mental health matters

Why Denver Public Schools wants to raise taxes to hire more psychologists and social workers

Students at Oakland Elementary hold up masks they decorated to represent who they are on the inside. The activity was part of one of the school's preventative programs for girls. (Photo courtesy of Oakland)

At a Denver elementary school where staff say at least one student in every classroom has experienced significant trauma, one child’s situation stood out last year.

For this child, kicking, punching and cursing were regular occurrences. The child even made up a song about the teacher, calling her an “f***ing b****,” and got the whole class singing it. The child was five years old and in kindergarten.

Principal Lisa Mahannah was in her second year as head of Oakland Elementary in the far northeast part of the city — and she was prepared. After a first year in which she found students running wild, teachers shouting and hungry kids eating out of the trash, she’d squeezed her budget to hire as many counselors, social workers and psychologists as she could.

She asked her new assistant principal, who is also a licensed social worker, to spend two weeks with the child. This year, that child is repeating kindergarten and doing well.

“If I didn’t have these wonderful people right here,” Mahannah said, referring to her school’s robust mental health team, “I don’t know what I would have done.”

DPS BOND AND MILL LEVY
Denver voters will be asked in November to pass a $572 million bond issue and a $56.6 million mill levy override, known as 3A and 3B, to support Denver Public Schools.

Here’s a quick rundown of how the money would be used:

  • $252 million in bond money for school maintenance.
  • $142 million in bond money to build new schools and expand others.
  • $108 million in bond money for classroom updates.
  • $70 million in bond money for technology such as computers.
  • $15 million in mill levy money for “whole child” initiatives, including hiring more school psychologists, social workers and nurses.
  • $14.5 million in mill levy money for teacher programs, including expanding one in which teachers coach their peers and investing in increasing the diversity of the workforce.
  • $8 million in mill levy money for programs that help students get ready for college or careers.
  • $6.8 million in mill levy money for early literacy efforts.

Denver Public Schools officials say that type of support is crucial for all schools, which is why the district is asking voters to approve a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, that includes nearly $11 million to hire more psychologists, social workers and nurses.

The $10.9 million represents the biggest chunk of the proposed tax increase. The money would be split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with the highest needs, said Dustin Kress, DPS’s manager of bond and mill levy programs.

“We’ve heard very clearly from our teachers and our school leaders about the importance of ensuring we’re supporting the whole child and providing the necessary resources for students’ social and emotional growth,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview.

Research backs up their assertion. National studies have shown at-risk students who are taught social and emotional skills do better on standardized tests. The district has its own data, culled from a student survey given last spring that asked kids questions such as whether they break things when they’re mad and whether there’s an adult at school they can trust.

DPS students who reported more social and emotional stability had higher attendance, were less likely to get suspended and scored better on state tests, according to a recent presentation about the survey results given by district staff to the school board.

Mahannah, the Oakland principal, has lived it. A former police officer who decided education was a better career fit, she became a teacher and then a principal, serving four years at an elementary school in southwest Denver before taking the job at Oakland. On paper, the two schools’ populations look similar: almost all of the students are children of color from low-income families.

But when Mahannah arrived at Oakland in the fall of 2014, she said she wasn’t prepared. Many kids had infinitely higher needs and were living in far more challenging situations: Parents in prison. Family members impacted by gang violence. Displacement and homelessness.

At her previous school, Mahannah said she’d had to report suspected abuse to child protective services maybe five times a year. At Oakland, it was multiple times a week.

The kids were frustrated and angry — and they expressed it by assaulting their classmates, destroying their classrooms or bolting from their teachers and not coming back. In the first three months, Mahannah said she called the district’s safety and security team 83 times.

“In my heart, I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is way more than I thought I was walking into,” she said. Even though the school had four administrators, including herself, and the equivalent of three mental health professionals, Mahannah said it wasn’t enough.

“We had teachers who just quit my first year, who walked away and said, ‘We can’t do this.’”

The school itself had a complicated history: after years of low test scores, it was turned into a charter school only to be converted back when the effort failed to boost academics. In some ways, Mahannah, who was hired to head the conversion, was starting from scratch.

She said she realized that if she was going to improve student learning, she’d have to improve student safety and well-being. She secured grant funding to move the school social worker from part-time to full-time. She took on two social work interns and supplemented the district-provided part-time psychologist with a student finishing his doctorate. She also hired two restorative justice coordinators to act as first responders to behavior incidents.

“I have to make sure my teachers can teach and students can learn — and the only way I could do that was to make sure we have this big team,” Mahannah said.

In her second year, she said she only called the district’s safety and security team once in the first three months. No teachers left. And while Oakland’s state test scores remain below district averages, Mahannah said about a third of students moved up two reading levels.

Mahannah is now in her third year as principal at Oakland. Because of a drop in enrollment she said was partly caused by families moving out of Denver due to rising rents, she has fewer per-pupil dollars in her budget. That means she’s had to cut staff, including teachers, administrators and one of her two restorative justice coordinators.

But she and her remaining staff said the need isn’t as great this year. As the preventative programs they’ve put in place over the past two years — teaching students about self-esteem, empathy and conflict resolution — begin to take root, there are fewer crises. The school counselor no longer has to wear tennis shoes to run from classroom to classroom.

Still, Mahannah knows that a sizable chunk of the money she uses to pay for her mental health team is fragile. Grants run out. And if the school shows the academic growth she hopes it will, it will move lower on the district’s priority list for extra funding, much of which Mahannah has poured into meeting students’ social and emotional needs.

She sees the nearly $11 million included in the mill levy override proposal as critical to keeping that support going.

“If the mill levy passes, it’s such a benefit for DPS,” she said. Personally, she said, “I would be able to not have to scramble every year during budget (season) to be like, ‘How am I going to pay for everything?’ … You build stability.”

And that, she said, is key.

Building Plans

Bond defeat in Jefferson County puts Alameda school renovations on hold — again

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Students move through the crowded cafeteria at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School in Lakewood.

Of all the Jefferson County schools pinning their hopes on the district’s bond and tax measures on the November ballot, few had as much to gain — or lose — as Alameda International.

The cafeteria is so cramped, the school spreads lunch over four periods and some students stand or sit in the hallways to eat. The gym locker rooms don’t have enough lockers. The school is lacking appropriate space to add career classes and teachers are forced to share classrooms.

When voters turned down the $535 million bond request this year for Jeffco Public Schools, Alameda International lost out on getting fixes to those problems as part of a $20 million renovation at the school that has been on hold since at least 2008. The district described the work that the bond would have covered as fulfilling a “past promise.”

Now the principal, Susie Van Scoyk, worries that some of the momentum of the school’s improvements from the last seven years will slow and that retaining teachers at the high-needs school will become more difficult.

The defeat stings more because the school is changing. Last year Alameda International expanded from being a stand-alone high school to including middle school grades.

“Our building isn’t built for younger students,” Van Scoyk said. “Middle school students have different developmental and social needs.”

Jeffco is working on updating plans following the failure of the district’s two tax requests — the bond and a smaller tax increase known as a mill levy override. Van Scoyk said she will continue to be a loud proponent for her school’s needs.

“I believe the students here deserve the same type of facility other students have,” Van Scoyk said. “But we will do the very best with what we do have.”

Alameda International, a school on Jeffco’s eastern boundary with Denver, currently has more than 1,200 students. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch — a measure of poverty — and about 22 percent are learning English as a second language. It’s a different population from the suburban district’s average school.

“This is really more of an urban school, with the needs of an urban school,” Van Scoyk said. “I can’t go to my PTA and say ‘Hey, we really need to or want to buy new science textbooks or we want to get laptops, or iPads.’ We just don’t have that capacity here.”

The school’s preliminary state ratings this year show Alameda’s high school grades moved up to the performance category for the first time in more than five years. In part, the rating is likely influenced by the school’s rising graduation rate. In 2015, the state recorded Alameda’s graduation rate at more than 92 percent, up from about 71 percent in 2010.

“The students and staff really have been remarkable,” Van Scoyk said.

But lately she says she’s had countless conversations with younger teachers who say they can’t afford to stay in Jeffco if they can make more in neighboring districts. The district’s mill levy override — a second property tax request that voters turned down — would have maintained and possibly increased teacher salaries.

“I want to keep the really good teachers we have here,” Van Scoyk said. “We know what makes a difference for a child is a high-quality teacher.”

Jeffco’s school board members voiced the same sentiment at a recent board meeting discussing with staff what should be prioritized as the district figures out what cuts might be necessary following the defeat of the tax requests. Many said that teacher retention should be prioritized with what money the district has.

Looking back, forward

Alameda’s school building on South Wadsworth Boulevard has been expanded many times since it was built in 1961 to try to accommodate more students, but some original shared spaces like the lunchroom and the gym locker rooms haven’t kept up.

The school has two gyms, but the locker rooms don’t have enough lockers for students. Teachers require students to change for physical education classes, but assistant principal Williams said they can’t penalize students since many don’t have a place to store a change of clothes.

Outside the building, school leaders would like more open space for the middle school student’s activities. Right now, most middle school students play on an open space behind the tennis courts, but between the building’s additions, the bleachers and the tennis courts, the area isn’t easily visible to the staff watching the students, so it takes more adults to be outside watching kids around each corner.

Inside, staff and administrators closely monitor their radios because the school’s announcement system is old and doesn’t work in the cafeteria. If something else is being broadcast through the speakers in the school’s auditorium, the announcements won’t be heard in there either. That presents a safety issue if something has to be communicated in an emergency, such as an evacuation.

Some of those issues were expected to be fixed as part of the phase two renovations that would have been paid for by the district’s bond. The work was put on hold when voters in 2008 rejected the school district’s tax measures that year, too.

In 2012, voters did approve a $99 million bond request, but the smaller amount covered more immediate deferred maintenance across the district, not big renovation projects.

Alameda’s turnaround efforts started seven years ago centered on the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Two years ago school leaders started expanding on the program by offering the IB program’s career classes too.

It started with health career classes. Students in the career pathway can graduate with a certificate in bilingual medical terminology giving them the chance to work in medical offices as translators who are proficient in language and the context.

Students also asked for an arts career option and one for STEM careers, representing those in science, technology, engineering and math. The arts classes just started this year. The STEM classes are now on hold. School leaders said they were hoping to use bond money to build or retrofit classrooms for engineering courses.

“To have a STEM pathway, we don’t have the type of facility and equipment that some of our neighboring schools have,” Van Scoyk said.

If the bond had passed this year, the renovation of the building also would have likely addressed the building’s layout that is causing stress on the new seventh through 12th grade model.

School leaders are juggling schedules and class locations to keep younger students away from older students. Although the building can house more students, keeping kids in separate parts of the school by grade level means space is short in some places where it can be enough in others. Williams, in charge of the master schedule, has three white boards in his office that help him track what teachers are in what classroom at what time.

It’s not ideal, but school leaders say they are managing for now.

“Kids keep coming everyday,” Van Scoyk said. “They have to be our focus.”

Facing the Unknown

What Trump’s election means for undocumented educators

PHOTO: Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective
Marissa Molina teaching last year at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School.

For three Denver educators, life in Donald Trump’s America is a big unknown.

They worry the president-elect will erase the protections that allowed them, as undocumented immigrants brought here as children, to step out of the shadows and into the classroom. All three were inspired to teach by the teachers who helped them succeed in a new country.

Marissa Molina came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9. Before her first day of school, her uncle armed her with the phrase, “I don’t speak English.” The librarian read Clifford the Big Red Dog with her after school to help her learn the language.

Alejandro Fuentes left his native Chile when he was 4 to join his mother in the United States. When he repeated for her the first sentence his teachers taught him to say in English — “My name is Alex and I like to learn” — she cried.

Carlos Ruiz’s mother brought him to the United States when he was 6 to give him a better shot at graduating high school and going to college, which she hadn’t been able to do in Mexico.

When Ruiz was in 11th grade, she gave a speech about what it meant for her and her son to be undocumented. A local college president was in the audience. Afterward, he gave her his card and offered to help. Ruiz said he never would have been able to afford college otherwise.

“It wasn’t until the middle of college that I realized not everybody’s parent gives a speech and the president of a university happens to be there,” Ruiz said. “That’s when I realized wanted to go into education so I could open the doors for other students.”

Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina became teachers through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income schools. Starting in December 2013, the organization began deliberately seeking out graduates granted work permits and exemption from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Known as DACA, it was created by executive action in 2012 to give protections, but not citizenship, for two years at a time to undocumented immigrants who came here as children.

Trump has said he plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions, including DACA.

If that happens, the nearly 750,000 young immigrants shielded by DACA would be forced into the underground economy. Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina could no longer work in public schools.

“Teachers have such a huge potential for change and being positive … influences on students,” Fuentes said. “The fact that would not be something I could do deeply saddens me.”

We spoke with all three educators, who are in their early- to mid-twenties, about their lives and careers — and how a presidential election in which they weren’t allowed to vote could profoundly alter them.

•••

Marissa Molina grew up in Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s Western Slope. Her family, fearful of the repercussions, instructed her never to speak about her immigration status.

“That created a lot of shame for me,” she said. “My story and my struggles, instead of being something I was proud to overcome, really was just a sense of embarrassment.”

Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)
Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)

It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, when she was working with her school counselor on scholarship applications, that she admitted to not having a Social Security number.

“Instead of making me feel like a terrible person, he was like, ‘Let’s get to work. Let’s figure out how you’re going to get to college,’” she remembers. “That sense of empowerment he gave me to advocate for myself was something I had never felt before.”

Molina ended up enrolling at Fort Lewis College in Durango as an international student, but paying tuition was a struggle. She cleaned houses with her mom and tutored fellow students in Spanish to help her parents with the bill. But by her junior year, their resources were tapped.

“I remember having serious conversations with my parents: ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I don’t want to live this lie. What does it mean if they give me a piece of paper that I graduated and then I can’t use it?’” she said. She told them she was thinking of going back to Mexico.

Her mother begged her to have faith. That summer, Obama announced DACA. One of Molina’s friends called to tell her about it. “I will never forget because I was cleaning windows with my mom and saying, ‘You were right. I just had to have a little bit of faith,’” she said.

Molina applied right away and then secured a scholarship to help pay for her senior year. As she was deciding what to do after graduation, she came across Teach for America, which had placed its first two “DACAmented” teachers in Denver. Though she had majored in political science and economics — not education — Molina felt called to give back.

“This was a way to say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Let me pay it forward by helping other kids achieve,’” she said.

Last school year, Molina taught Spanish at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a charter school in far northeast Denver. While the student body was more than 50 percent Latino, Molina said she was the only Latina teacher. That made a difference to her students, she said.

One comment in particular stuck with her.

“The student said, ‘This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach. … Listening to her tell us her struggle as a Latina woman helps me understand how I can do it,’” Molina recalled.

This year, Molina is the community engagement coordinator at Rocky Mountain Prep, which has three charter schools in Denver and Aurora. In that role, she helps families — the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking — advocate for their children.

Molina said she followed the presidential election closely and even knocked doors for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s win, she said, was painful. “When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was hard not to feel that all of the people who voted for him had directly voted against me,” she said. “It was a lot of reminding myself that’s not necessarily the truth.”

Whatever happens with DACA, Molina said she’s confident she’ll be OK because the education she received in the United States opens doors for her here and abroad.

And frankly, she said, living with fear and anxiety is nothing new for her and millions of other undocumented immigrants. The difference now, she said, is that she’s willing to share her story. And because of that, Molina said she received several texts after Election Day from people pledging to stand with her. One of them was from a former student.

It read, in part, “You’ve never given up on yourself and never given up on your community. You’re a remarkable role model in my life,” Molina said. That, she said, was a call to action.

“I taught 120 young kids who are looking to me and saying, ‘Now what?’” Molina said. “I want to be able to show them it is possible to stand up for what you believe without hating other people.”

•••

Alejandro Fuentes spent his childhood in California. His mother and stepfather worked low-paying jobs and his family moved around a lot. In third grade, he went to seven different elementary schools.

Because he’d been identified as “gifted and talented,” he recalls that teachers were always pulling for him. For sixth grade, he was encouraged to apply to The Preuss School, a highly-rated San Diego charter school for low-income students.

Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)
Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)

His first two years there, Fuentes said he was the class clown. Then, when he was in eighth grade, his family was evicted from their home. It was a personal blow for Fuentes, but his advisory teacher took him under her wing, encouraging him to focus on school.

Although she didn’t share his experience, Ruiz said she showed him great empathy. “She was consistently there,” he said. “It helped to have somebody who seemed to care.”

School became Fuentes’s refuge. He’d leave his house at 6:30 a.m. and not get home until 7:30 p.m. He became a straight-A student involved in myriad after-school activities: National Honors Society, robotics club, lacrosse and cross country.

Though he knew he didn’t have papers or a Social Security number, he didn’t realize what that meant until it came time to apply to college. Again, his advisory teacher was there to help. He ended up going to Whitman College in Washington state on a full-ride scholarship.

He majored in psychology but in his senior year, he began to wonder if it was worth it. Facing life without a work permit, Fuentes had resigned himself to the fact that he’d probably graduate and return to California to work construction alongside his stepfather.

“I felt kind of hopeless because I knew how much my dad was getting underpaid because people know he’s undocumented,” he said.

What he really wanted to do was become a teacher. Teach for America had come to his college on a recruiting trip and Fuentes was intrigued by the idea of changing young people’s lives the way his advisory teacher had changed his.

But that was before DACA, and the organization had never had an undocumented teacher. He remembers being told, “we’re not sure we can take you, but please apply.”

Shortly thereafter, Obama announced the policy. Teach for America accepted Fuentes and placed him at DCIS at Ford, an elementary school in far northeast Denver. In the fall of 2013, Denver was the only city in the country that had agreed to take DACA teachers.

His first ever day of teaching, he shared his story with his students. “I found this quote … ‘Everything is hard before it’s easy.’ I relate it to that quote,” Fuentes says. He tells his students that if they believe they can overcome their obstacles, they will.

Now in his fourth year as a teacher in Denver, Fuentes recently accepted a new job teaching sixth-grade math at KIPP Montbello College Prep middle school. The day after the election, he said he showed up to school with tears in his eyes.

“At the beginning of every class, students were coming up to me and asking if anything was wrong,” he said. “So I figured it was as good a time as any to tell them my story, my fears of losing my job and not being able to stand in front of them and be the teacher I want to be.”

Fuentes said he worries about no longer being able to financially support his parents — he makes more than both of them combined — and about deportation.

On the one hand, Fuentes said he felt uncomfortable sharing his burden with his students. But on the other, he said he was comforted by their words. “It was a lot of, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Fuentes. We won’t let anybody take you,’” he said.

Fuentes is struggling with what he would do if DACA were repealed. Would it be better to go into hiding? Or to continue speaking out? He said he’s leaning toward the latter.

“We tell our students that if you’re working hard enough and doing the best you possibly can and showing to everyone who you are and what you stand for, life could eventually work out for you,” he said. “And so I guess I’m trying to be an example of that advice I’ve given to my students: Put yourself out there and people will support you.”

•••

As a high school student in Tennessee, Carlos Ruiz wasn’t motivated. He had poor grades and a low ACT score. Knowing that he was undocumented, “I didn’t see the point of it,” he said.

When DACA was announced his freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, he said it changed his whole outlook. Ruiz applied the very first day possible.

“DACA was an avenue for me to work hard and do what I wanted with that,” he said. “It made me feel in control and empowered.”

Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)
Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)

A history major, Ruiz decided he wanted to become a teacher. He said he hoped to convince teenagers who felt as hopeless as he had to stay the course. “You don’t know what’s going to change, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

He applied to Teach for America and was placed at an elementary school in Denver. Realizing his passion lie in working with high school students, Ruiz left the organization. This year, he’s a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel, a charter high school in the northwest part of the city.

His students, the majority of whom are Latino, know his story. Ruiz said it’s a point of solidarity: Even though most of them were born here and are citizens, many have undocumented friends or family members. The day after the election was difficult, he said.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the building,” Ruiz said. But, he added, “as the day went on, I felt better and continue to feel better. I grew up without DACA. DACA is a relatively new development. It’s hard having tasted freedom and knowing it might be taken away. But you have to look at it like, whatever happens, I will be OK.”

Ruiz said he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t searched job websites in Mexico, a country he hasn’t stepped foot in since he was a child. But being undocumented and growing up surrounded by uncertainty about his future has taught him to focus on what he can control and not dwell on the rest — a lesson he hopes to pass on to his students.

“That’s the mentality I’ve reverted to: Hope for the best. Keep on staying level-headed for myself and for my students. And continue to speak about it in an educated way because I sincerely believe that when people hear our stories, they will be supportive and change will come.”