A former Denver teacher who hosted bilingual outdoor readings for neighborhood kids during the pandemic is coming forward to represent Southwest Denver on the school board.
Karolina Villagrana grew up in Denver, attending parish schools and then the University of Colorado at Denver. She said her candidacy for the 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 school students had written questions, and one stood out in Villagrana.
“He used to say, in Spanish, ‘A veces siento que no merezco ir a la universidad’, which translates to ‘Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to go to university’,” he said. said Villagrana, 33. “For me, that statement left me broken.… I believe our kids and our kids in Southwest Denver deserve the best.
A total of 13 candidates are running for four vacant Denver school board seats 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, develop a new strategic plan, and tackle several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continuing disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools. .
Villagrana’s parents graduated from Denver public schools, but they did not send her to public school due to her older 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 glaring differences in the quality of education. between bilingual and English-speaking classes. After that, the family opted for parish schools.
“It had an impact forever because it really made me see the value of advocacy and the roles loved ones can have in 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 on-the-job educators.
Villagrana was on the founding staff of a charter elementary school in San Jose, Calif., Which is part of the Rocketship Public Schools Network, and later served as the school’s deputy principal. She has also worked for several charter networks in Denver, most recently as Director of Elementary Literacy and K-8 Language Acquisition for KIPP Colorado Schools.
Villagrana was supposed 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 can be found in charter schools. She also worked as an education coach and second-grade teacher at Knapp Elementary School, run by the district, in southwest Denver. She currently works for an organization called Camelback Ventures which provides funding and mentorship to women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color in education and other fields.
Villagrana grew up primarily in northeast Denver, but now lives in the southwestern Athmar Park neighborhood with her husband Nicholas Martinez, co-founder of 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 English and Spanish, then led the children in a story-related craft or in season, like carving pumpkins.
“It was really happy,” she said.
If elected, Villagrana said she would work to push the district to improve literacy among young students. She would also advocate establishing academic benchmarks for students, monitoring to see if they are meeting them, and communicating their progress to parents.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving approximately 90,000 students. Just over half of the students are Hispanic, 26% are white and 14% are black. Its school board has seven members – five regional and two district-wide.
We asked Villagrana about several key issues the district will face in the years to come.
Declining enrollments and a growing number of small schools: Villagrana said she would advocate doing two things: asking families what they consider the best way forward and analyzing what works and what doesn’t in each school. The district needs both types of information before making decisions about consolidating or closing schools, she said.
“It’s about the voice of the community and then the actual use of the data to help create the way forward,” Villagrana said. She said she believes in the potential of a “third way” to solve the declining enrollment problem that doesn’t close small schools or keep them open, but she doesn’t have specific ideas yet. on what that might look like.
Charter schools and innovation: What matters most to her is not the type of school, but whether students learn and whether families are treated well, Villagrana said.
“When I had conversations with loved ones, it was more because they wanted to find a school that was the best for their children, where their children learn and succeed,” she said. “And at the end of the day, that’s really my focus.”
Improving the education of black and Hispanic students: The district should start by gaining knowledge about its existing decrees, Villagrana said. This includes a court order to serve students learning English as a second language and a resolution passed by the school board in 2019 demanding that the district better serve black students.
“There is sometimes the assumption that just because you’re in a DPS building that you know what it is, and that’s not very true,” she said. “There is a lot of education that has to go around. She said she would extend this education to the families of the students, informing them of the decrees and how they should see them play out in their children’s education.
Additionally, she said the district needs to provide better guidance to schools on how to fulfill these mandates and then ensure schools follow through.