Denver Public Schools kick off a new year with new superintendent

New Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero stood outside Garden Place Academy on Monday morning in a black suit and a smile.

He watched Principal Andrea Renteria reintroduce herself to students who scattered across the playground and welcomed them back first in English and then Spanish with a cheery “bienvenidos a todos” before leading them in the school cheer.

“Our dreams are big, our eyes are wide, watch us show our tiger pride!” Renteria chanted with her students, teachers and parents.

The first day of school naturally brings nerves for himself, students and teachers, Marrero said, but spoke of turning those “bubbling” feelings into anticipation at the prospect of a new year, his first in Denver after the Board of Education hired him from a suburban New York City district in June. And classes across the district are being held in-person rather than online.

“What a victory that is,” Marrero said. “That was not the case last year.”

Denver Public Schools’ nearly 90,000 students and 13,900 employees — nearly 4,900 of which are teachers — are among the last in the metro to start the school year.

Marrero scurried around the academy’s playground, giving familiar and new faces a friendly smile or even tapped his feet to theirs in place of a handshake. This was the first school visit of seven on his Monday schedule.

All the introductions and fanfare struck parent Kristin Morales as bittersweet, she said while she and Andres Cardenas dropped off their two children — second grader Anabelle, 7, and kindergartener Edwin, 5.

“I would go for another month of summer,” Morales said, only half joking.

Morales said she’ll miss her children and particularly enjoyed having them around the house. Still, she added, it’s time for them to be back with their friends and in school.

The district is requiring students, staff, teachers and any visitors that might come into school buildings to wear masks indefinitely and regardless of vaccination status. All school staff must be vaccinated by Sept. 30, Mayor Michael Hancock announced earlier this month.

The social, emotional and structural aspects of in-person school are important, Cardenas said, but he and Morales expressed concern about how face masks will change that paradigm and whether it could stunt their emotional growth.

Forming a friendly connection will be more difficult for children wearing masks, Morales believes, adding that she’s frustrated at a lack of communication from district and public health officials locally and across the state.

Amanda Carrera was less worried about the logistics — masks are the “new normal,” she said. Instead, she’s more worried about how the school would handle her rambunctious 5-year-old daughter Penelope, who started kindergarten.

As Carrera left the playground, Marrero headed north to Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, where Principal Cori Herbst-Loehr met him outside before starting a short tour.

The 38-year-old superintendent ducked into a classroom, bumped fists with one student and then stood back as the classroom considered one of life’s great mysteries: How they might explain the difference between a hamburger and a sandwich to someone from a different culture.

Herbst-Loehr led Marrero into another room, then another. Some students were reacquainting themselves with their friends, while others took notes on guest speakers from Syria, who offered insight into some of their culture and history.

Marrero offered an emphatic “wow” when Herbst-Loehr led him through the school’s garden, showed him where the apiary (for bees) will go and pointed to the coop where the school’s chickens had been until a dog broke in.

Montessori schedules are less rigid, and students from different grades intermingle more freely within the curriculum, Herbst-Loehr told Marrero. But the students behaved like any other, speaking almost in their own language, laughing together and pausing to watch the outsiders pass through in front of their blackboards.

The students appeared engaged with their teachers and each other, Marrero observed. And the engagement is what matters the most. Without it, they can’t learn.

He nodded to two Board of Education members who had joined him for the tour and the group jumped in a silver SUV and headed off to Columbian Elementary, their next stop.

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