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‘I figured it out by being my authentic self.’ My journey growing up in NW Denver, working at DSST, and now joining A+ Colorado

Edward Quiñones and students // Provided by Edward Quiñones

This is a first-person essay, written by A+ Colorado’s Communication and Development Associate, Edward Quiñones. This is part of our first-person blog series. 

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A great man once said, “The highest human act is to inspire.” 

From the moment I walked through the doors of DSST: Cole Middle School, I was hooked. My eyes could not believe what I was seeing. A top-performing school in the heart of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. College pennants banners hung above lockers. Flags and signs welcomed students to classrooms. The walls were decrepit from the building’s old age, but each classroom was more vibrant and livelier than the next. The hallways, silent. The students, from all different backgrounds. No distinction of race, color or socioeconomic status existed. A bond, created intentionally by the staff. 

I was flabbergasted when an 11 year-old student approached me as I perused through the hallway. He walked right up to me, stared me in the eyes and raised his hand. I raised mine and high-fived him. Maybe it was my excitement. In actuality, he was raising his hand to ask permission to ask me a question. He looked at my eyes once again and said, “mister, can I talk?” I smiled and said, “of course, what’s up?”

I walked away feeling silly but also inspired. My inspiration only grew when I saw the students transition from one class to another — once again silent. Moving with urgency, students stopped at their lockers to quickly reorganize. Then, made their way swiftly to a classroom, where the teacher greeted them at the door, oftentimes with a high-five and always by name.

You might be asking, why is this such a big deal? Well, let me tell you why. 

Growing up in Northwest Denver’s Jefferson Park neighborhood in the 90’s was not easy. Even though I had built great friendships and a sense of community, I knew that my neighborhood was plagued by drugs, poverty, and gang violence. Even then, I knew that things could be worse. Much worse. And when I thought about much worse, I thought about Five Points, Curtis Park, and Cole.

Soccer was one of my outlets. My uncles were soccer players. They immigrated from Durango, Mexico as teenagers but never forgot about their love for the sport. They worked a modest craft in construction. With each drywall sheet they would hang, they reminded me of the importance of a quality education.

Years of manual labor took a toll on their bodies and they made sure to remind me that I was privileged to have been born in a country that allows access to free public education. 

I would tag along whenever they played. Parks in every corner of the city, Tokyo Heights in the Southwest, Barnum Park in West Denver, Sloan’s Lake in Northwest Denver and Curtis Park in Five Points. I hated Curtis Park. I was afraid.  

In middle school, I also played soccer for Lake Beacons. I attended Lake Middle School and took great pride in that. Beacons was essentially an after-school diversion program to keep local youth from getting into trouble. Beacons had a soccer team at Lake MS. They had one at Cole MS as well. I hated playing Cole. I would say things like “those kids are worse than us.” In reality, I was just afraid of them. No relation to their ability to play soccer. Everything to do with where they were from. I wonder how many other individuals shared the very same thoughts?

Who would’ve thought that a decade later, I would find myself  serving the very community I deemed subordinate.

And almost a decade after that, I find myself expanding my impact on the educational ecosystem of the state of Colorado, no longer confined to the walls of that old decrepit building I arrived at to train as the founding office manager. 

Alongside Carli Basaites, who at the time was the founding office manager of DSST: Cole, I learned many things. From attendance systems, to accountability systems, to creating a weekly newsletter for families, making copies and even what gnocchi was. I learned a lot from Carli, but nothing more important than the unwavering, relentless pursuit of a quality school for the community she served. 

What was even more moving, was the fact that the entire staff team shared this same sentiment and approach. Imagine a staff so bought-in, 15 other Carli’s working their assess off to teach kids how to read, write, and do math. Most of the time, they taught them what they should’ve learned years before in elementary schools, but for whatever reason they slipped through the cracks and never learned how to read or write. A dedicated team of teachers, led by School Director Jeff Osbourne, turned around the previously shuttered Cole MS, into the number one school in Denver. 

Fast forward to May 2012. With the success of DSST: Cole and other DSST schools, the network continued to expand, and this time it chose the Southwest Denver region of the city. Heather Newton is the founding school director and I am the founding office manager. Heather and I embark on a partnership to open a high-performing middle school in the College View neighborhood. Replicating the work of the Cole staff, to achieve that same success. I remember conversations about designing uniforms and selecting a mascot as I take a bite of my OMG French Toast at Snooze an A.M Eatery. 

“Coyotes, Foxes, Wolves, Lobos?” Heather asked. I wanted to voice my culturally responsive objections to Coyotes but avoided an awkward conversation and replied “I like Lobos.” 

DSST: College View MS is now the home of the Wolves.  

A year later DSST: College View Middle School was named the number one school in Denver. 

A year after, I was yearning for a position that allowed me to interact more closely with students.

Edward Quiñones and students // Provided by Edward Quiñones

I wanted to have a direct impact with students and feel like I was making a difference. So with the constant turnover in leadership and staff, new School Director Jenna Leupold created the student support specialist position for me to assist the dean of students. The dean resigned and I assumed more responsibilities and duties. With the neverending fluctuation of staff I quickly assumed temporary positions in 6th grade physical education, 7th grade writing and 8th grade socratic seminar. I took it with a grain of salt and was always willing to step up in times of need. Maybe that’s why my ascension was so abrupt. I worked myself up the ladder to eventually become dean of students and school director in training at DSST: College View MS.

After working at the College View campus, I wanted to branch out and try my hand at a different demographic — high school students — this time in Northeast Denver. This group of students was more diverse. I was used to working with predominantly Hispanic students, English language learners, first generation and free and reduced lunch students much like myself as DPS alumni. My relationships with Hispanic students were innate but I was tested reaching Black and white students. 

It took me a while but I figured it out by being my authentic self. 

I wanted to feel like I was truly getting kids to college as our mission always emphasized. What better way to do that than to actually work with students who are on the brink of making that transition? 

Once again, I was afforded the opportunity to be a founding member of a high performing DSST school. This time, as the Dean of Students at DSST: Conservatory Green High School. How many people actually get the chance to help open a school, much less two? 

Two quality schools. DSST: Conservatory Green HS is Denver’s #1 performing high school and is rated Blue, which is Distinguished – The highest possible rating in Denver Public School School Performance Framework. 

After almost a decade of working directly with DSST students, families and staff, I have crossed over to the nonprofit sector of education, where my work will reach not only DSST students, but individuals in Denver and all surrounding areas of the state. My hope for my work is to cast a broader impact on education in Colorado.

As the communications and development associate at A+ Colorado, I can blend my educational experience and my passion of writing and communications which I studied in college, to drive educational change through research, data and advocacy. 

Always supporting quality schools and striving to end educational inequity.