story among teachers. “No one tells us shit around here,” one teacher says.

Murgel’s bunkered herself in her office for most of the week, but when the school bell rings on this Friday, she tells one of the secretaries to call up to the second floor and ask Barsallo, Panozzo, Brown, and Lopez-Crespin to come down for a meeting. The third-grade CSAP scores are in.

The principal stands behind her desk, next to Rahn. She waves a stack of papers in her hands. “This is it,” Murgel says. “I haven’t looked.” Rahn passes out the papers.

“Don’t flip them over until I say so,” Murgel says. “We’re going to see these together.” The principal takes a deep breath, then counts aloud: “One, two, three.”

There’s a whoosh of paper and eyes instantly scan the numbers. No one speaks. Barsallo squints her eyes. Brown’s forehead furrows.

“What does this say?” Brown asks. “I can’t understand it.”

“Me neither,” Barsallo says.

They look to Murgel. She drops her paper. “It means—” she says, pausing for effect, “you guys did great!”

The room bursts into cheers. Brown rests her hands on the top of her head. “My God,” she says, her voice cracking in disbelief. “My kids learned something.”

Of course, it’s a relative assessment, one that would confuse Barsallo for the rest of the year. According to the 2010 CSAP data, one of every four Cole third-graders can read at grade-level. For the non-English speakers like Barsallo’s, it’s closer to one out of 10—but those scores are still two percentage points higher than last year, and the school’s overall performance is almost seven percentage points higher than 2009. Barsallo shrinks in the corner. “Millie!” Murgel calls out. “That’s wonderful, and we’re gonna keep improving. Great job!”

There are high fives and hugs in the room. Despite the teachers’ and students’ work, despite the incremental gains made throughout the year, Cole once again would be one of Denver’s lowest achieving elementary schools. On this afternoon, though, Barsallo was witnessing a celebration.