Rachele Espiritu is set to be sworn in Thursday afternoon as the newest member of the Denver school board, bringing to an end a tumultuous appointment process. She will replace former board member Landri Taylor, who resigned in February.
Espiritu, 46, will represent Denver Public Schools District 4. It’s a diverse region, encompassing older, inner-city neighborhoods such as Whittier and Cole and newer neighborhoods including Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Espiritu’s home of Stapleton.
It’s also seen a lot of change in recent years, including an ambitious and controversial effort to turn around several schools in the far northeast reaches of the city.
We sat down with Espiritu to discuss her background, her work in the mental health field, why she wants to join the school board and how she plans to approach her new position.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me a bit about your background. I read in your bio that you were born in the Philippines but grew up in the United States.
Yes, my family moved to Michigan when I was a toddler. I grew up there and went to elementary school there. And then we moved to California when I was starting middle school. And that was really neat for me because we moved to a city that was really diverse and I felt more accepted. It was a nice experience and a nice transition.
I finished up high school in northern California and then went to do my undergraduate degree at the University of California in San Diego. And then from there I went on to CU Boulder to get my graduate degree in clinical psychology.
Why did your family come to the United States?
For my father to pursue some training in the States. And then we ended up staying here because President (Ferdinand) Marcos, at the time, declared martial law. So that changed our family’s trajectory in terms of staying in the United States.
You said you felt more accepted in California. Can you tell me more about that?
I grew up in a neighborhood that was not very racially diverse in Michigan and so to come to California and to a community that was very diverse in terms of racial ethnic minorities as well as socioeconomic status, I just felt more comfortable.
Did that impact how you did in school?
During my younger years in school, my earlier grades, I’d say that I was painfully aware I was different in my classrooms because I was often only student of color in class. I think that did impact my comfort in the classroom.
And so moving to California and being in a classroom that was more diverse was really helpful for me and it helped me feel a better sense of belonging in my environment.
How did you end up in Colorado? You said you went to CU Boulder?
Yes, I chose clinical psychology primarily because I lost a very close friend of mine to suicide when I was in college. And what that raised for me was an awareness of the stigma mental health had in our community. And so I really wanted to pursue a degree where I could help address those issues and really work with clients of diverse backgrounds.
Tell me about what you do for a living.
I’m a partner in a small, woman-owned, minority-owned business called Change Matrix. Our mission is to help support agencies and organizations as they undergo change to help improve the lives of children and their families. So we do a lot of systems building work, leadership development, work around addressing health disparities and equity, taking a public health approach to children’s mental health, and youth engagement.
What do you mean by ‘a public health approach to children’s mental health?’
It means recognizing that all students have mental health needs. When we say the term ‘mental health,’ people automatically think mental illness. But we all have mental health.
Can you give me an example of a project you’ve worked on?
My longest project is working on the National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health. It’s a federally funded initiative that brings together community-based, ethnic-based organizations that have the mission of addressing disparities for diverse populations.
And by diverse, I mean broader than racial, ethnic groups. We’re also looking at sexual gender minority populations, rural populations.
Schools are increasingly talking about serving the ‘whole child,’ including mental health needs. Do you think they’re doing a good job? What could they be doing better?
One of my other projects is a federally funded initiative called Project AWARE. The project is intended to help support building the infrastructure of schools to meet the mental health needs of students. … I work with six states to implement programs and services that would help raise awareness around children’s mental health issues, as well as help connect students and families to community-based services.
Is Colorado one of the states?
Yes. Each of the states selected three local educational agencies to work with. And Colorado selected the Aurora, Fountain-Fort Carson and Thompson (school districts). So I’ve been visiting each of those three districts to help support them, mostly around their work around cultural and linguistic competence and bringing that into their services.
When did you and your family move to Denver?
We moved to Denver in the summer of 2012.
Before that, were you in Boulder?
I went to grad school in Boulder, so I was there for almost six years. I met my husband here in Denver when we were both in grad school, and then we moved to California.
And from there, we’ve kind of been across the United States. … We were so excited (when) the opportunity for my husband to get a job here came up. We both felt like it was a full circle and so jumped on the opportunity and hope to be here for a long time.
You have two kids. How old are they and what schools do they attend?
I have two boys. They are 11 and 13. The younger one is currently at Bill Roberts K-8 School in Stapleton. And my older son is at DSST: Stapleton Middle School.
It’s interesting that one of those schools is a charter and the other is a traditional school. How did your family make those choices?
When we moved to Denver, I was looking for a K-8 school because my older son had just skipped a grade. He was entering 5th grade, so didn’t I want him to have to transition right away into another middle school. And then he told me that he wanted to go to DSST: Stapleton.
We went to the open house and I really connected with the mission and vision of DSST, and I’m supportive of his choice. We’re lucky in Denver that we have that choice option.
How did he know about DSST?
From his friends at school. Because I didn’t know about it! … It’s that peer influence.
Did you have any experience with charter schools?
No, this is our first experience with charter schools. And honestly, for us, it was just about selecting a great school. It didn’t matter whether it was charter or traditional.
What made you want to join the school board?
I’m very passionate about the success of all children in our community. … I realize that (the board is) an important body that makes important decisions that influence Denver students. And I felt that I had experience and background as a parent, as a community member and as a professional to bring to the board.
The board appointment process was controversial. From a candidate’s perspective, do you think there’s something the district could have done better?
I participated as an applicant. And so the whole time, I was really focused on my commitment to students and to wanting to serve on the board. That never wavered for me. So I’m happy to be where we are now and look forward to getting to the work.
Given the way the process unfolded and some constituents’ criticisms of it, will you start your position differently than you would have otherwise?
My excitement lies around outreach and engagement to the community. I would have done that whatever way the process went. And so I’m really excited to begin listening to the voices of the community and finding out what District 4’s interests are and bringing that back to the board.
Have you done any outreach yet?
Oh, yes. I’ve been outreaching to community leaders and setting up time to speak with folks. I’ve attended several meetings already that have been very informative and helpful. … I kind of feel like I’m jumping in, wanting to get as much as I can before the school year ends. I know I’m on a steep learning curve as well, so I’ll be using the summer to catch up to my colleagues.
Are there specific groups you’d like to connect with?
I’d like to reach out to schools or areas that maybe have been struggling the most. And if there are schools or areas that have particular challenges that need to be addressed quickly, I’d like to (do) outreach to those communities.
In general, what do you think DPS does well?
Denver has really led the way around school choice options in an urban district. I know I appreciated that as a parent coming into a new neighborhood and district, that I had the opportunity to choose a great school in my own neighborhood.
I also believe the board and the community have done an amazing job establishing a common vision and core beliefs and values that go into the Denver 2020 Plan. Having those kind of benchmarks are important for our community so that we know how we’re doing.
What are some things you’d want to see improve?
I’d really like to focus on the issues of equity at all levels: looking at equity for our students as well as our teachers and our schools. So just bringing that lens to the work that we do.
What’s an example? Or an area you think needs improvement?
Looking at it from the lens of our budget, looking at our teachers in terms of diversity in our teacher body, supporting teachers who are working with harder-to-reach populations and then looking at how we support our different schools in an equitable way.
When you say ‘equity,’ do you mean the same funding for everybody?
No, I make the distinction between equity and equal. Equity might mean giving more resources to a school that is struggling a bit more or that hasn’t been performing over the years.
One of the topics the board will be dealing with soon is how to execute its School Performance Compact, essentially its school closure policy. What are your thoughts on closing low-performing schools? Is that something you’re open to?
I would if (the schools) met the criteria that (the board) laid out and had gone through all the steps of implementation to support the school.
I also want to ask about Denver’s achievement gaps. The district has struggled to close the gap in test scores between white students and students of color, and low-income and non-low-income students. Do you have thoughts about what more the district could be doing?
I think there’s still a lot for me to learn around that. There are some strategies the district is already exploring that seem like viable options: looking at school enrollment zones, different kinds of budgetary incentives.
I think we’d be remiss if we weren’t looking at what some of the underlying factors are that are contributing to that achievement gap. It’s not just about skin color. There are issues related to poverty and other factors that I think need to be looked at as well.
You will be taking over for a previous board member whose term is set to expire in the fall of 2017. What are your thoughts about running for the seat?
I’m very interested in running in November 2017. I want to provide a continuous voice for District 4. I think it’s important for our community to have that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Or that you want people to know?
Just that I’m really excited and eager to begin the work.