When Dr. Alex Marrero was 12 years old, he convinced his mother and school principal to allow him to stay in what he calls his “educational comfort zone.” His decision would send him on an academic trajectory that was neither designed nor intended for him. “‘You tested into the gifted and talented program here,’ said the principal. ‘Why don’t you want to stay? It’s a fine school.’ My mother sat there quiet and intimidated while I translated. I told them I was scared to stay at our neighborhood school without my brother; it was too dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, it was a rough school, but I wasn’t scared. I just wanted to go to school with my Little League buddies and best friend Miguel.”
Miguel was a kid with cognitive issues and a bad stutter who qualified for a special program in Riverdale, an affluent part of the Bronx that boasted generational wealth and sprawling estates on a hill. Marrero, as a student in his neighborhood school’s honors program, finessed his way to attend the Riverdale honors program.
Transferring to Riverdale didn’t insulate Marrero from every hardship. After a long ride on two buses, he found himself in “a world that was totally different from my own. I saw people who looked differently from what I was accustomed to, and I was worried I wouldn’t fit in—but I pushed forward because I wanted to be part of the Little League crowd. There was also a learning curve in terms of culture. I was used to chaos, and Riverdale was structured. It was also a lot more reading than I was used to, but I did okay. I wasn’t the top student, but I was nowhere near the bottom either.”
Despite holding his own, at the end of seventh grade, Marrero was transferred to The Academy, a program in Riverdale for underperforming students. For Marrero—who expected to continue in the honors program—the demotion was an unexpected and undeserved slap in the face. “I still remember my teacher and friends were shocked. My buddy Chris Colon, who was the catcher on our team, said, ‘You get better grades than me.’ I don’t want to say it was racial; I imagine it was based on my zip code, but looking back now, it was bad. All the kids in The Academy—which was in a leased basement of a high-rise two blocks from the main campus—were black and brown, and everyone who remained in the main program was white and Asian.” Gone were the challenging coursework and rigorous curriculum. Marrero distinctly remembers correcting a long-term sub who was badly botching a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem. “It was an absolutely terrible learning experience and a complete joke.”
By the end of eighth grade, Marrero was ready to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and applied to vocational school. But a guidance counselor who saw his record got him reenrolled in the honors program. “She didn’t have to do that. She played my cards right. I want to make sure every kid has the
same opportunities as those on the hill.”
A Look at the District as Marrero Arrives
Closing the achievement gap—which leaves boys who look like Marrero dangling at the bottom—will of course prove to be one of Marrero’s biggest challenges in DPS. Perhaps equally as challenging will be navigating the choppy waters between the reformers and the traditionalists—two polarizing groups who staunchly believe their policies will pave the path to excellence.
As recently as 2018, the reformers had momentum. They believe in testing, competition, and accountability. They shut down underperforming schools and fired less-than-satisfactory teachers. They embraced competition, opened 65+ new schools and created SchoolChoice. It was a system that—despite catapulting DPS from one of the worst urban districts to the middle of the pack—still lost favor with voters.
2020 ushered in a new political landscape reflected in a flipped-majority union-backed board. They believe in a holistic approach over standardized testing, a centralized center of control, and a strong teachers’ union. Most recently, they unanimously rejected the expansions of two innovation zones after passing a resolution to “pause and reflect” about iZones through May of 2021. They’ve also passed several resolutions—the Know Justice, Know Peace Resolution, the LGBTQIA+ Inclusion Resolution, the Won’t be Erased Resolution, and the Black Excellence Resolution—all of which are aimed at creating a more inclusive and equitable curriculum.
Implementing A Practice of Collaboration
Marrero rejects the idea that someone has to be either a reformer or a traditionalist when it comes to choice vs. neighborhood schools. He says he’ll create a transitional team of internal and external folks who will help guide his decisions. “What I anticipate with iZones, innovation, neighborhood, and charter schools is that there will be collaboration, not just in fluff but in practice.” He also says there will be a renewed focus on Latino excellence and looks forward to working with groups like the Colorado Latino Forum and the Latino Education Coalition. “It’s important,” he says, “because over half of DPS students are Hispanic or Latino.”
Critical Race Theory and Closing the Achievement Gap
Educators and politicians across the country have suggested one of the keys to closing the achievement gap—which has been re-coined the opportunity gap—is to embrace Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is largely the purview of university law schools and graduate programs, not K-12 classrooms. CRT has become a controversial curriculum that moves beyond teaching the history of the Civil Rights Movement and embraces a comprehensive historical view that says America first began not in 1776 with the signing of The Declaration of Independence, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ships. Supporters say kids who can see themselves in the curriculum will be more likely to succeed. Opponents say the curriculum teaches that White students are part of an oppressor class and Black and Brown students are part of an oppressed class. They call it repackaged Marxism that separates people by color and asserts that the biggest indicator of children’s future success is not their character but the color of their skin. Will Jones, Director of External Communications for DPS, says the district does not teach Critical Race Theory. However, recent conversations with principals indicate they are embracing a new anti-racist curriculum, including implementing implicit-bias training for teachers. Twenty-two states have proposed legislation to limit CRT, while five have passed laws prohibiting or limiting it. Marrero says the public can expect a formal statement from DPS regarding CRT soon.
Community Awareness of DPS Options Is a Priority
Marrero has been DPS Superintendent for just over two weeks. And he’s taken that time to embark on a listening and learning tour. “I appreciate being informed by people with more institutional knowledge than myself,” he says. But it isn’t just VIPs in education he’s listening to. “My Uber driver didn’t know I’m superintendent. He just thought he had an annoying customer. He was from Ghana by way of New York and had three daughters in DPS, and he’d never heard of the Black Excellence Program. That was hard feedback for me. I’m literally learning from the backseat, and as a community-guy, I want everyone to know what’s happening in the district.”
The DPS Board recently released their findings from the “pause and reflect” period. They read in part: “We found many stakeholders are either unaware of innovation flexibilities or do not fully understand them.” That’s somethingMarrero has heard first-hand from a Spanish-speaking parent—“‘No entiendo la innovación ni las opciones que tienen mis hijos.’ And it resonated with me for two reasons. One, because, I didn’t always know my options either. Compared to where my mother went to school in the Dominican Republic, our neighborhood school was a palace; it was a cathedral, so who were we to question it? And two, because it’s something my mother would have said.”