From student to staffer, Denver school board candidate’s district ties span decades

A former district staff member who attended school in Denver and wants to create more affordable housing options for teachers is running for an at-large seat on the school board.

Alexis Menocal Harrigan lives in southeast Denver, where her oldest son will be in kindergarten this fall, but she is not running for the open seat to represent that region. Instead, she said her experience as a student in southwest Denver, an Americorps volunteer in northwest Denver, a city council aide in northeast Denver, and a liaison between Denver Public Schools and the city make her well-suited to represent all of Denver.

“I have roots in all parts of the city,” Menocal Harrigan said.

She is the third candidate to jump in the race for the seat currently held by Happy Haynes, who is barred by term limits from running again. Menocal Harrigan’s two opponents are both district employees. Anna DeWitt is a teacher at North High School, and Tay Anderson works at the same school as a restorative practices coordinator, helping students resolve conflicts. (Update: DeWitt has since dropped out of the race, while another candidate, Natela Manuntseva, entered.)

After leaving her job as manager of government affairs for Denver Public Schools, Menocal Harrigan spent several months advising former Gov. John Hickenlooper on education issues. She now works for a nonprofit organization called, dedicated to expanding students’ access to computer science, with a focus on female students and students of color.

She said her own experience mirrors that of many of Denver’s 93,000 public school students. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Menocal Harrigan moved to Denver, from California, as a young child. She attended what is now CMS Community School in southwest Denver.

“This was the mid- to late-‘90s, so the schools were not doing great,” she said. “I happened to be a nerdy, type-A, good, studious student.”

But she said her mother worried about the quality of the middle and high schools in the area, so the family moved north, where Menocal Harrigan graduated from Horizon High School in Thornton and won a scholarship to the University of Denver.

An international studies major with dreams of becoming a diplomat, she finished her coursework early and spent her senior year volunteering full-time with Americorps. She was assigned to Denver’s Greenlee Elementary, where she tutored struggling readers and ran after-school programs. The school was going through some tumultuous changes in an effort to improve test scores, and Menocal Harrigan said she felt leaders were doing a poor job communicating the changes to parents. Frustrated, she said she took it upon herself to educate them.

“That experience really changed the trajectory of my career,” she said. “I decided I wanted to serve people locally.”

She started by helping undocumented immigrants who were facing deportation, including as a constituent advocate for Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s office. But the issue hit close to home when her father was detained by immigration authorities.

“The first time he met his first grandson was behind a glass partition,” Menocal Harrigan said.

She helped her father avoid deportation, but she said the traumatic experience made her realize she needed more separation between her personal life and her work. That’s when she transitioned from immigration policy to education policy.

Menocal Harrigan said she empathizes with the frustrations that have led some community groups to call to “flip the board” in November and reverse some of the district’s more controversial reforms. While she believes families have been served well by both district-run and charter schools, she said school choice has created “undue competition” and exacerbated inequities “that are very much along racial divides.”

“I want to have discussions about what parts of choice are working and what parts are not working,” she said. “Our policy should be community-led and district-supported.”

A big part of her platform is providing affordable housing options for teachers, including possibly using some of the district’s own land — an idea the district explored and shelved last year.

She is also calling for a new approach to school budgeting that would emphasize the importance of mental health support for students. She envisions a process by which the district would fully fund positions such as a nurse, social worker, and psychologist at every school, and then allow principals to spend the rest of their budget as they see fit.

“Principals shouldn’t have to make the difficult choice to hire a school social worker or psychologist versus a math coach,” Menocal Harrigan said.

In addition to the at-large race, two other seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs in November. That includes the seat representing southeast Denver currently held by board President Anne Rowe, who is term-limited. Four candidates are in the running in that race.

There are also three candidates vying for the seat representing northwest Denver. It is currently held by Lisa Flores, who is not running for re-election.