Former Schmitt Elementary teacher Dolores Carbajal–Sandoval looks at a thank-you card from a student whose reading improved more than two grade levels last year. 

(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)
Denver public school students go back class next week, but not all their teachers will be there.

Last spring, school administrators placed 80 teachers on a blacklist, banning them from working in the district for at least three years, and in some cases for good.

At a 10-hour board meeting in May, a string of teachers protested. Some argued the district’s process for evaluating teachers wasn’t followed. The district maintains every teacher on that list had significant performance issues. 

One of those teachers was Dolores Carbajal-Sandoval: For 17 years, right around this time of year, she was happily preparing for the school year. 

Carbajal-Sandoval loved making her classroom at Denver’s Schmitt Elementary warm and inviting for her 4th and 5th graders, all Latino.

She’d bring in gardenias from her garden for students to care for. She’d set out books about the Trail of Tears and Cesar Chavez.

She put calaveras – traditional ceramic skeletons- in the corners for kids to tattle to and talk about their problems.

“It’s amazing how they would go and talk and talk and talk and talk!” Carbajal-Sandoval said with a laugh.

It seemed like she understood her students and their parents. She spoke their language and she, herself, is the daughter of migrant farmworkers.  Carbajal-Sandoval’s joy also came from sharing her expertise with other teachers. Many sought her out, especially on second language issues. Lagging students often ended up in her class, and she pushed them hard. One previous principal placed Carbajal-Sandoval in the top ten percent of all teachers she’d ever worked with. Teaching was her life.

“Once I’m in my classroom, it’s a whole different world,” she said. “It’s my world with them. I love it. I love teaching!”

But this year after 17 years of teaching in Colorado, she won’t be coming back.  She can’t hide her emotion as she looks down at a list of former students.  

“I know them, and I know what they need, and I won’t be able to see them through,” she said through tears. “And I don’t know if people will know that Ricardo, he’s is a picky eater, and I knew when he didn’t eat. Will they know that Daniella, she’s such a good girl, but so sensitive? Will they know that Francisco doesn’t get to see his Dad but once a year? Do they know that? Will they know that?"

Colorado law allows teachers who don’t have tenure yet to be let go for just about any reason. They don’t have to be told why. Carbajal-Sandoval was in that category - even though she’d been teaching 17 years, she’d only been in Denver schools for three. Things changed for her this year, with a new principal. The school was a pilot for new academic standards, and any more demands were placed on teachers. She was one of several who pushed back, asking for more support.

“We have data to back up that everything wasn’t alright in this school,” said Billy Husher with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. 

He was called to the school, along with a district representative, early in the school year to help ease tensions between administrators and teachers. Later, in February, a survey of teachers showed low scores for the principal’s leadership.

“It showed that a majority of faculty there did not believe that it was a good place to work and learn, which means there was something inside of the culture beyond Dolores that was going on here,” he said. 

Just 12% of teachers felt comfortable raising issues and concerns. Two-thirds didn’t feel supported when they tried to maintain discipline in their classrooms. On that issue, Carbajal-Sandoval butted heads with the principal several times. Administrators say she made a scene when a student didn’t get punished for vandalizing school property. The district also says negative survey results are expected when a new principal holds teachers accountable for high standards.

So where did Carbajal-Sandoval fail? Denver teachers are judged in four areas.  In the first two, teaching skills and student perception, Carbajal-Sandoval got top marks. On the third, student test scores, each side points to different sets of scores showing different results. 

The final measure is "professionalism." The district says at her mid-year conversation, Carbajal-Sandoval was asked to be a more positive influence, be more reflective, and show up and contribute more to the School Leadership Team.  Carbajal-Sandoval says, none of those points were discussed. She says she often asked for feedback, but got none. In fact, on five of the seven points on her end-of-year evaluation on professionalism, the form still says, “needs more data” or is left blank.

Union representative Billy Husher says the evidence didn’t connect with what administrators were saying. He worries that “professionalism” can be interpreted very broadly, “if it allows people to be able to say that since you disagreed with my position, therefore you are not contributing to the climate and culture of this school.”

“Our most veteran educators that have proven results over time," Husher said, "especially a teacher like Dolores, who on paper is a master teacher, she was advocating for her students, and she did disagree with the administration on several occasions on what should be the direction of the school, but does that make her unprofessional?”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who declined to be interviewed on tape about this specific case, said personality issues between principal and teacher don’t factor into professionalism.

“So it’s not, ‘Do I like you? Are you nice? Are you my friend?'” he said. “None of that’s part of the framework. It’s what kind of a leader are you?  How well do you interact with teammates? Do you support your teammates? Are you a learner? Do you work well with parents?”

He also says the district does encourage robust, open discussion.

“[But] after decisions have been reached, you can’t have people going off in eight different directions,” he said. "People have to be on the same bus and driving in the same direction in a collaborative fashion.”

District officials said they expected more from Carbajal-Sandoval and said she was a negative influence on teachers. She said she can’t fathom where that came from. She keeps a file with records of her contributions to school committees and complimentary letters from teachers and parents. When she and four other teachers at her school were placed on the do-not-rehire list, a quarter of the students stayed home from school one day, in protest. 

Some of the blacklisted teachers have managed to find jobs in private schools or high-performing public schools elsewhere - but not Dolores Carbajal-Sandoval. She was just three years from retirement. Now, sitting in her garden at home, she’s having a crisis of confidence. 

“Do I have this picture of myself as a teacher that isn’t realistic?” she asked. “I’m questioning a lot of things about my teaching."

[Photo: CPR/JBrundin]