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Teacher, Mentor, Inspirer of Dreams

Caleb Flores, Honored Alumni 2024.

Meet alum, Caleb Flores, the only teacher in Colorado to receive the Milken Educator Award this year.

Ellen Ryan
May 23, 2024

At Colorado’s Greeley West High School, there are dozens of teens fresh from a Central or South American country. Dozens of first-time English learners, often not even proficient in the language of their home country. And dozens of kids newly enthusiastic about learning, thanks to a young, energetic teacher named Caleb Flores. 

The Milken Family Foundation is enthusiastic, too. This year it awarded Flores, ’16, M.A. ’21, one of its $25,000 Milken Educator Awards, the only one awarded to a teacher in Colorado. This national teacher recognition program empowers recipients to “celebrate, elevate and activate” the K-12 profession. 

At a school where almost 20% of the student body speak no English or have only limited proficiency, Flores teaches English language arts, reading and culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) material. Among other things.

“Mr. Flores’ class has been a great help when learning a new language. The way he teaches classes is not only creative but also fun. There is no better way than to learn in a meaningful and social way.” 

—Karen Vicente Vicente, 11th grader, Greeley West High School

What makes a great teacher? Karen and her classmates know. Flores takes a swing at it: “Someone who can inspire students day after day to be better, who is excited to see diversity as an asset and be a champion for equity and access, who sees each child holistically in all of their promise.” 

Does he fit his own description? Before deciding, consider the story of young “José.” 

Four years ago this fall, José was an incoming ninth grader. Shy and withdrawn, he never had schooling back in Guatemala. After arriving in Greeley — where he was staying with a cousin’s family, working and sending a little money back to his family in Guatemala — he struggled with his grades. Flores encountered José every day in two classes. 

Soon came a family meeting at school — in Spanish. “We’re not seeing the best habits. What can we do?” asked Flores. And to José, with his aunt, uncle and cousin standing behind him, he said, “You have unlimited potential.” 

“In class, I set the expectation that they can’t fail.”

—Caleb Flores

With the family’s blessing, José soon quit his job and focused on school with the confidence of someone who feels strong, supportive arms around his shoulders. “When students are aware of a target and know what they’re being asked to achieve, they rise to the occasion,” said Flores.  

These days, José chats with Flores all the time — but in English only. After graduation this spring with a proud family behind him, José has his sights set on community college. 

“Caleb is a wonderful example of a bilingual, multicultural teacher who embraces that willingness to pay it forward and go well beyond the classroom in dedication,” says said Dr. Aldo Romero, director of UNC-based Cumbres (or “summits”) Teacher Preparation Program, which is a co-curricular scholarship and support service program for education/CLD majors. This spring, Romero asked Flores to give up part of a Saturday to speak at the Cumbres graduation reception. “Sí, I’d be happy to!” was his response. 

As part of the curriculum, Cumbres assigns CLD students as mentors to six Denver-area school districts. These mentors meet one on one with Greeley high schoolers under Flores’ supervision, which “helps offer a safe haven to be themselves and vent,” he said. In turn, his language development classroom becomes almost a second homeroom, where Flores learns each student’s backstory — who doesn’t have laundry facilities at home, where that cut on an arm came from, who needs a winter coat.  

“The more I get to know my students personally, the better they work and learn,” Flores said. “That’s part of what has inspired me to become a trusted adult, and that’s what makes it all worth it.”  

Recognizing the pressures on these teens — his grandparents immigrated from Mexico, and his parents struggled in school — Flores makes sure to celebrate milestones. His team puts together an awards night with speakers and refreshments. It honors not just seniors but all CLD students who have stood out as leaders. “It’s been a blast to host every year,” Flores said. 

There are holiday parties and interdisciplinary projects that capture students’ interest. Each May, a mini graduation ceremony from Level 1 English rewards kids with a certificate and photos. “Good for the soul,” the Milken awardee pronounces all this. “It makes us all feel accomplished.” 

Given his passion for and excellence in teaching, it may come as a surprise that Flores didn’t always see himself teaching high school. Business was his original plan. One imagines Flores’ parents and grandparents gathering around behind him much as José’s family has, pulling for him, seeing their own goals in his future. 

“They are the reason I got into this profession,” he reflects, citing his “intrinsic motivation” in aiding newcomers to the United States. “Education is a great equalizer. I’ve seen it change the trajectory of lives in my own family.” 

Today, social media often tells teens that education isn’t valuable, laments Flores. “We tell and try to show them that education gives people a great chance to reach the goals they want for themselves, to get them to their best potential.”