Family Affair

In spring 2010 my wife and I got a letter from Denver Public Schools informing us that True, the older of our two sons, had tested into the “Highly Gifted and Talented” program—HGT, in DPS parlance. What this meant, I learned from the letter, was that our then nine-year-old was in the top one percent of the student population. Good news. Naturally, as parents we felt extraordinarily fortunate. As we read on, the letter informed us of our options: Already, DPS had reserved a spot for him in a nearby school’s HGT program; we could try to “choice” him into another district HGT program; he could stay at his current school; or we could remove him from DPS and enroll him elsewhere. Naturally, as parents we were now freaked out.

The thing about parenting is that you’re always wanting to make the right choice for your kid, and you’re always second-guessing yourself. You question the call you make in the moment, just after the moment, or maybe long after the moment. Is another hour of TV too much? Would a sleepover at that kid’s house be the best idea? A pocketknife? Did I need to yell? As your children hit the teen years, you still wonder if the real-time decisions you make for your kid will be the right ones later. What if what I’m deciding turns my child into an adult with a shrink on speed dial, or creates a cult member, or God forbid, another mime?

Excluding medical issues, no choices are more ulcer-inducing for a parent than the ones about school. We’re talking about education, the most critical factor in determining a person’s chances for success in life. And, oh, by the way, embedded in the school choice is the social and psychological everything else. School choice, now here’s an opportunity for us to really make or mess up our kid’s life. Sing it with me: Krishna. Krishna-Krishna.

So, there we were with this letter feeling fortunate and, as only parents would be, overwhelmed. Regarding this HGT business, there was not only True’s welfare to consider; there was also his brother, Jack, who’s 20 months younger than his brother, a grade behind. They are extremely close. During the daily eight-block walk to their shared school, I’ve taken dozens of pictures of the two from behind; in almost all of them, they’re holding hands. By then they’d been attending the same school for four years. They’d developed the same circle of friends, and as far as they were concerned, their brotherly bond was the core. What now?

Along with the questions about how we should explain all this to True in a way that would be constructive, there was the question of how to explain it to Jack—Jack, who himself is intellectually nimble, a street-smart, knee-high ninja-meets-ward-boss. In the backseat of the car one day, True said he wanted to go to a college where they teach you how to build fighter jets; Jack said he wanted to go to the school where they teach you how to fly fighter jets. Which sounds about right. Complicating everything was the clock: Thanks to the DPS bureaucracy, we had less than two weeks to—in a single omnipotent verb—decide. And one of those two weeks was spring break, so that made visiting any other DPS schools challenging.

We talked to True first. We told him about the letter and, in short, conveyed that he learned more rapidly and differently. We said that an HGT school was designed to teach kids like him. Honestly, my wife and I weren’t sure where we stood on all of this. We had some thoughts, but we were going to take our cues from True’s reactions. He was seated in a chair on our patio, hands pushed deep in his pockets, legs crossed, professorially so, as is his way. After we had our say, he had two questions: Would we have to move from our house? He didn’t want to because our neighborhood, his elementary school, had become—and these were his words—“a second family.” It was a warm, sunny day, and my wife and I were both wearing sunglasses, which was good, because my eyes began to tear. No, I said, we won’t have to move.

His second question was what the student-teacher ratio would be at the new program. When I was nine, I didn’t even know what the word “ratio” meant, and I certainly didn’t care how many kids were in my class. We said we weren’t sure, but that we could visit the other school. He said he’d like that. Nine-year-old True said he was “leaning toward” going to the HGT program. “This is a lot to take in,” he said. “Can I have some time to decide?” Of course. Just as he was about to get up from the patio chair, he asked, “Are you going to talk to Jack, or should I?”

A few hours later, when we broached the topic with Jack, who was seven at the time, he had only two responses: “Why can’t the school where we are now give True’s brain what it needs?” Moments later, he said, “I understand True needs to go where he can be the best person he can be.” My wife and I looked at each other, stunned that these children were ostensibly so comfortable with such change, such risk, such…

So, True visited the other school. He liked it. We could have tried to choice Jack into that school as well, and we discussed that with him, but he declined, emphatically.

Their first year apart wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns. The new school’s bus picked up True at his old school, Jack’s current one, and for the first few days, after True left, Jack would quietly go off to a bench or a swing and miss his bro. It was heartbreaking. But in time, in no time, really, Jack created his own groove in the schoolyard of friends. He became even more of who he is—and perhaps more of who he’s going to become—which is pretty independent. He continued to do very well at school. He even wrote an essay about his hero: his brother, “Truey.”

Meanwhile, True’s brain got what it needed: field trips to the National Renewable Energy Lab, research papers on sensors and publicly traded companies, and an assignment to build a “Solar Cooker.” His mother and I had been extremely concerned that HGT might be too serious, too rigorous, too something, and that maybe he should have stayed put—maybe we should have made that decision instead. And so we turned to his teacher. During our first meeting, I looked the teacher in the eye and said, “Please, what we want to know is, is this the right place for him?” I could tell he could tell what I was asking. “Yes,” he said. “This is where he belongs.”

Belongs. That word has lingered with me. Belongs. That, too, is what parents want for their child: to belong, right? And belonging requires change. And doesn’t all change come with a certain amount of risk?

Recently, I asked True about the past year and he said all of the changes have gone “pretty much as I expected.” Jack, who was standing by, nodded in agreement, then grabbed True’s arm and said, “C’mon, Truey.” They took off to the yard.

Did we do the right thing? Really? For the long run? Are these changes really the best for our kids? The truth is, I don’t know. I mean, it seems great now, but still…. We made a choice. As parents, we do what we think is the right thing, and we second-guess ourselves. When picking schools, there’s no way of knowing, no way of being certain. But I do know that, as of now, our boys feel like they belong, their brains appear to be getting what they need, and they’re still holding hands.

-Maximillian Potter

Man With A Plan

Much like Senator Michael Bennet, Michael Johnston, 36, used his successful tenure as an educator as a springboard into politics. The co-founder and former principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, representing senate District 33 (northeast Denver), has become one of the leading advocates for educational reform in the state, and beyond. Here are the most compelling story lines he expects to see in Colorado education in the coming years.

5280: What’s the current state of education in Colorado?

We’re in the middle of maybe the largest transition the state has made in a generation. In the next five years, Colorado will adopt a new set of standards for what we teach in every subject at every grade level; we’ll adopt a new set of assessments to replace CSAPs; and we’re building a new set of evaluations for teachers and principals.

5280: Where do you stand on the proposed initiative to raise sales taxes to support schools?

I support it. The current round of educational cuts has left us out of compliance with Amendment 23 [the 2000 law that requires state education funding to increase by inflation plus one percent through 2011], and Colorado spends $2,000 less per student than the average state. We can no longer get the same quality of services and education.

5280: Wouldn’t opponents argue that no one wants higher taxes, and that per-pupil spending doesn’t dictate success?

Yes, but we lose all federal stimulus dollars next year. And statewide, we’re about $800 million below what Amendment 23 was supposed to guarantee. That cumulative gap keeps growing, so there’s some urgency. As for per-pupil funding, it’s not the most expensive car on the track that wins the Indy 500, but if you don’t have gas in your tank or wheels on your car, you can’t win. You can’t implement that reform without maintaining some of the basic investments.

5280: So what changes can we expect to see?

Wherever you go in the United States, most people will say Colorado is one of the most, if not the most, ambitious education reform state in the country. We’re also a state that has the highest likelihood of getting breakthrough results the fastest. So all eyes in the country are on Colorado.

-Luc Hatlestad

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

Comfort Zone

You might think that a celebratory Christmas stage production in California cast with sensitive, creative children would be the last place a kid would have to worry about getting bullied.

Tell that to Nick Gere. Then nine years old, the other players teased him so relentlessly about his quirkiness that he broke down the day after the production ended. He lapsed into such a post-traumatic funk that he was afraid to attend his school on the central coast of California. “He was severely traumatized—he barely left the house for several years—and his school wouldn’t do anything other than provide tutoring for an hour a day,” says Nick’s mother, Cia Perlman-Gere.

Nick visited therapists and underwent testing that finally revealed the likely source of his offbeat mannerisms: the autism spectrum disorder Asperger’s syndrome. Getting no help from his school in dealing with this, the Gere family searched in vain for an alternative near home.

Finally, some friends from Denver mentioned a private school, Denver Academy, that specialized in teaching kids with learning differences. After extensive interviews, phone calls, and emails with the DA staff—Nick even visited the school for a week—the Geres short-sold their house and moved to the Front Range. “It didn’t feel like any school I’ve gone to before,” Nick says. “I don’t know if it’s Denver, or how the school is set up, but I didn’t feel anxious.”

Now 15 and entering his junior year, and despite always being the youngest member of his class, Nick has a 3.8 GPA and hopes to study filmmaking in college. (He was a finalist in DA’s annual statewide film competition this spring.) He and his family attribute his rejuvenation to the inclusive, supportive environment DA has created—the school has strictly enforced anti-bullying practices, its administrators have an open-door policy for all students, and they set up new students like Nick with “shadow buddies” who help them get acclimated. “It hasn’t been 100 percent smooth sailing, but I didn’t really expect it to be,” Nick says. “Nothing is perfect, but this place is as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever seen.”

-Luc Hatlestad

Filling the Void

Parenting school-age children is hard enough; when your child has learning differences, navigating the educational landscape can be downright mind-boggling. What many parents may not realize is that one of Denver’s most venerable special-needs educators might also be one of its best-kept secrets.

The nonprofit Sewall Child Development Center ( evaluates and provides schooling and therapeutic services to kids—about 500 students per year, from birth to six years old—who have a variety of learning styles and special-needs requirements. Despite Sewall’s specialties in handling everything from autism to cerebral palsy to ADHD, only about half its students have special needs. “They’re here because their families like the school and want a high-quality early childhood environment,” says Sewall CEO Heidi Heissenbuttel. “We have a better teacher-child ratio [1:5] than most preschools, higher education levels of our staff, and strong parental involvement.”

What Sewall doesn’t have is a consistent source of income, largely because of the Byzantine way special-needs families and programs get funded. Depending on the child’s age and condition, finances can come from city, county, state, or federal programs, or from private donors—a situation that leaves Sewall in a constant state of transition. “It gets to be a pileup of financial issues,” Heissenbuttel says.

Even so, with a three- to six-month wait-list to get new students evaluated and an ever-broadening definition of what defines a “special” need, Sewall is expanding. As it maintains its expertise with atypical students, the center will open a transitional kindergarten this fall, for kids who may not have special needs but may not be ready for traditional kindergarten, either. “Parents might wonder why their ‘typically developing’ kids would attend a special-needs school,” says Pat Smith, Sewall’s development director. “It’s because they’ll thrive not only academically, but even more socially and emotionally, all of which are huge foundations for antibullying behavior.”(See “Comfort Zone,” page 118.)

By destigmatizing special needs, the 67-year-old Sewall has become a model for all types of educators—which hopefully will make it easier over time for the school to do what it does best. “People are starting to see learning differences more positively instead of as a disability that will be with the child for his or her whole life,” Heissenbuttel says. “The good thing about the limited space we have is that it forces you to be resourceful. But it would be nice to not have to be so resourceful all the time.”

-Luc Hatlestad

Head Start

This month, University Prep charter school opens its doors. Founder David Singer, a former secondary-level math teacher, wants to ensure that all his new elementary students end up graduating from college. Here’s how he plans to do it.

Every young teacher wants to make an impact. I wanted to teach mathematics and fix mathematics in America. I taught high school for six years and realized I was starting too late in their academic years.

Third grade reading is the number one predictor of academic success. If you can solve that problem, you can solve high school dropout problems—and even some health-care problems. Our students will spend three hours a day working on literacy with two full-time teachers, nearly 190 days a year.

Want to fix the economy? Fix education. You want to fix health care? Fix education.

It should be vigorous and challenging to open up a school. But the difference-maker isn’t money, it’s people. We still need to do a better job funding schools, but nothing is more important than selecting the adults we put in front of our kids.

We’re looking for teachers who are humble, hungry, and smart, ready to change the world but still wanting to be molded and grow.

Teaching is a performance-based profession. Our teachers plan lessons, present them to our team, and get feedback. Then they present the lesson again.

Everyone here has skin in the game. We have four to five parent-staff “touches” before school starts. We sit around a table and explain our expectations. Every teacher does a home visit. We have a contract: Your child has to be at school every day, has to do her homework, and wear a uniform every day. We all sign it.

We use everything as a learning opportunity. If a kid comes into the school, we ask him how he’s doing, and he says, “Good.” We say, “Give me another word for good. Jubilant, joyous, fabulous.”

We’re starting with kindergarten and first grade because getting it right is really tough. The smaller you are, the quicker you can adjust and fix errors and ensure that everyone is moving in the right direction. You have to get the culture right.

Five-year-olds don’t take themselves off the college path. Adults take them off. I’ve never met a five year old who doesn’t want to learn.

I want 100 percent of our high school seniors ready for a college program, with an admissions letter to college in hand.

Our first college trip with our students and parents is this September. It might be the first time that some of the parents have stepped on a college campus. The University of Denver is only a few miles away, but right now, it’s another world.

-Interview by Patrick Doyle

The Right Fit

Some people regard private schools as the elixir for America’s ailing educational system. They assume that if everyone could afford to go private—either with their own money or via school vouchers—they’d automatically shun the public route. Parents who have navigated this dilemma know it’s not that simple. Among the factors they typically consider:

DISTANCE Some private school students come from as far as 90 minutes away each day, and a 30-minute commute isn’t uncommon. This can create issues beyond the daily traffic hassle. “If your school is far away, your kids might become friends with kids whose families we don’t even know,” says Elizabeth Melton*, whose older child recently switched from a well-known private school after eighth grade to the public East High School.

DIVERSITY The higher-income status of most private school families can also mean more homogeneous student populations, which might be appealing to some, not so much to others. It also can be difficult to find private schools that aren’t built around some kind of religion. “We wanted a combined middle and high school that’s nondenominational, and there aren’t a lot of private schools like that,” says Karen Baum, whose older son will attend the independent Kent Denver for middle school after graduating from a “fabulous” public elementary school in Littleton.

ASSETS AND AMENITIES One quality all great schools share is personalized attention to their students, usually through smaller classes, dedicated counselors, and high parental involvement. “We wanted our son to be challenged, and we were worried that he wouldn’t get that in a public middle school, primarily because of the larger class sizes,” Baum says. It’s all about trade-offs; for example, a public school may offer more diversity, while a private one might require community service to earn a degree. The point is, children have a wide variety of learning styles, personalities, and interests, which is why the most important aspect of school choice might just be…

FIT Melton’s son, who’s “smart but shy,” felt completely at home at his private middle school thanks to its cozy, nurturing environment. But when the family’s younger daughter attended, she wasn’t as comfortable. “She’s very confident and outgoing, and we thought the school could rein that in, in a positive way,” Melton says. “It turned out to be not at all what resonated with her,” and she “begged” her parents to let her attend the much larger public middle school in their neighborhood. She thrived in eighth grade and is looking forward to the busier high school experience as she enters ninth. “We were nervous that she wouldn’t get the attention she needed, or she’d hang out with the wrong crowd,” Melton says. “But it turned out to be perfect for her.”

-Luc Hatlestad