Why former teacher Karolina Villagrana is running for Denver school board

A woman wearing a blue dress poses in front of a brightly colored mural.
Karolina Villagrana is running to represent southwest Denver on the school board. (Courtesy of Karolina Villagrana)

A former Denver teacher who held bilingual outdoor read-alouds for neighborhood kids during the pandemic is running to represent southwest Denver on the school board.

Karolina Villagrana grew up in Denver attending parochial schools and then the University of Colorado Denver. She said her run for school board was inspired in part by an experience she had in college sitting on a panel for a visiting group of high school students. The high schoolers had written down questions, and one stood out to Villagrana. 

“It said, in Spanish, ‘A veces siento que no merezco ir a la universidad,’ which translates to, ‘At times I feel as if I don’t deserve to go to college,’” said Villagrana, 33. “For me, that statement left me broken. … I believe our kids, and our southwest Denver kids, deserve the best.”

In all, 12 candidates are running for four open seats on the Denver school board in the Nov. 2 election. The winners will help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make up for a year and a half of disrupted learning. The board will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools.

Villagrana’s parents are Denver Public Schools graduates, but they did not send her to public school because of her oldest brother’s experience, she said. He was placed in a bilingual classroom without their mother’s consent, and Villagrana said the school did nothing to address their mother’s concerns when she saw stark differences in the educational quality between the bilingual and English-speaking classrooms. After that, the family opted for parochial schools.

“That had a forever impact because it really led me to view the value of advocacy and the roles that loved ones can have on a child’s life,” Villagrana said.

Villagrana holds two master’s degrees in education. She began her teaching career at a charter school in Kansas City through Teach for America, a program that trains educators on the job. 

Villagrana was on the founding staff of a charter elementary school in San Jose, California, that is part of the Rocketship Public Schools network, later serving as the school’s assistant principal. She has also worked for several charter networks in Denver, most recently as the director of elementary literacy and K-8 language acquisition for KIPP Colorado Schools. 

Villagrana was set to be the founding principal of a new KIPP school in the neighboring Adams 14 district, but the Adams 14 school board blocked the school from opening.

Not all of Villagrana’s experience is in charter schools. She also worked as an instructional coach and second grade teacher at district-run Knapp Elementary School in southwest Denver. She currently works for an organization called Camelback Ventures that provides funding and mentorship to women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color in education and other fields.

Villagrana grew up mostly in northeast Denver but now lives in the southwest Athmar Park neighborhood with her husband Nicholas Martinez, who is co-founder of the advocacy group Transform Education Now. During the pandemic, she started a weekly outdoor event called “libros en el parque,” where she read a book aloud in both English and Spanish and then led kids in a craft related to the story or season, like carving pumpkins. 

“It was really joyful,” she said.

If elected, Villagrana said she’d focus on pushing the district to improve literacy instruction for young students. She’d also advocate for setting academic benchmarks for students, monitoring to see if they reach them, and communicating to parents their progress.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving about 90,000 students. A little more than half of students are Hispanic, 26% are white, and 14% are Black. Its school board has seven members — five regional and two districtwide.

We asked Villagrana about several key issues the district will face in the coming years.

Declining enrollment and a growing number of small schools: Villagrana said she’d advocate for doing two things: Asking families what they see as the best pathway forward, and analyzing what’s working and what’s not working at each school. The district needs both types of information before making decisions about consolidating or closing schools, she said. 

“It comes down to community voice and then really utilizing data to help create the pathway forward,” Villagrana said. She said she believes in the potential for a “third way” of solving the problem of declining enrollment that isn’t closing small schools or keeping them open, but she doesn’t yet have specific ideas for what that could look like.

Charter and innovation schools: What matters most to her is not the type of school but whether students are learning and families are treated well, Villagrana said.

“When I was having conversations with loved ones, it was more so that they wanted to find a school that was best for their kids, where their kids are learning and being successful,” she said. “And at the end of the day, that’s really my focus point.”

Improving education for Black and Hispanic students: The district should start with building knowledge about its existing decrees, Villagrana said. That includes a court order to serve students learning English as a second language and a resolution passed by the school board in 2019 requiring the district to better serve Black students

“There is sometimes an assumption that just because you are in a building of DPS that you know what it is, and that’s not very true,” she said. “There’s a lot of education that needs to go around it.” She said she’d extend that education to students’ families, informing them what the decrees are and how they should see them play out in their children’s education.

In addition, she said the district needs to provide better guidance to schools on how to carry out those mandates and then make sure schools are following through.

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