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Spotlight on AAPI Personnel Making History in the US & DSST Community

As we at DSST continue to celebrate the multiple cultures, experiences, and backgrounds we have in our community, we are actively seeking to spotlight the living greatness of our staff. For Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, we wanted our staff and students, particularly, to know that there is living AAPI history right inside our schools and home office. Therefore, we want to be intentional with disrupting the narrative that AAPI is only those nations, states and territories and people that border the Pacific Ocean (most prominently Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, Japan, China, and Korea). We are well aware that Asia includes nations that border the Indian Ocean and those that border no ocean.  

This week, we are showcasing some of our Asian American Pacific Islander staff who make history every day in the DSST community. Although the group presented is not representative of all our DSST AAPI backgrounds, cultures and experiences, it is our hope that by spotlighting our AAPI colleagues, we bring awareness to our students and staff that AAPI heritage is not a one month celebration in the year but every month, just as other heritage months are – in addition to showing that AAPI includes people who have seldom been included as a part of the Asian experience in United States history curriculum and textbooks. Yes, celebrating the rich and dynamic AAPI history is wonderful. However, if we as a network are going to continue our path of inclusivity, we must see the daily diversity in our schools every day not as an addition or contribution, but as living success. In addition, we must acknowledge the collective and individual diversity and experiences among our AAPI colleagues and community. 

For more information on Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage, check out last week’s Helix post and AAPI Commission - Denver.


DSST Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Personnel

Maya Balakier is the School Director in Training at DSST: Byers. She is from Denver and has been teaching and leading here for the past 17 years. Maya’s grandmother is Japanese, and her grandfather is Black. She was fortunate to grow up across the street from them and has many fond memories learning and living in both cultures. She is grateful and proud to be from a diverse family.

Melissa Tran (preferred name Tran) is in her 8th year at DSST, and 10th year in education. Tran has taught math and social studies at DSST: Green Valley Ranch Middle School and is now making the transition to DSST Middle School @ Noel. As a first generation Vietnamese-American, she graduated from Colorado College and is finishing her master’s at Columbia University this summer! Tran grew up in Oklahoma City in a diverse community of Vietnamese refugees that her grandfather helped to establish. Fundamental to her educational philosophy is honoring the human condition, especially in an America that is deeply inequitable, complex, and has a history of structural and systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressive inequalities.

Charles Ferrer is serving his third year as the Manager of College Success - Internship at DSST: College View High School. Originally from northern New Jersey, Charles served on the Bergenfield Board of Education, becoming the first AAPI-elected official on the school board. Charles graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor's in geography and is passionate about helping individuals become ready for the 21st century college & career workforce. You can find Charles hiking 14ers or getting lost on the trail when he’s not on campus!

Kryszelda Mendoza is the Assistant School Director at Aurora Science and Tech. She has been working at DSST for the last four years, serving at Conservatory Green Middle School and Henry Middle School before coming to AST. She is a first generation Filipino-American, and graduated with an undergraduate degree in physics from CU Boulder, and graduated with her master’s of education at Columbia University. Growing up in Minnesota did not give her a lot of opportunity to understand her Filipino heritage, but she’s learned a lot in her adult life that has shaped her identity today.

Amanda Berg is finishing her fourth year as a composition teacher and her sixth year at DSST: Byers. She is a transracial adoptee from South Korea, raised in northern Colorado. As a co-leader of APISA, Amanda is very excited about working with students to explore and understand their own identities and unique experiences!

Adeel Khan is the Founding Principal at DSST: Conservatory Green High School. The son of Pakistani Immigrants, Adeel grew up in Virginia and moved all over the state before settling in northern Virginia.  He attended Virginia Tech where he served as the school’s youngest Student Body President and helped lead the campus through the tragedy on April 16th, 2007, where 32 of his classmates lost their lives to gun violence. His passion for service led him to Teach for America in Atlanta, Georgia where he taught at both traditional public and public charter schools in underserved communities.

Luisa Tago is a second-year front office manager. She started off as the front office assistant at College View High School and worked her way up to front office manager at the middle school. She is daughter of Mexican mother Agueda Pena and Samoan father Pine Tago. Luisa grew up idolizing the likes of Kobe Bryant and Lisa Leslie and began her basketball career at the ripe age of 12. She found a passion for basketball and in high school was part of the 30-0 South Medford Panthers run for the title during the 2015-16 season. She worked hard and received a full ride scholarship to play D2 collegiate basketball at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in business management from MSU Denver.

Selena Schwarz is an English Language Development teacher at Conservatory Green Middle School. She was born in Denver and grew up in Aurora. Selena’s dad is German and her mom is Japanese and was adopted as a baby before being brought to the US. Unfortunately, Selena did not feel connected to her Asian Heritage growing up since her mom’s adoptive parents lost contact with family in Japan. Her mom did not feel accepted in her community or by other relatives because she looked different, which led to suppressing her identity. This resulted in Selena and her three brothers to also feel disconnected from their Asian roots, which does make her feel as if she’s missing part of her identity. One of Selena’s life goals is to take a trip with her family to the place her mom was born in Fukagawa, Japan and learn more about the culture. Selena graduated from CU Denver in 2018 with her BA in English Literature and License in Secondary Education. She is passionate about writing fiction and is in the process of publishing her first book--another life goal! She hopes to inspire creativity in her 7th and 8th graders. 

Gabby Gilder is a support specialist in the center program at DSST: Montview Middle School. Gabby is a first generation college student that graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and is currently working toward her master's degree. Gabby was born and raised in CO. Gabby’s grandmother came to the US from Japan at 19 years old. Gabby is Black and Japanese and takes pride in her diversity. Her grandmother instilled family and traditions into her everyday life. DSST has become a family to her and she is proud to work for a company that embraces everyone.

Grace Kim is in her second year of teaching ELA at DSST and sixth year of teaching sixth grade ELA in Denver. She is a fierce Cole Dragon and founder of the Korean Language Club. She is originally from Michigan where she attended Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and is proudly part of the first generation of college graduates in her family. Grace’s parents both emigrated to the United States from South Korea. Although her relationship with her South Korean heritage has been a roller coaster, she is proud to be Korean American! In her spare time, you’ll find her in the mountains or snuggling with a good book and her two adorable kittens, Nori and Mango.

Jason Anderson is the founding Technical Support Coordinator at DSST-MS @ Noel Campus and celebrating his third year at DSST. He works to support both staff and students alike as a tech and as an ear to listen. With his cohorts, Amy Sheren, Pavielle Pena, and Kevin Perkins,  they organize Noel's LGBTQ+ club, the Spectrum League, to provide a safe space for LGTBQ+ students. Anderson wears many hats at Noel, but his talents are appreciated from his time as an Assistant Director of iD Tech Camps at the University of Denver, to his time as a saucier with  Root Down. Anderson is the son of an Irish immigrant and a Filipino immigrant and grew up in rural Oklahoma and overseas in Ireland. Anderson has lived in Denver since 2006 and is happily married to his husband, Greg since 2015. They are proud members of the Montbello community.

Catherine Otto recently joined DSST as Chief Operating Officer. She grew up as the fourth child of parents who immigrated to New Jersey from Taiwan and witnessed first-hand how a great education (coupled with hard work) can change the trajectory of someone’s life. Prior to coming to DSST, Catherine worked as an attorney, for the CIA, and for two other education companies. She also spent a year and a half living in Taiwan in her 20s, where she had the opportunity to develop fluency in Mandarin, learn more about Taiwanese culture, and develop a strong love of Taiwanese food!

Sophia Leung is the Affective Needs Center Program Co-Lead at Henry Middle School. She joined the DSST network as the Affective Needs Center Program Lead this past academic year. She was born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, to two Taiwanese immigrant parents. Growing up bi-lingual, in a multicultural household, was one of the reasons that she pursued education. Sophia aspired to be a leader and role-model to other culturally-diverse students. She was the first in her family to go to college; she attended the University of Connecticut for her bachelor's in special education and later on went to obtain a master's in elementary education from Relay Graduate School of Education. 

Niket Patel is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Operations at Cole High School. Born in Olean, NY to Gujarati Indian immigrants, Niket was busy fighting small town stigma, racial lines, and endless boredom. Niket  went to a college in an even smaller town. Four years of even more hostile environments did not stop Niket from becoming the person he was destined to be. He eventually found education in Chicago. Now, Niket has found his home in Denver and has been educating for 11 years. Niket does not let the past dictate the future. 

Tuyet Nguyen is currently a math teacher at College View Middle School. She was born and raised in Vietnam and came to Denver when she was eight years old. Tuyet is the first in her family to attend and graduate from college, University of Denver! She found her passion for education through working at a nonprofit in Five Points then continued on to AmeriCorps and DSST. One of her reasons for working in education is that she believes in representations, that students should get to see teachers from all walks of life! She is proud to share her identity as a Vietnamese-American immigrant with her students to expand her students and community’s view of the model minority.

Natalie Jung is wrapping up her first year as Prep Academy Dean at Byers after teaching Composition at Montview for three years. She is a proud Hapa born and raised in Fullerton, California, to her Chinese dad and white mom. Some of her earliest and most treasured memories are from her first trip abroad, when she invited herself to accompany her grandparents on a two-week trip to China at the age of eight. After high school, Natalie moved to Austin to attend The University of Texas, where she experienced a bit of culture shock upon realizing it was uncommon to have come from a school (and town) whose population was nearly 50% Asian. She earned a master's from Loyola University Chicago, worked on a macadamia nut farm in New Zealand, and became a proud co-leader of Montview’s ACA and Byers’ APISA.

Annika Seilnacht is wrapping up her fourth year at Byers as a 7th grade science teacher, and she will be transitioning to teach chemistry and psychology at Byers High School next year. She was born in California to a white dad and Filipina immigrant mom. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in a multiracial, multicultural household, and is proud of her mixed heritage. She moved to Denver to attend DU, where she studied biology and French and later earned her master’s in curriculum and instruction. Having a very close relationship with her maternal grandmother growing up, she’s always felt very connected to the Filipino side of her identity and has spent time in the last few years exploring more about what it means to be mixed race. Co-facilitating the middle school AAPI affinity group this year has been a fantastic opportunity to explore identity with students of similar backgrounds and experiences.

Jan-Louis “Jan” Burroughs is a math teacher at AST. Jan was born in the Philippines, but grew up in quite a few places! His family immigrated to the United States when he was just a year old. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in math education in 2015. He started as a Math 7 Apprentice Teacher at DSST: Conservatory Green for the 2015-2016 school year. Jan describes his teaching career as born and raised in this network. He taught Math 6 at DSST: College View between the 2016-2019 school years and has been proud to be on the AST founding team since their opening in June 2019. Through co-leading and working with both the AANHPI and LGBTQ+ Network Affinity Groups, Jan has learned more about, explored, and eventually embraced the difficult challenge and journey of his intersecting identities, especially since he didn’t have many AANPHI or LGBTQ+-identifying connections or conversations where he was growing up.

Jessica Altschuler joined the Byers mental health team two years ago as the middle school social worker. She was born into a mixed-race family and grew up around the Boston area.  Jessica’s grandparents on her mother’s side escaped North Korea, her grandmother as an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather as a young teenager. Their families had all of their land and possessions taken and redistributed and they left everything they knew and loved for a new life in South Korea. Through her childhood both of her parents worked multiple jobs and through the years she unfortunately lost touch with Korean language and culture.  Being half-Korean is something that she has always been proud of and something sheconnected with through food and cooking. She enjoyed co-leading the AAPI affinity group in the Middle School at Byers as a way to connect with students who have had similar experiences to her.

Ashlee Morris is wrapping up her fourth year at Byers as a school social worker, and in the fall she’ll transition to DSST Conservatory Green Middle School. She was born to mixed-race parents, a Vietnamese father and a French, Dutch, and Native American mother, then adopted at three months old.  Ashlee grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Growing up as a transracial adoptee, most of Ashlee’s early experiences with Vietnamese culture were through food. In graduate school at DU, Ashlee really started to explore her identity as an Asian American woman and multiracial individual through a lot of reading, writing, reflecting, and talking to other Asian American people and transracial adoptees. It’s incredibly Important to her to create and provide spaces for other Asian and mixed race students to talk about and explore their racial identity in order to write their own narrative about who they are.  In the near future Ashlee hopes to travel to Vietnam for the first time to learn even more about her history and culture.