In the Boulder Valley School District, we know that Bilingualism is a Superpower. That means those who are bilingual, including Boulder Valley School District’s Director of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education (CLDE) Kristin Nelson-Steinhoff, often have origin stories.
If we were in a Marvel movie, Nelson-Steinhoff’s flashback would bring us to her teenage years, growing up here in Colorado.
“I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a bilingual educator because I was given the opportunity, in high school, to visit Mexico and live with a family,” explained Nelson-Steinhoff.
She confirmed her love for the language and culture when returned to Mexico a few years later on a school trip and had the opportunity to teach English.
“I knew what I had to do,” Nelson-Steinhoff said. “I needed to learn Spanish.”
So she dedicated herself to it, earning her undergraduate degree in Spanish and then honed her new super powers while helping community members as a social worker.
It wasn’t long before she followed passion to become a bilingual teacher in Denver, after all as the famous line from Spiderman says, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
“I taught mostly in Spanish kindergarten. Also served as a fourth grade teacher for a year and then very quickly moved into the office,” Nelson-Steinhoff said.
While she loved working with students, she immediately recognized that she was uniquely qualified to be a school administrator, because of her love for bilingual education and her experience in helping people in the community.
“The social work and the teaching piece came together beautifully,” Nelson-Steinhoff said. “That really is what an administrator does.”
She loved that job so much, she did it for 15 years, serving as an elementary administrator for 10 years in the Denver Public Schools, three years as an assistant principal and then seven as a principal.
Eventually she made the leap to BVSD, serving as the principal at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer for five years, before feeling the tug to serve at the district level.
“I worked very closely with my colleagues at the other bilingual schools during that time and really felt like moving into this position at the district was a great way for me to continue to systemically support our programs across the district,” Nelson-Steinhoff said.
“I felt like it was really important that our bilingual schools get the support they need from somebody that understood the programming,” she continued. “There are lots of intricacies in terms of programming that make it difficult for everyone to understand, and so it was really important that we could focus on providing the supports that our schools needed. For instance, for years in our dual language schools, we had a totally different literacy material adoption than everybody else. Our assessment was different from anybody else. Now we look at how to approach all of this systematically and how we can expand it.”
One of her focal points is developing opportunities so that students have a strong bilingual pathway from elementary to graduation.
“It is hard to believe that Boulder Valley has had a dual language program for 30 years, and we haven’t had a system into middle and high school,” Nelson-Steinhoff said. “We are now in the process of developing the pathways students need from preschool all the way through high school.”
“Right now, we are up through sixth grade with really coherent, consistent programming across six different schools,” Nelson-Steinhoff added. “Next, we will continue to seventh and eighth grade, then into high school.”
While it is still a work in progress, she sees how much has been accomplished.
She remembers meeting with Superintendent Dr. Rob Anderson, when he first arrived in the district. She planted the seed – sharing her vision for CLDE, but the time wasn’t quite right. The district had to address some systemic issues before the work could blossom.
“Last year the superintendent came up to me and said, ‘I heard you five years ago when you did that presentation. Our system wasn't ready for everything you wanted to do. We're now ready – so go.”
She’s taken that to heart, leading key initiatives in the All Together for All Students strategic plan and nurturing the environment needed to make change happen.
“I think that my experiences inside the schools, alongside students and families and educators allowed me to know how far and how fast you can push an initiative or an idea,” Nelson-Steinhoff said. “You can't do any of that minus a relationship. You have to build mutual trust. I believe in always being present and unwavering in my convictions, values and beliefs.”
One of the biggest efforts has been to implement co-teaching across the district. Co-teaching is when an ELD specialist – a teacher who has a CLDE endorsement, or in other words is an expert in language development – comes in alongside a content teacher – a classroom teacher who is an expert in their content, whether it be science, social studies, writing, or math. They plan together every week, each bringing their expertise to the process. Then, four days a week, Then they work together during instruction to implement the plan and support all students.
“Kids are able to stay in their classroom with their friends and are not being pulled out, the way they had been previously,” explained Nelson-Steinhoff. “We heard pretty loudly and clearly from families and from students alike that they didn't love that time when they had to leave their classroom. They missed what was happening in the classroom and it made them feel different. It made them feel othered. It made them feel less connected. Being able to provide the supports inside the classroom has been really powerful.”
Another was moving the high school newcomer program away from Arapahoe Ridge High School.
“They didn't get electives, they didn't get sports, they didn't get pep rallies. There were a lot of high school experiences that students missed out on when we placed them at Arapahoe Ridge,” Nelson-Steinhoff said. “Additionally, it was hard from them to move from the small, close-knit, personalized learning environment of Arapahoe Ridge to a larger high school, so often students didn’t want to do it. It was too scary.”
Student voice guides the work
Decisions like these were driven by the feedback that Nelson-Steinhoff received directly from students.
In fact, one of the first things she did as the director of CLDE, was to begin regularly dropping in to check in with a group of students in an English Language Development (ELD) class, including students who have long been in BVSD and others who have recently moved here, often from abroad.
“I would meet with them weekly and listen to their voices about things that were working well for them in our school system and things that had been challenging and hard,” said Nelson-Steinhoff, who then captured the voices and shared them with other bilingual educators in the district. “It was a really amazing way to start with student voices and then to build new plans.”
Meanwhile, New Vista High School students are participating in a Project Based Learning activity that aims to envision new ways to approach bilingualism programming in BVSD.
“They're learning about bilingual education here in Boulder Valley and then they're going to do some ideation, some planning for what it could look like, what might be some possibilities,” explained Nelson-Steinhoff. “They're so engaged to help us with that work, which is super exciting.”
Getting to Know Kristin
Here are a few more details, so you can get to know our CLDE director.
A big, bilingual family
Kristin is a proud mom to five children, ranging in age from 8 to 26. And it should be no surprise that all of them are bilingual, including her two grown sons, a third who is in college and a fourth who is a 13-year-old middle schooler and her eight year old daughter.
“I knew that I wanted my kids to be bilingual and to have a value for other cultures. I wanted them to have a worldview,” Kristin said. “They all learned to appreciate and value Spanish from an early age. That meant seeking out learning opportunities, schools where kids could learn bilingually. All of them engaged in bilingual learning. They all had friends who came from families that spoke Spanish.”
Growing up in the principal’s office
As you might expect, some of Kristin’s days as an elementary principal could be a bit long and often, like many educators’ kids, they would hang out at the school, waiting for her to finish up.
She recalls an especially memorable day, involving her now 13-year-old son.
“I will never forget at the end of his first day of kindergarten. He fell asleep under my desk, against the trash can. It was a bit tragic,” Kristin said with a laugh.
It wasn’t all bad.
“Late at night, he would play over the intercom. He knew how to get onto the loudspeaker and he would play with the Spanish-speaking custodian,” Kristin said. “He would say, ‘Mamá, estoy en tu oficina. Ven, ven a la oficina.’ He'd joke and they'd play.”
Running to Reggaeton
With so many kids, it also shouldn’t be surprising that Kristin needs an escape every once in a while. Well, when she does, you can usually find her out running.
“I love running,” Kristin said. “I enjoy being outdoors in the fresh air and being able to jog.”
She says that the beat of reggaeton keeps her going.
“Yeah, it's really fast, although sometimes the lyrics (in Spanish) aren’t appropriate,” Kristin said.