Four square, fútbol, and phonics: A day at Denver’s Valdez Elementary with two newly arrived migrant students

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Fourth graders streamed one at a time through the playground door at Denver’s Valdez Elementary, a snaking jumble of energy and untied shoelaces.

Most bounded up the stairs to their classrooms. Only a few stopped to give a quick side hug to the staff member who was squinting in the sun and holding the door. Two of the huggers were Jesus and Leiker, who arrived in Denver from Venezuela a few months ago.

The boys, ages 9 and 10, are among the more than 38,000 migrants who have come to Denver in the past year after fleeing political and economic crises in their home countries.

Some of the new arrivals are families with children like Jesus and Leiker. Denver Public Schools has enrolled more than 3,200 of these young people since the start of the school year.

A majority arrived after the October cutoff date that determines how much per-student funding DPS gets from the state, creating a financial shortfall for the state’s largest district and causing schools to scramble for resources.

But not all schools. The new students are concentrated in a couple dozen of DPS’ more than 200 schools, which the district has been calling hotspots. The main reason is because the schools offer specialized instruction in both English and Spanish.

Valdez, also known as Escuela Valdez, has a longstanding dual language program. It’s also right up the street from a city-run shelter inside a Quality Inn, which Principal Jessica Buckley said everyone simply calls “The Quality.” Valdez, which had about 400 students last year, has welcomed more than 100 new students in the past few months.

The front entrance of a tan brick school building with words that read "Escuela Valdez" above a set of steps in the front.
Valdez Elementary — or Escuela Valdez — is a dual language school in northwest Denver. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Every classroom in the northwest Denver elementary school is at capacity with 35 children — except the fourth grade, which before last week had 29 per class.

In the face of this new reality, Valdez has had to make adjustments. Some of the shifts have been beautiful. Others have been hard. “The bright spots are the growth of our kids and our community,” Buckley said. “The challenge is resources.”

Jesus and Leiker met at The Quality, where both of their families were staying, and became fast friends. They say they are like brothers: “Somos como hermanos.”

This is what one school day looked like recently for Jesus and Leiker, whose last names Chalkbeat is withholding to protect their identities as they navigate life in a new country.

Valdez is ‘an excellent place to land’

The boys were the first two to enter the classroom, walking shoulder-to-shoulder and chattering.

“OK! Sit in a place where you think you can focus well,” teacher Isabelle King said in Spanish.

Jesus and Leiker scurried to opposite corners of a classroom rug imprinted with a map of the United States. Jesus sat cross-legged above the state of Michigan, and Leiker scrambled to a spot near California. They said “buenos días” to the classmates next to them. Following the teacher’s prompt, they also named their favorite sport.

“Fútbol,” Jesus said with a smile.

The fourth grade class had been watching video clips about children with disabilities. That day’s clip featured a girl who was Deaf and used a sign language interpreter at school.

When the teacher paused the video to ask for one way the students were the same as the girl and one way they were different, Leiker raised his hand. In Spanish, he said that he was different because he could talk to his friends directly, without an interpreter.

A group of young students and a teacher sit in a classroom with a colorful rug.
Jesus, in the blue polo shirt, listens as teacher Isabelle King gives instructions during morning meeting in her fourth grade classroom. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

That’s possible at Valdez because all of the students speak Spanish. As a dual language school, Valdez doesn’t admit native English speakers after kindergarten. In the younger grades, as much as 90% of the classroom instruction is in Spanish to immerse students in the language.

Whereas other schools in Denver and around the country have had to use technology, sometimes as rudimentary as Google Translate, to communicate with new students and families from Venezuela, no interpreters are needed at Valdez.

“We are an excellent place for these kids to land,” Buckley said. Because everyone speaks Spanish, she said, the new students are “able to interact and learn and be themselves.”

Students learn the language of play

In the gym, P.E. teacher Jessica Dominguez told the students to split into teams.

“Me and Leiker!” Jesus shouted in Spanish.

For the next 40 minutes, their team rotated between basketball, four square, and a rock climbing wall. The boys dominated at basketball, sprinting around the half court and shouting “rápido, rápido!” — fast, fast! — as their teammates were shooting.

The girls dominated at four square. Jesus struggled. After he lost for serving the ball when he wasn’t supposed to, a girl paused the game to explain the rules to him in Spanish.

“He didn’t know,” she told her classmates.

A group of students and a teacher play foursquare in a school gym.
Leiker, in the top left square, and Jesus, standing behind him in line, play four square with their classmates during P.E. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Staff at Valdez agree that the new students have enriched the school linguistically. Whereas in the past students — and even adults — would often default to English when speaking with each other, now it’s most practical to speak in Spanish. That way, everyone understands.

The phenomenon was on display at recess, too. Soccer has long been the most popular activity at recess, Buckley said. But now, Spanish is what is spoken on the field.

“Leiker! Leiker! Atrás! Atrás!”” a teammate called out, urging him to pass the ball behind.

The second most popular game is a new one called gaga ball. In contrast to the Spanish spoken on the soccer field, all of the students playing gaga ball spoke in English.

At the shrill tweet-tweet of a whistle, Jesus, Leiker, and the other soccer players ran to the cafeteria for lunch. Leiker’s cheeks were flushed pink as he waited for his macaroni and cheese. Jesus brought his lunch from home, but he still stood in line with his friend.

Together, they found seats at a round table with two other fourth-grade boys.

“You guys played soccer today?” Assistant Principal Cesar Sanchez asked in Spanish.

“Sí!” they answered in unison.

“We lost,” Leiker added.

“Does it matter if you win or lose?” Sanchez asked. “What matters?”

“Have fun!” they said in unison.

A group of young students play soccer outside with a blue sky and clouds in the background.
Soccer is the most popular game at recess at Valdez Elementary. On this warm winter day, Jesus, kicking the ball, Leiker, and the other students used rock-paper-scissors to pick teams. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Teachers make academic adjustments

It’s always been the case at Valdez, like at all schools, that some students are ahead academically and some are behind, and teachers must adapt their lessons. But with the newly arrived students, teachers have had to differentiate to new extremes. Valdez has welcomed some fourth graders who don’t know how to write their names, Buckley said.

Jesus and Leiker can read and write in Spanish. They said they went to school in Venezuela before coming to the United States. Still, their teachers — especially literacy teacher Giovanni Leon, who the students call Don Gio — have had to make adjustments, working to strengthen the new arrivals’ reading and writing skills in their native language while also starting from scratch in English, teaching them the alphabet and the sounds the letters make.

On this day after P.E., Jesus and Leiker’s class started their literacy block on the carpet, where Leon explained the day’s assignment: to read an 1873 speech by women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and answer questions about the text.

Four young students sit at a table working on school work.
Leiker, far left, and Jesus, third from the left, work on writing complete sentences. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

But the text and the questions were in English, part of Valdez’s 50/50 split between English and Spanish in the upper grades. For years, the language rotation was very black-and-white. With the new students, it’s become more gray.

As most students paired up to begin reading the Susan B. Anthony speech, Leon called Jesus, Leiker, and three others to a C-shaped table in the back of the room. They would be reading and answering questions about another text, a fairy tale, in Spanish.

First, however, Leon had them practice writing complete sentences with a subject and a predicate, a capital letter at the beginning, and a period at the end. He gave them a subject in Spanish — el perro, the dog — and asked them to finish the sentence.

A spiral notebook with writing.
Many newly arrived students at Valdez are practicing literacy skills in their native Spanish while also learning English. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

“The dog is playing in the yard,” Leiker wrote in Spanish in his notebook.

“The dog is barking,” Jesus wrote.

A while later, when Leon pointed out that Leiker was missing a period, the boy swirled the tip of his pencil several times, making a period so big his teacher couldn’t miss it.

Jesus has a lightbulb moment

While many things are different at Valdez these days, some things are the same. One of those is that students, including the new arrivals, continue to have what teachers call lightbulb moments — the moment of joy and discovery when an academic concept clicks.

On this day, something clicked for Jesus in math.

Math is not Jesus’ favorite subject. Both boys said they like recess and lunch best, followed by snack. Leiker said he thinks music class, where they learn to play instruments, is the hardest. Shaking his head, Jesus said that for him, it’s math.

Two students lay on a colorful rug working on computers with a toy shelf in the background.
Leiker, left, and Jesus, right, giggle as they work side by side on math problems on their computers. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

During part of the math block, the boys were sitting with King at her C-shaped table. To help explain 5 x 30 to Leiker, King took out a bucket of yellow cubes stuck together in groups of 10. Leiker portioned the cube stacks into five piles of three and counted them up.

Jesus sat next to him, working on addition. But the yellow cubes caught his eye.

When Leiker got the right answer — 150 — Jesus let out an, “Ohhhhhhhh!”

Jesus put his own work aside and helped Leiker with his next problem: 30 x 40. Using a bigger set of yellow cubes, the boys counted in Spanish. They spoke in unison, just like they had when they were talking about soccer at lunch. “100, 200, 300, 400…


“That’s it,” King said.

The boys beamed.

Valdez will need more desks

Just past 3 p.m., Jesus, Leiker, and their fourth-grade classmates streamed out of Valdez through the same playground door they’d entered seven hours earlier, in the same jumbly line.

Buckley stood on the blacktop, surveying the scene.

Valdez has more students now than at any time in recent history. The school is so full that when newly arrived families show up in the office looking to register their children, as three had that day, the secretary often has to redirect them to nearby elementary schools.

Two young boys wearing blue shirts walk down a school hallway.
Jesus, left, and Leiker, right, walk to their classroom at Valdez Elementary, which has welcomed more than 100 newly arrived students this year, many of them from Venezuela. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Valdez has hired more paraprofessionals and an intervention teacher to help the new students catch up. It has also bought more books and scrounged for hand-me-down furniture. The assistant principal, Sanchez, has at times driven around the city in his own truck, collecting spare desks from elementary schools that don’t have as many students.

A few hours before class was dismissed for the day, Buckley learned the school would need two more desks. The district was in touch to share that two newly arrived students — in fourth grade, the only grade at Valdez with any more room — would be enrolling the following week.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at