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Young children in a classroom run a ring around Maria Guajardo

"I have to believe that things can change," says Maria Guajardo. "There are children's lives at stake." Photo: Wayne Armstrong

On her weekly visits to one of Denver’s public schools, Maria Guajardo sees nothing but potential.

Executive director of the Denver Mayor’s Office for Education and Children, Guajardo (MA psychology ’85, PhD psychology ’88) sees potential tumbling on the playground and devouring pizza in the cafeteria. She sees it reflected in construction-paper art projects hanging on classroom walls. Too often, she sees it stifled and dispirited, skipping school and dropping out.

What happens between potential brimming and potential deferred? That’s a question she asks everyone, most recently her own son, himself a student in Denver Public Schools.

“I asked Santiago just last week, ‘Why do you think students drop out of school?’ I was asking him for advice. Here’s what a fourth-grader says to me: ‘I think high school students get so far behind that they get frustrated, and the only way to deal with that frustration is to drop out.’

“What I learned,” she says, “was that at his tender age, he wasn’t blaming anyone.”

Searching for a connection

Just try to have a conversation about education that isn’t punctuated by finger pointing. Who’s responsible for educational results that don’t meet expectations, for sub-par test scores, for children who lag behind? Everyone seems to have a favorite culprit. Incompetent teachers. Clueless administrators. Indifferent parents. Kids who don’t want to learn.

“This isn’t about blame,” Guajardo says, for what may be the millionth time. “It’s about ownership.” She’s at work in her book- and paper-filled office on the 11th floor of Denver’s Wellington Webb Building. Dressed in an optimist’s power suit — salmon colored pants, a matching vest, beige top and bold jewelry — Guajardo has no problems taking ownership.

That means asking questions. Countless questions. “How do we develop a strength-based view of ethnicity and education, as opposed to a deficit-based view?” she begins. In other words, how do we come to value the complex identity of each student, whether she is a Spanish-speaking first-grader or a homeless boy with a stressed-out family?

Spanish, Guajardo points out, is an asset. Many people strive and struggle to learn it. And no matter how problem-plagued, each biography has raw material suitable for a success story.

For Guajardo, this is an indisputable truth. It still stuns her when she meets people who cling to the deficit view. Recently, on a visit to a rural school district, she shared her pleas for a strength-based approach to education with a room full of educators. One member of the audience dismissed minority students, particularly Latinos, as genetically inferior. At another gathering, a teacher told Guajardo that, with more than 100 students on her rolls, she couldn’t possibly care about every one of them.

“How can you respond to this in a professional, gracious way?” Guajardo asks. But do so, she did. “My job is not to pass judgment on her,” she explains. Rather, “It’s to create a space where she can be valued and instructed on how to be better.” It’s the same diligent and patient approach Guajardo would like to see every teacher take with every student.

She believes in this approach because she has deployed it with considerable success throughout her career. After earning her PhD, she worked as the dropout prevention coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education and later served as executive director of the Latin American Research and Service Agency. By the mid 1990s, she was recognized as a mover and shaker with know-how, a reputation that she channeled into Assets for Colorado Youth, a youth-development agency that she founded to promote everything from academic achievement to community engagement. With those same priorities in mind, Guajardo has served for more than a decade on the University of Denver Board of Trustees, participating in decisions that have shaped the institution’s approach to diversity and public service.

Despite a calendar full of professional obligations, Guajardo has always saved time for personal connections with young people. In 1988, fortified by her doctoral research on the educational attainment of Latinas, she took on a mentoring assignment from the principal of Denver’s West High School, who was worried about nine girls on the verge of dropping out. Undaunted by the challenge, Guajardo worked closely with each girl to help her think in terms of opportunities. “We stuck together for three years, and they all graduated,” Guajardo says. “It’s about the strength of the relationship.”

Guajardo has been mentoring enthusiastically ever since and counts among her circle of friends any number of people she first met as mentees. Johanna Maes is one of them. The assistant dean of student life at Metropolitan State College in downtown Denver, Maes has known Guajardo since 1993, when she heard her speak at a conference. Fresh out of college, Maes was looking for a role model who reflected her values. “I was amazed to find another Latina who had accomplished so much in such a short time. I watched her from afar — she’s truly magical in so many ways,” Maes says.

Over the years, Guajardo helped Maes explore different opportunities. Just as important, Maes says, she provided an example of how to lead without being overbearing, how to confront opposition without rancor and how to influence, persuade and cultivate with kindness.

In the four years she’s held her current post, Guajardo has influenced, persuaded, cultivated and created her way to an impressive track record. Her efforts have resulted in a number of imaginative initiatives to benefit Denver’s children, including voter endorsed early childhood education programs, ensuring that every Denver preschooler is ready for school. “We’re the first city to do this,” Guajardo notes.

Another favorite initiative, the 5 by 5 Project, aims to give Head Start children five formative cultural experiences by the time they are 5 years old. In the project’s first year, participating cultural agencies logged 22,000 visits by Head Start children and their families.

“To hear a Head Start parent say, ‘This was the best summer of my life. For the first time I was able to take my kids to the places we had just driven by,'” Guajardo says, savoring a conversation she had with one of the program’s beneficiaries.

A familiar face

In many respects, Guajardo sees herself when she gazes into the eyes of a first-grader with limited English skills or a low-income child discovering the zoo for the first time. “I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California, and that is a marker for me in terms of shaping who I have become,” she explains. “I was a Spanish-speaking child placed inside an English-speaking classroom.”

The daughter of migrant workers, Guajardo was the next-to-last child in a family with six children. Her parents had immigrated to California from Mexico, where her father had toiled as a peasant farmer. He had never attended school, and her mother had only a second-grade education. “Between the two of them, they had never read a book,” she says.

What they lacked in education, they made up for in industry. “First-generation immigrants have the highest work ethic of anyone in the United States, and certainly my family was typical of that,” Guajardo says. “My parents followed the migrant stream. I grew up in migrant camps until my parents decided to settle outside the migrant stream so my older siblings could go to high school,” she recalls. This peripatetic lifestyle meant that she attended three different elementary schools. Even with the disruption, her education progressed on schedule. By second-grade, Guajardo’s English skills were advancing rapidly, allowing her to take full advantage of classroom experience.

“I loved school,” she says. “As a child, I had two options: I could go to school or I could work in the fields. School, to me, was a place to escape to.” That’s why, she adds, “I absolutely have a passion for learning.”

Although her parents couldn’t help their children with their homework, they made it clear that education was a top priority, that time spent on homework was respected and valuable. Just as important, they took their children to the library. “We couldn’t afford to buy books, but I had a world of books at my little local library,” Guajardo says.

Between her junior and senior years of high school, Guajardo participated in a Massachusetts-based summer program that took her to various Ivy League campuses. The following fall, because no one told her she couldn’t or shouldn’t, she applied to all of them. Just in case she didn’t get accepted, Guajardo also applied to the local community college.

“In some ways I was so invisible in my high school that there was no one encouraging me or discouraging me,” Guajardo says. “It was a benefit to me being that invisible. There was nobody to discourage me.”

As it happened, the fall-back application to the community college was unnecessary. Guajardo was accepted at all the universities to which she had applied. “What prompted me to choose Harvard, I do not know,” she recalls. “But I packed up a green suitcase — I was gifted an olive green suitcase. I packed up my bag, and off I went. I didn’t own a true winter coat, and I had never seen snow.”

Adjusting to Harvard was far more difficult than getting admitted. “Academically, it was very difficult. I realized I was sitting next to the sons and daughters of professors, of wealthy families, the graduates of prep schools. The starkness of the haves and have-nots in our country really jumped out at me.”

There was no question that she was a have-not. “I didn’t understand how poor I was until I landed at that university, where tuition was more than my family earned in a year,” she says.

Looking ahead

Despite the difficulties of the move — separation from her family, her unfamiliarity with the world of privilege — Guajardo thrived. “It was like this opening of all these places that I could land and learn. It was part of the glue that helped me stick.”

As a high school student, Guajardo had intended to pursue a teaching career. While still in California, it occurred to her — serendipitously, it seems now — that she might enjoy being a psychologist, “though I had never met one,” she jokes. At Harvard, she took classes in education and psychology and seized every opportunity to put her newly acquired knowledge and skills to the test — tutoring kids at an African-American high school, volunteering at Massachusetts General. “I always found jobs that fit what my passion was centered around, and that was children and education.”

Serendipity struck again in her senior year, when she was rummaging through the library and randomly pulled a book off the shelf. The title, she recalls, posed a question akin to: What is a Clinical Psychologist? Thumbing through the book, she realized that its contents tapped into her passions. “I remember very consciously saying, ‘I am going to become a clinical psychologist.’ The little that I skimmed, I thought, this is what I want to be.”

She graduated from Harvard with honors in the spring of 1982 and began her graduate studies at DU the following fall. “I was one of a class of six,” she says. “What brought me here was a deep interest in coupling the fields of children and mental health, children of color in particular. I wanted to help kids growing up who looked like me.”

With that in mind, Guajardo’s dissertation research focused on the same question that preoccupies her today: “What is it that allows students just like me to succeed in education? It was a personal question and a professional question,” she explains. “I knew I was not singular in my academic success.”

In exploring the educational attainment of Latina adolescents, she interviewed roughly 600 students and their families, and discovered that success stories shared a common factor: strong relationships with encouraging figures, particularly mothers. “Young women who were academic achievers noted their mother as their role model,” Guajardo says. And girls who dropped out traced their disaffection with school to the elementary years.

Guajardo also sought to gauge family attitudes about education. “The popular myth was that Latino families don’t value education,” she explains. “Parents absolutely valued education, but they didn’t understand what it took to support education.”

Guajardo has been using those insights in her career and personal life ever since. It shows up in the programs she champions and the young women she mentors. It shows in the agenda she has set for herself: “Our job today is to prepare children for a world we have not seen,” she says.

As daunting as that seems, Guajardo is braced for the challenge — and hopeful that all of Denver’s children will have the chance to realize their potential. “I can hardly wait until I am 75 or 80 years old and can look back and say, things have changed. I have to believe that things can change,” she says, “because there are children’s lives at stake, and I don’t say that lightly.”

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