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August 2011

The More Things Change...

Millie Barsallo was never naïve enough to think she could change the world with her first teaching job; she just wanted to change the three-story school at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Franklin Street. “This year was about doing everything I could and it not being enough,” the 24-year-old said this spring after the final day of classes at Cole Arts & Science Academy, a DPS elementary school. “I can’t change things if no one is listening.”

Last fall, I profiled Barsallo for a piece that chronicled her first year as an English Language Acquisition-Spanish teacher (“The Education of Ms. Barsallo,” September 2010). The article detailed Barsallo’s work with her third- and fourth-grade classes at Cole, a microcosm of chronically underperforming schools across the country. It described how much time and effort she devoted, foregoing a personal life to focus on her students, only to be thwarted and discouraged again and again.

Barsallo is reluctant to detail her misgivings about Cole, but a lack of administrative support, immigration challenges among students, and a feeling that teachers and students were stuck on a treadmill to nowhere left Barsallo constantly overwhelmed. “My kids were amazing,” she says. “But there were other things that made me question the mission.” On top of everything, she learned this past April that one of her nine-year-old students, who had left Cole for Mexico, had been shot and killed.

After two school years, Barsallo has left Cole to become a community organizer at Stand For Children, a multi-state, grassroots group that advocates for improvements in public education. She doesn’t consider her teaching experience a failure; one of her proudest moments came when she saw that several of her students who barely knew the alphabet two years ago were now reading English at a sixth-grade level. (Her students averaged more than four years of growth in reading skills during her two years at Cole.) One student, who struggled to read the most basic words in 2009, will move to Cole’s gifted-and-talented program this coming year. “I had this amazing experience watching children who thought they couldn’t read—who told me they weren’t smart—blossom into these amazing people,” Barsallo says. “I told the kids that whatever I become next, if I ever become someone, it’s because of them.”

-Robert Sanchez