EdNews Colorado reporter Julie Poppen recently sat down with the newest member of the Douglas County school board. Here’s what Carrie Mendoza had to say about why she ran for the board and what she hopes to accomplish. Mendoza was unanimously approved to fill the seat vacated when Dan Gerken abruptly resigned in January.
EdNews: Tell us about your background.
Mendoza: I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka and attended New Trier High School, which ranks among the nation’s top high schools. I attended college at Tufts and studied art history. I decided to go home to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in art history at the University of Chicago. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was interested in being a curator, but I had a growing desire to go to medical school. I figured if I didn’t do that I’d always wonder. Having an art background, I needed to build the science side of my transcript to I took science classes at night while working. I ended up becoming a medical student at the University of Chicago. I was matched for a residency at Denver Health. That’s how I ended up here. After that, it wasn’t enough. You can see I’m an addict of education. I did a fellowship in medical toxicology in which I researched overdoses and drug effects at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center. Now I am a partner with a group of physicians affiliated with Porter Hospital. I started with this group in 2006.
EdNews: What strengths and skills do you bring to the board?
Mendoza: I feel like I have a personal understanding of excellent, high quality schools, the rigor of studying, the rigor of high expectations. Having a culture of high expectations is so critical. My father always told me I was lucky to be a woman at this time because I could do whatever I wanted to do. That’s what I would like for all kids. If you don’t let them strive to their full potential it’s a disservice to them and society at large.
EdNews: How did you meet your husband, Myles Mendoza, a noted figure in ed reform circles here?
Mendoza: We met at a dog park in Chicago. I knew when I met him I was coming to Denver. We were engaged before we left. We now have three sons, ages 9, 7, and 5. They attend the American Academy Charter School. It’s one of the excellent charter schools in the district.
EdNews: Is that how you got involved with Douglas County schools?
Mendoza: I started by volunteering in the classroom. One of the nice things about charter schools is they do rely on the parent population to get involved. It’s a part of the environment.
EdNews: Why did you throw your name in the hat for a seat on the board?
Mendoza: The opportunity presented itself. I am very interested in education policy. The timing in my life worked out. I’m mid-career and in emergency medicine. The list of training and long hours is over. I have more flexibility in my schedule now that I’m a full partner in my practice. The timing was such that this is something that could be really interesting to help impact my own children’s education and other kids in the district.
EdNews: Where do you stand on the district’s controversial Choice Scholarship Program, a voucher system, which remains in legal limbo?
Mendoza: I think it’s great what they have done. I totally support it. That’s one reason I thought of applying. I do feel like this is really symbiotic. I feel like I’m working with people who have similar beliefs. I’m very excited about that. It takes a lot of courage to move forward in a large system that historically has been about something else. I’m excited to be part of something that has a state and national presence.
EdNews: How will you handle the spats that flare up between the board, which is unified in its approach to school reform, and certain segments of the Dougco community, including the teachers’ union, which is very critical of the district and school board.
Mendoza: I understand how people with different viewpoints could feel very passionately about these issues. Changing a system you’re used to can be really scary. A lot of times these things come from fear of changes. I think the board has done a great job being transparent and open. You need to give people a voice. There will always be people who disagree. That is what our country is based on. We need to be open and let them express themselves. I work in a hospital in a highly charged environment. I have a thick skin. I am firm about what my principles are and what I think is important in my life.
EdNews: What do you think of the pay-for-performance proposal for teachers?
Mendoza: I support what the board is doing to try to strengthen and honor excellent teachers and strengthen teacher performance. Having great teachers in the classroom is what really makes the difference. Thirty percent of my pay is based on performance. We need to reward those who are going above and beyond and are excellent in the practice.
EdNews: How do you feel about the school finance reform bill being debated in the legislature?
Mendoza: The system is so complex. It’s a challenge for Sen. Johnston or anyone else to try to adjust it. If it would make it more disparate and take money away from the county I live in then I don’t support that. More money doesn’t always equal better. Doubling down on a system that takes that approach doesn’t seem logical to me.
Sen. Johnston did a good job on teacher effectiveness. All that was a great and huge step in the right direction, but trying to take that great work and make it a reason we have to put more money in the system, because we can’t measure effectiveness because we don’t have more money….I don’t think that’s true. Down here we’re working on a pilot. You don’t have to have more money to do all that. I do not support putting more money in a broken system. If that’s how the bill is shaping up I don’t think it’s a prudent approach.
EdNews: What are changes you’d like to see in Dougco schools?
Mendoza: One of the things that could be worked on is expanding more choice. I have friends who have been on a (school) lottery for years. I wish there was more opportunity for them. We need to expand choice and strengthen all the schools. We need to be perfecting pay-for-performance. How can we do this the best, and be the fairest for the teachers? It’s going to be a work in progress. The board has done a great job piloting their tools and just continuing to move forward on that.
EdNews: If you had all the money you needed and no limitations, how would you reshape the American school system?
Mendoza: I think the system here now in Douglas County has the principles correct. It would be ideal if we could have money follow kids directly, not filtered through a giant bureaucracy that takes it and distributes it, and make sure that parents really had true choice to take that money and use it to decide what’s best for their children. We also need to compare our educational system with those in other states and countries. We’re in a global economy. So, I believe in choice and excellence for the kid and for the teachers and a global vision.
EdNews: So your husband worked for Democrats for Education Reform for a while. You are a Republican. What topics do you discuss at the dinner table?
Mendoza: We’re independent thinkers. We’re different people. The best analogy is that we’re the James Carville/Mary Matalin of local Colorado politics. I’m more conservative than Myles but he’s done a lot of great work and had a lot of great exposure to a lot of things. I learn from him. He learns from me too.