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School Board Candidates Reflect on Their Educations

With the Denver Public Schools board election coming up on Nov. 7, Bucket List Community Cafe asked candidates about the pivotal experiences they had as children that shaped their perspective on education. By asking this, we hoped to learn more about the school board candidates to see how they will govern schools if they are brought onto the board. 

One of the candidates endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a union committed to “creating the change that all students and educators deserve in Denver,” is Kwame Spearman. As a Denver native and Denver Public School graduate, Spearman explained that he is running for the board’s at-large seat because he is the son of a teacher. 

“My mom has been with DPS for 38 years. She’s worked in all different types of roles, and what my mom really fundamentally taught me growing up is that the best way to support our students is to support our teachers,” Spearman said. 

Spearman’s pivotal educational experience as a student that changed his perspective on education sprouted from the speech and debate team at East High School. 

“It was one of the first times where I really felt seen,” Spearman said. “When you’re debating in front of an audience, them listening to you, just that mind change of just feeling seen and building confidence from that. That really allowed me to take that confidence and apply it to other things like classes.”

Three candidates running for school board director are endorsed by Denver Families in Action which “strives to create an inclusive school district that prioritizes the well-being and success of every student” by supporting education reform and charter schools. The three candidates are also endorsed by Denver Mayor Mike Johnston. Running for the District 1 seat, Kimberlee Sia is a mother with two students in DPS and a lifelong educator, having experience in presiding over the Teachers Union and serving as principal in elementary and middle school settings. 

As the oldest of four, raised by a mother with multiple jobs, Sia had a counselor in high school who took into consideration her home life and helped her gain opportunities to further her education. 

A first-generation college student, Sia was taught by her counselor the importance of creating connections with college recruiters and building her resume by encouraging her to participate in extracurricular activities and volunteering opportunities. Sia’s high school counselor helped her apply for a six-week summer college program and then later advocated for her to get a full scholarship for the program because her family could not afford it. The experience from start to finish changed Sia’s perspective on education.

“This experience stayed with me as I decided to become a teacher. From my first day in the classroom, I built relationships with my students and families, getting to know their hopes and dreams and tailoring my lessons and supports to the needs of each student,” Sia said. “I carried this same approach into my work as a principal, district administrator, and non-profit leader and continue to focus on building relationships, developing mutual understanding, and making decisions based on the needs of my students, families, and the community.”

The second candidate endorsed by Families in Action and Mayor Johnston is Marlene De La Rosa. During her two children’s time in education, from pre-school to college, De La Rosa always took on leadership roles as a way to be an active presence in her children’s education. The candidate developed this commitment to education and equity back when her mother used to work in the Chicano Education Project. 

De La Rosa would tag along with her mother and help her at the office by copying documents, stuffing envelopes, or helping with childcare. The memory that stayed with her from her time helping her mother was when they did parent engagement training for parents of migrant families in Southern Colorado.

“Back then you couldn’t speak Spanish. It was against the law,” Marlene said. “That’s a memory that has stayed with me all these years. I want to be committed to that equity in education, for all kids, especially Latino kids. When our kids don’t succeed, we all don’t succeed.”

As a candidate for District 5, which covers the historically Latino Northside neighborhood, De La Rosa said unfortunately, Latino kids are not performing very well.

“I’m committed to making sure that there is equity and that we provide the resources necessary to serve the students that need it the most,” De La Rosa said. “I think we need to do better. We need to change the way we’re doing things because there’s not a huge increase in their achievement data. That is what I’m committed to.”

Another at-large candidate and the third endorsed by Families in Action and Mayor Johnston is John Youngquist. As a DPS graduate and a principal of 18 years with two daughters at East High School, Youngquist is committed to creating a safer school environment for students and staff as well as creating a transparent and strong organization within schools. 

As a child and in his youth, Youngquist attended nine schools in 12 years, including four schools over the course of his high school career. 

“This experience was frustrating because I always needed to identify and to connect with new peer groups in each new setting,” Youngquist told Bucket List. “Certainly I learned to adapt and to gain value in new experiences, but it was the welcoming of staff members in schools and the culture of a school that connected me to students and staff with similar interests that made the difference for me in most of the schools I attended.”

Youngquist said he’s learned as a leader that what matters most is hiring teachers and staff who are supportive of students. 

“Those who find the strengths and gifts of each young person who walks in the door make the greatest difference in their lives and we need to value and celebrate every child who walks into a school and classroom to make sure that they connect to the community and to the learning that will be provided,” Youngquist said.

Another District 5 candidate is Adam Slutzker. A Denver resident since 2009, Slutzker is a father of three students who attend Columbian Elementary in Sunnyside. He has served as the chairperson of the Columbian Elementary Collaborative School Committee for two years. Slutzker fondly remembers his high school physics teacher from his junior year, Ellis Noll. 

“He was older at the time—a head of white hair with oversized glasses. He always wore a white button-down shirt and a tie no matter the day. One of the first days of class he began deriving an equation on the board, he rambled on, filling the whiteboard with letters and numbers. I stared blankly at the board as he did so, not sure at all of what he was talking about. He finished the derivation and stepped back from the board, a smile plastered across his face, and asked, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ to the students as we stared blankly back,” Slutzker said. 

Slutzker said although his understanding of physics was shaky at best, he could feel Noll’s passion for the subject he taught. 

“I badly wanted to understand the subject so I could feel that same amount of joy he felt at looking at a derived equation on a whiteboard,” Slutzker recalled in an email.

A decade later when Slutzker received his master’s in education and began teaching, he still envisioned his teacher, Mr. Noll, standing in front of the board and the feeling Slutzker felt as a student.

“That was the feeling I wanted to impart on my students. I believe an educator’s job is to inspire kids to want to learn, to help them find their passions, and to give them the skills necessary to be lifelong learners and answer their own curiosities. I love that our district provides a deep array of educational programs that allow different types of learners to be inspired and different educators to inspire in ways that work for them,” Slutzker said. 

At-large candidate Brittni Johnson, District 5’s Charmaine Lindsay and District 1’s Scott Baldermann did not respond by the time of publication. For more information on each running candidate, please visit the DPS Board of Education website. The last day to vote in the school board election is Nov. 7. 

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