Taking Growth Through Connections School-wide at DCIS-M


Zach Serrano


Denver Center for International Studies - Montbello

To roll out Growth Through Connections program to a whole school in order to:

  • Build relationships and understanding between students and teachers:

  • Create a school culture that emphasizes student perspectives and backgrounds; and

  • Enable students to have agency over their learning and recognize their potential.

Relationships and Culture



Zach Serrano is the Dean of Culture at the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello (DCIS-M). As a school leader, he has been working with his colleagues at DCIS-M to expand the Growth Through Connections (GTC) training to the entire school. In doing this, he hopes to see teachers and staff members form deeper connections with students and create a more inclusive culture that celebrates students' backgrounds. Zach is implementing GTC to shift DCIS-M's culture so that it is inclusive, empowering, and just.

Hear Zach talk about his goal for the school and what he appreciates about GTC:



The Imaginarium, with the generous support and partnership of the Janus Henderson Foundation, created the GTC program to combat inequities in education and to find innovative solutions that benefit students nationwide. The goal of our GTC collaboration is to equip educators with the tools and knowledge to:

  • Recognize their own beliefs and biases.
  • Understand leaners' life experiences and communities.
  • Build deep relationships with students and their families.
  • Create an equitable, inclusive classroom culture.
  • Develop the whole child.
  • Manage the classroom so that they have more time to work directly with individual students.
  • Develop instruction and practices that are personalized, culturally relevant, engaging, and meaningful for each student.

 See how several teachers are implementing GTC in their classrooms:

Steps to Expand the GTC Program

  1. Align around a compelling vision. Make this work relevant and tangible to your teachers by highlighting the achievement gap and the opportunity that the school has to address this issue.  Eliminating the opportunity gap that leads to achievement gaps is a core belief in the Denver Plan 2020.  Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasizes that: 

    "As a community, we must come to grips with the challenge that equity does not mean equality. Although we have done much to shift resources towards our highest-needs students, it is clear that they require even great supports if all our kids are to succeed. In a world of limited resources, this is a difficult and contentious conversation, but a necessary one if public education is to fulfill its mission."
  2. Track progress regularly. Evaluate your school's data and check in with teachers and students to gauge the program's effectiveness, ensure that the team is working towards a common goal, and to adapt as necessary.
  3. Train a team of teachers in depth. At DCIS-M, a team of teachers participated in the GTC training to gain in-depth knowledge of Dr. Emdin’s practices and the importance of this work. This provides a solid foundation in the school for this work.
  4. Use the team of teachers to train other teachers. Disseminating this work by using teachers who have been trained in-depth can help to spread it. This can be done through short training sessions, professional development sessions, book studies, and observation/feedback sessions to calibrate. Julie Murgel, the principal at DCIS-M, noted that:

    "Teachers who participated in the GTC training are taking the work to impact their own classrooms, but are also building that into grade level teams through work with advisories, spreading the work to their whole teams. There's a sense of ownership that it's not just in one classroom, but it's about our kids and wherever they go on our team."
  5. Have teachers see it in action. Peer observations have been a successful way to engage teachers in this work by allowing them to see models of what these practices can look like and the impact they can have on students. 
  6. Revisit the practices as the year progresses. Zach noted that it was hard to keep every teacher engaged in this work throughout the year as other obligations and priorities pushed it out of their minds. Continue to hold follow-up trainings and infuse these theories and practices into school-wide systems and events. 
  7. Celebrate milestones. To keep the school motivated, make sure you celebrate milestones along the way, such as seeing changes in students and teachers. 

“We believe in education that disrupts the traditional school model or sense of what teaching and learning looks like. We really want to create an environment in which students [...] see their greatness. So how do we structure classrooms in a way that enables agency in our students and allows them to become owners and drivers of their learning?”

-Zach Serrano

What did you plan to do?

Zach and other school leaders started with the vision that the power of education is built through relationships. They wanted to use GTC as professional development to help teachers connect with their students. They decided to have an initial training with a group of teachers and use them to expand the program by having them train other teachers. In doing this, they hoped to generate excitement for the work among teachers and make a commitment to building relationships with students. This process would then serve as a strong foundation for the next year.

How has taking GTC school-wide gone?

So far, the GTC work has spread organically throughout the school as teachers who have participated in the training have spread the practices to other teachers. The process of expanding to the whole school has been frustrating, as teacher turnover often gets in the way of progress and the establishment of a solid school identity. Zach notes that the school often goes through a cyclical process of losing their identity and re-rooting themselves, which highlights the importance of aligning the whole school around a common vision and revisiting this vision throughout the year.

What practices have supported this work?

One of the most helpful supports for teachers has been learning labs, which is when a group of teachers visits the classroom of another teacher doing this work. This helps them see what these practices look like in action and the impact they can have on students. Zach thinks this has been the most powerful way of getting teachers to engage in this work and wants to see more of this moving forward. 

What changes have you noticed in the school?

Zach has seen teachers gain tangible strategies to help them facilitate learning in a way that matches their beliefs. They always wanted to grow students' agency and celebrate their cultures, but didn't know how. Zach has noticed changes in the classrooms of teachers participating in GTC. These classrooms tend to feel different in terms of their culture and practices, more often incorporating students' perspectives and backgrounds and focusing more on relationship building. He also feels a difference in the school; students are more engaged and willing to take risks.

Lessons Learned

  • Start this work at the beginning of the year. It’s hard to implement these practices thoughtfully without time to properly plan, so start with it to build a solid foundation. 
  • Leadership needs to be explicit about their goals. School leaders need to explicitly convey the importance of this work and the school’s intention to work towards the goal of implementing these practices.
  • You need to be patient. This process can’t be rushed and cultural shifts can’t happen over night.
  • Be ready to fail and persevere. This process can be messy and might not be successful in the beginning; it needs time to develop and fully function.
  • You have to believe in the end vision. Doing this work because it’s what’s popular right now will not result in successful outcomes.

Hear Zach talk more about the advice he has for others doing this work:



GTC hosted a meeting with leadership teams from several of the schools implementing this work. Julie Murgel, the principal at DCIS-M, attended along with Zach. Julie reflected on the process of implementing GTC:

"The work on relationships-- we need to realize it's essential, not just 'nice to do.' At the end of the day, we need to fundamentally understand that it's essential that we understand our students as beings. We have the answer to our problem, but no one is coming in to ask about it. Instead, they are asking about SAT prep and how we're doing it. I understand the expectations but it shouldn't be at odds with the relationships."

Zach reflected:

"Our approach to teaching and learning is rooted in this relational model. Without relationships, we can't do what we aspire to do or be who we aspire to be. [...] We want to empower teachers with tools and ways to increase the rigor in their context, but we also want them to know that being an effective educator is about building the mindset and commitments to being culturally responsive."


Special thanks to...

Zach Serrano, Julie Murgel, DCIS Montbello, and the Janus Henderson Foundation for engaging in this challenging work to close our persistent achievement gap and to help every student succeed.

Report by Molly Baird, Danna Ortiz, and Sophie Gullett.

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks that teach in the hood ...and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press.