A Team Built to Take on Challenge
by Tina Griego
October 29, 2004
At the regular Tuesday meeting of North High School administrators this week, discussion turned to emergency preparedness. Assistant Principal Andy Schrant put together a manual of procedures for bomb threats and lockdowns and building evacuations and they went through it page by page.
This led to a serious conversation peppered by several "God forbids" as they recall the lockdown of a few weeks ago when a former student was spotted in the neighborhood with a gun.
Just as the building was sealed, a school bus approached the school. "Do we let them in?" a security officer asked over the radio.
"Yes," another voice answered.
"No," Principal Darlene LeDoux barked into her radio. "Don't let them in."
"Who is this?" the radio crackled.
"This is Principal Darlene LeDoux and this is my school."
They all laugh.
"Well," LeDoux says, "we can't have a bus parking in front of the school during a lockdown. It would not only expose the kids, it'd completely block our view. I hate to admit it, but sometimes guys don't make the best decisions."
"Wait a minute," Assistant Principal John de la Garza says, in mock outrage. "I must object."
"Well, it's true."
A mischievous look crosses his face. "You know why the military didn't want women in combat roles?"
"This better be good," LeDoux says.
"Because they panic," he says.
"They panic?!" Assistant Principal Angelique Acevedo-Barron says.
"Panic?!" LeDoux says.
"You're walking on eggshells here, John," Schrant mutters.
"Have you ever seen a female of any species back down from a fight?" Acevedo-Barron asks. "They're right out there protecting their families."
"This comes from the military," de la Garza says. He served as a captain and company commander in the Army Reserve for many years. "I'm just putting out public information."
Then, no longer able to keep a straight face, he starts laughing. They smile and shake their heads and go back to business.
A mandate to calm the storm
It's a light moment in what has been a pretty serious year and a half for the administrative team of North High School. In July 2003, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Wartgow asked LeDoux, one of his assistant superintendents, to take on a special assignment as principal of North. Her mandate was to calm a staff left divided over the previous principal and to get the school working again.
Pick your team, Wartgow told her. She chose Acevedo-Barron, de la Garza and Schrant.
"I had to get people willing to come and work in a very challenging situation," LeDoux says. "I wanted bridge-builders, people people, people with high expectations of themselves and others."
Acevedo-Barron was an assistant principal at Overland High School and had been in education more than 20 years. She has a reputation as a master teacher with expertise in curriculum and helped develop Colorado's standards for art instruction.
Every time I run into her, she strikes me as one of those rare people always thrilled by life. She sweeps into a room in a whirl of long skirts and black hair, and when she speaks Spanish, it is with the Castilian accent of her Spanish mother.
"I was the crazy art teacher all my life," she says, laughing. Right. Crazy enough to win a string of teaching awards, including two of the nation's most prestigious: the Disney American Teacher Award for Best Visual Arts Educator in 1992 and the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award in 1993.
Her mother was a bookkeeper and her father came from a family of migrant workers who homesteaded in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. He was a Huichol Indian and he taught her something she never forgot.
"He used to say, 'They can take everything from you, but, like your soul, education is the only thing that is really yours and they can never take it away.' "
Her father went from the onion fields to the classroom, becoming a teacher, earning his master's degree and doctorate. He would be the only man in his family to receive a Ph.D. Acevedo-Barron would become the only woman to do the same.
Like Acevedo-Barron, de la Garza was born in Texas. And like her, Spanish was his first language. But where Acevedo-Barron is art, de la Garza is business, the man whose necktie is always a perfect double Windsor knot.
De la Garza possesses an accountant's mind and quick sense of humor. It makes him, in many ways, perfect for his responsibilities at North, almost all of which are related to management.
Like his colleagues, he is also something of an overachiever, though it took him some time to understand his potential. The de la Garzas had lived in south Texas for many generations, but in that part of the world, discrimination against Mexican-Americans was common and blatant. De la Garza grew up believing in his own inferiority. His teachers didn't do a whole lot to dissuade him.
He married his high school sweetheart when he was 17, worked full time, went to school full time and "in my senior year, I had a three-bedroom house and two cars."
Right before graduation, he learned that he was eighth in a class of about 150. "I'm an honor graduate," he marveled. It was a revelation. For the first time he started thinking about college.
'A light on a hill'
De la Garza graduated from Texas A&M in Corpus Christi and went to work in the oil and gas industry. His company transferred him to Denver to work in mergers and acquisitions. He began teaching evening classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School and was in his eighth year there when his company was acquired and he lost his job. The principal at Emily Griffith suggested he consider full-time teaching and DPS hired him on the spot. Within four years, he had his master's degree and his principal's license and the Boulder Valley School District gave him a job as assistant principal.
"So, when I talk to kids and they blame their problems on things, like 'People don't like me 'cause they don't like Mexicans.' I say, 'Please, what are you talking about? Because if I could do it, you can do it.' "
LeDoux's last hire was Schrant. He was actually a rare midyear hire, brought in to replace Dick Jordan, a well-respected former principal whom LeDoux wooed out of retirement for a brief spell.
Schrant is the youngest of the group and the only one with personal ties to North. He's Class of 1992 and his father, Jim, retired from North last year after 38 years in the classroom.
One of the things I've learned on this project is that there is something about North that forever captures its alumni. Schrant is no exception. When he speaks of this school, I swear I can see his heart swell. He loves North and, like his father before him, there is little doubt Andy is willing to devote his entire career to students here.
"What's good at North and has been good is still here," he says. "First, there's the community. It's a special enclave. We've always felt we were the underdog, which brings us closer together."
North, he says, has been "a light on a hill" for the many immigrant communities that have come and gone through North Denver. "It is a beacon," he says.
In fact, Schrant was one of the good things at North. He was one of the very good things. Since he is not one to boast, it took LeDoux to tell me that he was a football star. He and his older brother, Jim, were the first high school All-American football players from North in more than 35 years. For a brief time, he played Division I football at the University of Colorado.
After he graduated from college, he subbed at North for a semester, but then took a detour and became a cop. Two years after joining the Denver Police Department, he decided he missed students too much and he left to return to education. He spent a year and a half as the assistant principal at Garden Place Academy in Globeville before landing the job at North.
A sense of change in the air
When I asked LeDoux what drew her to each of them, she answers without hesitation. Acevedo-Barron's expertise in curriculum. De la Garza's business acumen and his experience at alternative high schools. Schrant's energy and enthusiasm for North.
It's an impressive team. Most of the teachers I have spoken to believe it's also a winning one.
"The pulse is changing," says cross-country coach Jeff Young, a man never known to bite his tongue.
Young, you might recall from yesterday's column, was a strong supporter of former principal Offie Hobbs and was openly skeptical - even dismissive - of this new team. While it still has to work to do on discipline issues, he told me, it is "the best group I've seen at North, hands down."
"What I tell my kids is that winning is infectious. You start winning. You want to win more. You keep winning. Losing is infectious, too. And it infected North for years. This group has changed that whole attitude and that's phenomenal."
As he speaks, I remember something social studies teacher Andy Fox told me. Last year, his and LeDoux's first year, a lot of suspicion lingered in the building.
But, he said, "Something has changed. The air feels different. The staff is more united; there's a little more trust that we are all in this together. There is sense of stability and that people are going to stick around. There's less despair."
Make no mistake: Not all wounds have healed. Some run deep. We are still talking about a school where academic reform is crucial. The dropout rate is high and achievement is low and change is overdue. LeDoux and her team have the challenge of trying to smooth the waters at the same time they must turn the ship around.
But, Fox is right. There is something in the air at North. If I had to describe it in one word, I'd call it hope.
griegot@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2699