Why parent and real estate agent Xóchitl ‘Sochi’ Gaytán is running for Denver school board

A real estate agent who grew up in southwest Denver, graduated from a neighborhood high school, and raised her own family in the region is running to represent it on the school board.

Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said she was motivated by a desire to change some of the education reform policies adopted by previous boards that she believes were detrimental, such as closing schools with low test scores. If elected, she said one of her priorities would be “strengthening our neighborhood schools so we strengthen our communities.”

Gaytán, 46, has two sons — one who graduated from Denver Center for International Studies high school and another who is in eighth grade at a district-run school. She previously ran for school board in 2017 but lost to current board member Angela Cobián, who is not seeking re-election. In Gaytán’s bid for the seat, she is once again emphasizing her decades-long connection to southwest Denver, which is home to a large Hispanic community.

“I am of the southwest Denver community and for my southwest Denver community,” she said.

In all, 13 candidates are running for four open seats in the Nov. 2 election. The winners will help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make up for a year and a half of disrupted learning. The board will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools.

Gaytán was born in Mexico, came to the United States as a child, and became a citizen as a young adult. Education was a big motivator for her family to come to this country, she said.

“My mother always said the major reason — the main reason — why we ended up in the United States and in Denver is because I wanted you to have a public education,” Gaytán said.

Gaytán attended seven public schools as her family moved around the city in search of affordable housing. She graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver and earned a business degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver. After she and her husband bought their first home in southwest Denver as a young couple, Gaytán said she was inspired to become a real estate agent to help other Latino families do the same.

When her oldest son was getting ready to go into kindergarten, the family moved to the Harvey Park neighborhood in part because the local elementary school had a good reputation, she said. They still live there, and Gaytán volunteered for years as president of the Harvey Park Community Organization. She is co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the political and social strength of the Latino community.

In that capacity, she has weighed in on Denver Public Schools matters, including rebuffing accusations by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock that a dysfunctional school board pushed out former superintendent Susana Cordova. In an op-ed in the Colorado Sun, Gaytán and co-author Arturo Jiménez called that claim “a far-fetched racist and sexist conspiracy theory.”

If elected to the school board, Gaytán said she would focus on reallocating funding to classrooms, reducing class sizes, increasing access to arts, music, and sports programming, and strengthening relationships between schools and nonprofit organizations.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving about 90,000 students. A little more than half of students are Hispanic, 26% are white, and 14% are Black. Its school board has seven members — five regional and two districtwide.

We asked Gaytán about several key issues the district will face in the coming years.

Declining enrollment and a growing number of small schools: Southwest Denver has been particularly hard hit by declining enrollment, in part because of gentrification. Gaytán said she wants to be “a voice for one of the communities that has been pushed out of our city — a community specifically of Latino, Mexicano, Chicano [families].”

To deal with declining enrollment, the Denver school board is considering closing some schools. But Gaytán strongly opposes school closure because of her family’s experience. She and her husband had to rearrange their work schedules so they could leave the house at 6:45 in the morning to drive their oldest son to a middle school across town and then pick him up after school because two middle schools in their own region were facing closure.

The arrangement left her son feeling disconnected from his home and sent a disheartening message to families and students in southwest Denver, Gaytán said.

“That was the message: ‘You’re failing. Your community is failing. Your students are failing,’” she said. “The negative connotation of a school closure impacted not only me, my husband, my children, but entire neighborhoods in southwest Denver. To put families and teachers through something like that and retraumatize our community is a ‘no’ vote.”

Charter and innovation schools: If existing charter schools and innovation schools are working well for students and families, Gaytán said she’d support them.

But if a new publicly funded but independently run charter school asks for approval to open, she said she’d “have to seriously consider whether or not that would be a better option. It’s important to me to protect public education and to ensure that we are wisely using tax dollars … so that we’re reallocating funding to our neighborhood schools to make them successful.”

Improving education for Black and Hispanic students: The school board’s 2019 Black Excellence resolution, which directs the district to improve education for Black students, and the longstanding consent decree requiring Denver to serve students learning English as a second language should be “at the forefront of the work that they’re doing in each school,” she said.

Gaytán said she’d encourage the superintendent to continue to focus on both “and if that’s not happening, I want to hear from my community that it’s not happening.”

This article was originally posted on Why parent and real estate agent Xóchitl ‘Sochi’ Gaytán is running for Denver school board

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