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?
This article was a finalist for the 2011 Livingston Award for Young Journalists. It was also a finalist for a 2011 City and Reginal Magazine Award in the civic journalism category. It will be included in the book Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists to be published in the fall of 2012.
Cigarette butts dot the asphalt and a beer bottle lies smashed on the sidewalk outside Cole Arts & Science Academy on Denver’s northeast side. A haze climbs from a grass-and-dirt field where children play soccer; nearby, young women in tight jeans push baby strollers past the dated American sedans that line the streets. A worn Ford truck is parked on Franklin Street, with signs asking for scrap metal lashed to the sides.¶ Millie Barsallo, a 22-year-old, first-year teacher at Cole, a preschool-through-eighth-grade public school, rolls past the Ford and turns into the school’s near-empty parking lot on this mid-August morning. The engine of her father’s 1998 Toyota Camry whines to a stop. Barsallo steps onto the asphalt. Ribbons of sunlight cut through the maple and pine trees that surround the school. She shields her eyes. It’s a few days before school begins for the 615 students here, and Barsallo has a sick look on her face. “I think I’m about to freak out,” she says.
She heads for the school’s side entrance. In the shadows, the area looks like a dead-end, open-air alley. Three stories of red brick and glass rise around her. A security camera the size of a baseball looms over the metal doorway. Barsallo pushes a button on the intercom.
“It’s Ms. Barsallo,” she says.
She waits a few seconds.
“Hello?” she says again.
She pushes the button again.
“It’s Ms. Barsallo,” she repeats, this time a bit louder.
The doors click open.
Seventeen of Cole’s 47 teachers are new for the 2009–2010 school year. Principal Julie Murgel’s corps of teachers is comprised, in part, by rookies like Barsallo, who were recruited from the Teach For America program, a national Peace Corps–like organization. Of all Murgel’s hires this year, the principal’s certain Barsallo, a recent Cornell University graduate, is special. A bilingual, minority woman with an Ivy League education would be coveted anywhere, but Barsallo landed at Cole, perhaps the most unlikely gift Murgel could have gotten. “She’ll be our superstar,” the principal guarantees before the start of the school year. “I just know it.”
Barsallo—pronounced Bar-SY-oh—was assigned to the school’s English Language Acquisition-Spanish (ELA-S) program as a literacy teacher for third- and fourth-grade students. It would be a daunting task. Not only would Barsallo have to navigate the bureaucracy of a chronically underperforming school, but she’d also have to teach 40 Spanish-speaking children, all of whom were expected to be able to read and write fluently in English.
Those already at Cole knew the Colorado Department of Education and Denver Public Schools were paying close attention this year. According to the 2008–2009 school year’s statewide standardized tests, 78 percent of the school’s third- through eighth-grade students couldn’t read at grade-level. For the Hispanic third- and fourth-graders, the figure jumped to 89 percent. Without significant improvement, Cole could find itself on the academic chopping block. If that happened, it’d be the third time in the past five years that a school in this building had closed. “There’s a lot to be done, but we’re going to give these parents something to be proud of,” Murgel, a roundfaced, 39-year-old former math teacher, promised at the start of the school year. “People will come in here and know we’re serious about education.”
Barsallo’s second-floor classroom is at the end of a long hallway bathed in fluorescent lights and lined with lockers—none of which have actual locks. Room 208 is small, a fact Barsallo becomes acutely aware of when she opens the door and a blast of heat hits her. Her new room is stifling.
Rectangular tables are bunched together and take up a majority of the room. Barsallo flips on the overhead lights, sets down the box, and fans herself with a folder. On her right is a small library with pillows, a beanbag chair, and National Geographic magazines from the 1960s. There are chalkboards on each side of the room, a dry-erase board at the front, and a bank of windows along the back.
As Barsallo pops open a window, the neighborhood is splayed before her. She can see the soccer field, a bodega, a Mexican restaurant, and a few homes. A maple tree—its green leaves shimmering—stands directly outside the room. Wooden branches stretch at odd angles toward the open window. “You can see everything from here,” Barsallo marvels.
After a few moments, she starts to cut blue butcher paper. Eventually, some of the lessons she will teach will be memorialized and taped on walls and on windows: reminders on how to draft a story, on subject-verb agreement, on recognizing and capitalizing proper nouns. Barsallo cuts a white piece of paper into the shape of a cloud and places it on the blue sheet. On the cloud, she writes a goal: Her students will improve one-and-a-half years in reading by the schoolyear’s end. “I’m so excited to watch them grow,” Barsallo says. She’s giddy: “Of course, they’re also going to write complete sentences, paragraphs, all that. I hope they’re coming here ready to learn.”
*All students' names have been changed
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.”
Barsallo never imagined herself worrying about children’s reading scores. A 2009 graduate of Cornell’s Department of Government, she has a friendly face, black hair, and warm, brown eyes. When she smiles—which is often—it’s followed with a giggle. Though Barsallo went to college in New York, she grew up in Aurora, where she was raised middle class, the middle child of a mother and father who left Panama to seek educations in the United States. Her parents returned to their native country in the 1980s, then immigrated back to the United States when Barsallo was an infant. The family lived in a two-story home near Buckley Air Force Base. While her dad went to work as a manufacturing engineer, Barsallo taught herself English by watching cartoons on her parents’ only television. She became a top student: Her early academic career culminated with a scholarship to St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic school in Cherry Hills Village. There, she earned a 3.9 grade point average, was on the dance team, and was one of the school’s only students from the class of 2005 to attend an Ivy League school.
“I always thought I’d go to law school, then go to Capitol Hill, and then change the world,” Barsallo says. But at the beginning of her senior year, she got a recruiting e-mail from Teach For America, an organization that takes high-achieving college graduates and places them in some of the nation’s poorest urban and rural public schools. The concept intrigued Barsallo, whose life as a minority student in mostly privileged, white schools gave her a unique perspective. “Everyone wants to pat you on the back for the stupidest things, like, ‘Congratulations for not having a baby at 16,’ ” she says. “The expectations are pretty low.” Barsallo wrote two essays, interviewed twice, and was accepted by TFA. She then applied for jobs in Colorado and eventually was offered a job at Cole.
The chance to teach in Denver was a blessing. Not only would it give Barsallo a way to be close to her family—she loves her mother’s fried plantains—but the job would also give Barsallo an opportunity to work with children who reminded her of people she grew up with. While friends planned high profile, post-graduation gigs—at Harvard University, at Sotheby’s, at the State Department—Barsallo accepted a $34,000-a-year job at Cole, packed her belongings, and moved home.
Many of her students also took a circuitous route to get to Cole. Barsallo knew her students were either immigrants—from Mexico, mostly—or children of immigrant parents. Nearly all of them lived in poverty. Some children had only recently started attending school regularly. One boy had been homeless a year earlier.
For the teachers who worked at Cole the previous year, like veteran teacher Paula Lopez-Crespin, the school calendar became a series of battles—over discipline, homework, parental involvement, and self-doubt. Teachers who imagined themselves changing the neighborhood would quickly find resistance among students and parents. “The more you persevere, regardless of your limitations, the better you can serve your kids,” Lopez-Crespin says. “If you let it, school can seem like a major challenge every second of the day. You could second-guess yourself to death here.” It would not take much for someone young and idealistic, like Barsallo, to soon be overwhelmed.
Barsallo knew her classroom inexperience would hinder her first months at Cole. There were complaints of out-of-control parents, of a lack of direction from the administration, of a lack of support for struggling teachers. If the veterans felt pressure, what would happen to her?
On a bright October morning, Barsallo’s mother, Gilda, visits her daughter’s classroom. She chats with Barsallo’s students, shows old photos, and tells stories of growing up in Panama.
“What was Miss Barsallo like when she was our age?” a girl asks.
“Oh,” Gilda says, “she was very silly.”
The boys and girls giggle. They beg Barsallo’s mother to speak with them in Spanish, and she does.
After sending the children to lunch, Barsallo and her mother steal away to an empty teacher’s lounge near the first-floor stairwell. Barsallo pulls out a plate with a small pizza on it and quietly heats the meal as her mother watches.
“What’s wrong?” Gilda asks.
“Nothing,” Barsallo says.
“Millie, what’s wrong?”
Barsallo hesitates and looks to see if anyone is outside. She shakes her head. “I can’t say,” she says. “I just can’t say.”
The truth was that just a few months into the year, things were getting more difficult for Barsallo. She spent hours after school brainstorming ways to engage each student, then took the lesson plans home and stayed up late working on them. She’d foregone a boyfriend and any semblance of a regular social life to focus her time on Cole and her students. Every morning, though, her plans evaporated. Every day, by the day’s end, it seemed as if she’d ceded more control of her classroom to children who didn’t seem to respect her. The list of infractions was neverending: One day, two girls threw punches over a boy. Another day, Barsallo learned that some of her students were using the word “nigger” when referring to black students. And an argument between Barsallo’s fourth-graders ended with one yelling at the other in Spanish: “Oh yeah, your family is a bunch of wetbacks!”
At least three boys in her class hadn’t turned in any homework yet, and whatever interventions Barsallo had tried with them—phone calls to mothers, private meetings at her desk—resulted only in shrugged shoulders and promises to do better. She wanted to be angry, but in some ways, she understood.
Barsallo had her own challenges: For weeks at the beginning of the year, the school didn’t issue her a computer; later, she realized that she hadn’t been given a password to access a school database. When she met Zachary Rahn, the school’s 25-year-old administrative intern, for a “formal observation,” he told Barsallo that her classroom was “messy.” The notes she’d written on butcher paper and hung on the walls made her room look disorganized; her desk—with stacks of papers and books and pencils—was a distraction.
Barsallo was hurt and upset; the room was her handiwork, and she thought it was an inviting place for her students. “I’m trying,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “I really am.” She spoke to her TFA program director, Scott Wolf. “Millie’s got to get past this,” he says later. “She can be a great teacher, but she’s got to realize that it isn’t going to happen overnight.”
Even more of a problem was the fact that her most troubled students—the children goose-stepping across the floor during independent reading time, those leaving the room without Barsallo’s permission—were becoming a constant distraction. “I’m losing the kids who actually want to be here,” she says. She considered punishing students by writing referrals to the administration’s office, but the infractions didn’t seem to warrant that. And, inevitably, the kids who would get sent away potentially needed the most attention in the classroom.
Barsallo had come to Cole expecting adversity, but not this. She went out of her way to follow school directives religiously, but nothing seemed to improve. Her class was among Cole’s worst when it came to writing ability, but the school was stressing reading this year. “It’s never-ending,” Barsallo says. The contradictions of her new life—the seriousness of her charge and the absurdities about the way it was all coming apart just a few months into the school year—confounded her.
Across the hall, things were worse. There, 24-year-old Emily Brown and Lopez-Crespin had no qualms about issuing referrals, but their classes showed only marginal improvement. After one flurry of write-ups, a fourth-grader made a prank call from Brown’s class phone. None of her students would give up the culprit, though the teacher was certain everyone knew who it was. “Ninety percent of what goes on around here is really positive, but it’s that 10 percent that grinds you down,” says Ben Cooper, a Cole administrator. “You’ve got to pick yourself up every day and make a decision. Are you going to rise to the occasion, or are you going to lie down?”
Barsallo asks herself that question with regularity. At home, inside the terrace-level apartment she shares with her sister and a friend, Barsallo walks into her bedroom, which is covered with clothes and ungraded papers. She tells the story of her own third-grade teacher, whom she last saw a few months before leaving for college in 2005. “I told her I was going to Cornell, and tears started streaming down her face,” Barsallo says. Now that Barsallo’s the teacher, she wants to know that she’s doing what’s right for her students.
“I want to be that teacher who sees one of my kids 10 years from now, and they’re telling me how they’re kicking the world’s ass,” she says. “But how can I get there when it feels like my ass is the one that’s being kicked?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
By the spring, uneasiness was building at Cole. At an earlier faculty meeting, Murgel announced that the assistant principal would not return in the fall. There were rumors among staff that the assistant principal was not the only one who would be going: The librarian and up to 11 teachers could lose their jobs. By early May, a few had received their notices.
The uncertainty hadn’t deterred some teachers from wondering whether they’d be receiving their end-of-year bonus. To prepare, they lowered their student-growth objectives they’d set nine months earlier to more closely match the smaller gains that their classes actually made during the year. They were cooking their academic books, essentially, but no one seemed to care; it was accepted practice around Cole, one that could mean an extra thousand dollars in teachers’ pockets come year-end. Barsallo refused to play along.
With less than a month left in the school year, demands continued to grow: There were summer reading lists to prepare, tests to administer, and rooms to clean. Despite the challenges she’d encountered, Barsallo was determined to return to Cole the following August—better informed and better prepared to handle the burdens that undoubtedly would face her in her second year. If anything, she felt more confident to perform the job she’d signed up for. And more than ever, she was confident her students had something to offer—their DRA scores showed continued, across-the-board increases—and that each was better for their experiences at the school. “They know they can succeed if they put their minds to it,” she says. “They’re all geniuses to me.”
From Barsallo’s mouth, the words are not empty. As part of her end-of-year work, she’d spent time talking to Cole’s gifted-and-talented program coordinator about whether some of Barsallo’s students—like the gifted Ana—would qualify. Without Barsallo as an advocate, her high-achieving fourth-graders would have little chance of finding additional opportunities around Cole.
And yet, two weeks before the school year is to end, students are rolling on the floor, hanging from the door, and wandering the hallway. Barsallo approaches a table. The boy is supposed to be writing a topic sentence, but so far all he’s written is: “The cobra.”
“That’s not a topic sentence, dude,” Barsallo says, pointing her index finger at the words. She realizes quickly that this isn’t the most incomplete work at the table. She looks at another boy’s blank paper. “I see you’ve written so much,” she says sarcastically. “You need to slow down because you’re on fire.”
Barsallo returns to her desk, calls a boy over, and asks him to read a book.
Another student begins to pull books out of the library. “I told you not to go in there,” Barsallo says. “Sit down, now!”
A few minutes later: “No, you can’t go to the bathroom.”
Then: “Miss, can I have $10?”
The boy at Barsallo’s desk is clearly frustrated. He starts to close the book. Barsallo wraps her arm around his shoulder. “Miss,” the boy says, setting the book aside, “I’m dumb. I can’t do this.”
“No one thinks you’re dumb,” Barsallo says.
The class battles swirl around them. Barsallo sees each one as if they’re happening in slow motion.
“Stop fighting over a pencil. It’s ridiculous.”
“Sit in a chair and read a book.”
Someone vomits in a trash can in Lopez-Crespin’s room, and the news makes its way across the hall. Barsallo’s students race out of her room. The school bell rings.
Later, Ana pulls Barsallo aside.
“Miss,” she says, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
Her grandmother’s boyfriend, the man she calls her father, had been arrested a few blocks from Cole—there was an issue with his license plates, and he didn’t have identification. Now he’s locked up, awaiting deportation.
Barsallo hugs the girl.
“Miss, I might have to move to Mexico.”
Barsallo tightens her arms around the girl. Thoughts race through her mind. Ana was born here; she needs to complete her education in the United States. She can do great things. There’s no way Ana can leave. She won’t learn. She won’t be challenged. Barsallo won’t let it happen.
Then, just as quickly, she lets go. Barsallo knows she can’t fix the situation, that she can’t change the series of events that are already in motion.
“I’ll see you later, OK?” Barsallo says quietly, and then Ana disappears out the door.
A 15-foot piece of limb broke off the big maple tree outside Barsallo’s window the last week of school, and part of the tree fell into a chain-link fence. Slivers of wood and bark are spread across the sidewalk like broken glass. The limb, it turns out, was rotting from the inside.
Upstairs, on the final day of classes, Room 208 looks empty. The paper clouds are off the wall. The chalkboards are uncovered. The books are put away. The lights are off. A fan whirs in the background.
Barsallo and Ana stand in the late-afternoon shadows. In a few days, the soon-to-be fifth-grader will be on her way to Mexico to rejoin her family. Barsallo lifts a black fabric bag with the word “Love” written on it in pink and places it on a table between Ana and herself. The bag is stuffed with tissue paper, which Barsallo fluffs with the tips of her fingers.
“I wrote you a letter and put it in here,” Barsallo says. “You have some books, too, so read those.”
Barsallo pushes the bag toward Ana, and the girl stares at the gifts. She sweeps her black hair off her forehead, and there’s a long, awkward silence. Ana has a pained look on her face. Her nose scrunches.
“I’m going to miss you, Miss,” Ana finally says as she wraps her arms around Barsallo.
Barsallo engulfs the girl, resting her cheek on top of Ana’s head. The two close their eyes and rock back and forth in the dimming light.
“Come back, OK?” Barsallo whispers in Ana’s ear.
“I’ll come, Miss, I’ll come.”
The two step away from each other and lock eyes. Barsallo purses her lips.
Ana looks away.
“I don’t know what to do next, Miss,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to go,” Ana whispers, holding back tears. “What do I do?”
Barsallo reaches out and holds Ana again. Seconds pass. Then a minute.
“I don’t know, either,” Barsallo says. “But you know I love you.”
Her words hang in the air. “You’re going to be a rock star at your new school. You know that, right? You’re going to be so fly.”
Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. His last story for the magazine was a profile of U.S. Representative Betsy Markey. E-mail him at [email protected].