Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Jason Janz, pastor of a church in Five Points and the parent of three Denver Public Schools students. Jason serves on the Cole Arts and Sciences Academy leadership team. His wife Jennifer volunteers in classrooms and works in the children’s ministry at their church.
My wife and I entered Cole Arts and Sciences Academy with little idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
We had just moved to the inner city and were looking for a school for our three school-age boys. A friend told us to check out Cole — a brand-new school with a new staff and a great leader. I had no idea of Cole’s troubled history as the only school in Colorado to have been closed down twice. I had no idea that 96 percent of the kids lived in poverty or that over 90 percent were below grade level in their reading.
No website, school report cards, or records of previous years record could be found. Cole was a brand new K-8 school.
Just a week before school started, the building appeared to be a disaster. The school needed significant remodeling work to prepare for the 600 students soon to arrive. My wife and I ventured through the construction to meet our boy’s prospective teachers and were told we could find the kindergarten teacher in the auditorium.
That’s the first time I met Mary Pat Holliday. Little did I know I was face-to-face with a woman who would deeply impact our family, just as she had so many DPS parents and students over 30 years.
As she looked up from bending over boxes of books, picking out the textbooks for her new class, she focused on my son. She made him feel like the most important person in the world. The smile on Paton’s face made it easier to face the many tests we would encounter in a challenging school.
Born to a coal-miner in Uniontown, Penn., Mary Pat went off to college and upon graduation, helped start a school on Long Island. After a few years, she wanted a fresh start. So in 1972 she packed her two children in a Volkswagen van and headed for California. The van decided to break down in Capitol Hill near an apartment complex.
Out of money and needing a place to stay, she swung a deal with the apartment manager. Mary Pat would babysit the manager’s kids during the day in exchange for using her bath and kitchen. The family stayed in the van until better accommodations became available. By this time, Mary Pat was hooked on Denver and would stay here the rest of her life.
Mary Pat embarked on a teaching career and taught generations of young kids not just how to read and write but how to love to learn. She chose to be an educator in inner-city schools.
Growing up poor, she knew what it felt like to have mentors; people who believed in her and gave her opportunities.
After years teaching in classrooms, she served as program manager for the Gilpin Extended Day Center for 20 years. There, she was able to help enrich an even larger group of children’s lives every day. Often, she managed as many as 250 children in one day.
After school, she brought in local artists to teach cooking, Spanish, drama, music, art, dance, and many other subjects to enhance the lives of kids. Mary Pat felt it was vital to give students this experience rather than ending them home to an empty house. With many of the children coming from low-income families, she saw this as a way to foster a sense of possibility for children whose parents had to work.
Her dream was to have a “school that works for people who work.” The old Gilpin Extended Day program was rated as one of the top ten before-and-after-school programs in the U.S.
Mary Pat spent her last nine years in DPS working with kindergartners – eight at Gilpin and the final year at Cole. Her indelible impact is evident in the fact that several of her former students have become DPS teachers.
She inspired those around her with her tireless energy, fierce belief and advocacy for children, passion for justice, and commitment to ensuring that every child discovers the joys of learning, expression, and creativity.
Mary Pat possessed an insurmountable grace as she tenaciously approached her work. Her husband described her as “a nun in hippie clothes.”
Mary Pat was a lifelong learner and seeker. She regularly gave out tidbits of wisdom she picked up along the way. Many of them have stayed with me:
- “Teaching is a lifelong process of learning, not an event…one simply commits to it as a path.”
- “If you’re not into it, go do something else. You can’t just hang out. You have to work. It’s challenging. Those are the reasons I loved teaching.”
- “If I could say one thing to kindergartners, it would be to tell them how smart they are.”
- “If you don’t make a connection from your heart, they won’t let you teach them.”
- “The secret to teaching is to see every child as gifted and talented and every kid as having special needs.”
Not long ago, cancer entered Mary Pat’s life. She described her cancer as a bump in the road, but also a great teacher for her. It looked like she had beaten cancer until just over a year ago, when tests came back showing that cancer was going to be her companion to the end.
Her doctor encouraged her to form a “bucket list” of meaningful things to do before she passed. (He was referring to the film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman where two terminally ill men make a list of 20 things they want to do before they die.)
Without skipping a beat, she said, “I am doing something meaningful. I’m teaching 25 children how to read. They are my bucket list.” And she meant it.
As sickness overtook her, Mary Pat labored on. She lost weight and her clothes would barely hang on her small frame, but she wouldn’t stop. She would come home from school and fall into bed by 5 p.m. so she could get enough rest to accomplish her task the next day.
My wife and I made brownie runs to her house, as it seemed like that would put an extra bounce in her weary steps. Paton sat and read to her. He read his last story to her just a few weeks before she passed away.
I cannot describe how it made me feel knowing that someone was dedicated at great personal cost to seeing my child succeed. At Mary Pat’s memorial service this past Sunday, my son stood up and read the book she gave him at graduation, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
On the inside cover, was a note, “Yes We Can! Love, Ms. Holliday.” The book describes the process whereby a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It was a fitting metaphor for the impact she had on thousands of Denver children who, when around her, grew into beautiful learners.
A lot of debate about education in our city centers around teacher effectiveness, principal training, types of schools, funding priorities, how to win federal dollars, and the politics of turnarounds. As a parent, I do not pretend to know the best answer to all these complex issues.
But I do know we would benefit gretly by having as many people as possible with the passion for kids and for learning that Mary Pat Holliday displayed. She put kids at the top of her bucket list.
Is the education of our children a top priority? Would it make it to the top of our bucket lists?
A November, 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal reported on a roundtable of CEOs and policy makers who weighed in on the most pressing issues facing our country. The first recommendation said:
“Education is our top national priority—well ahead of health care, climate change and financial regulatory reform—and government and business policies need to reflect that. If we don’t address this, we endanger our children, economy, businesses and national security.”
Sounds like more and more people are seeing what Mary Pat believed her whole life.
Why did I write this article? First of all, as a parent, I am a fan of teachers. Having taught a six-week block on a Friday afternoon this year, I gained new respect for urban educators. But when it comes to who stands in front of my child in the classroom, I have little say.
It can be a helpless feeling at times. Sometimes, you just have to say what touches your heart in the hope that other teachers will follow this example of greatness. And it’s not just about my kids. It’s about the 600-plus kids at Cole. It’s about all 75,000 students in DPS.
So, from one parent to a district of teachers: Here’s to greatness. May you pursue your craft with Holliday-like passion.
Second, I would love to see our educational leaders – our superintendent, the staff at 900 Grant St., our school board, our political leaders, our principals, the DCTA leadership, our business leaders, our teachers, our parents, and our community leaders – follow the example of Mary Pat Holliday and make a bucket list today that starts like hers:
1. See all DPS kids receive an excellent education.
Numbers 2-20 are yours to fill in however you please – Rome, skydiving, the Great Wall, you name it!
And you could thoroughly enjoy it all because you would have helped take care of a top national priority – our children.
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