At a Denver elementary school where staff say at least one student in every classroom has experienced significant trauma, one child’s situation stood out last year.
For this child, kicking, punching and cursing were regular occurrences. The child even made up a song about the teacher, calling her an “f***ing b****,” and got the whole class singing it. The child was five years old and in kindergarten.
Principal Lisa Mahannah was in her second year as head of Oakland Elementary in the far northeast part of the city — and she was prepared. After a first year in which she found students running wild, teachers shouting and hungry kids eating out of the trash, she’d squeezed her budget to hire as many counselors, social workers and psychologists as she could.
She asked her new assistant principal, who is also a licensed social worker, to spend two weeks with the child. This year, that child is repeating kindergarten and doing well.
“If I didn’t have these wonderful people right here,” Mahannah said, referring to her school’s robust mental health team, “I don’t know what I would have done.”
Denver Public Schools officials say that type of support is crucial for all schools, which is why the district is asking voters to approve a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, that includes nearly $11 million to hire more psychologists, social workers and nurses.
The $10.9 million represents the biggest chunk of the proposed tax increase. The money would be split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with the highest needs, said Dustin Kress, DPS’s manager of bond and mill levy programs.
“We’ve heard very clearly from our teachers and our school leaders about the importance of ensuring we’re supporting the whole child and providing the necessary resources for students’ social and emotional growth,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview.
Research backs up their assertion. National studies have shown at-risk students who are taught social and emotional skills do better on standardized tests. The district has its own data, culled from a student survey given last spring that asked kids questions such as whether they break things when they’re mad and whether there’s an adult at school they can trust.
DPS students who reported more social and emotional stability had higher attendance, were less likely to get suspended and scored better on state tests, according to a recent presentation about the survey results given by district staff to the school board.
Mahannah, the Oakland principal, has lived it. A former police officer who decided education was a better career fit, she became a teacher and then a principal, serving four years at an elementary school in southwest Denver before taking the job at Oakland. On paper, the two schools’ populations look similar: almost all of the students are children of color from low-income families.
But when Mahannah arrived at Oakland in the fall of 2014, she said she wasn’t prepared. Many kids had infinitely higher needs and were living in far more challenging situations: Parents in prison. Family members impacted by gang violence. Displacement and homelessness.
At her previous school, Mahannah said she’d had to report suspected abuse to child protective services maybe five times a year. At Oakland, it was multiple times a week.
The kids were frustrated and angry — and they expressed it by assaulting their classmates, destroying their classrooms or bolting from their teachers and not coming back. In the first three months, Mahannah said she called the district’s safety and security team 83 times.
“In my heart, I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is way more than I thought I was walking into,” she said. Even though the school had four administrators, including herself, and the equivalent of three mental health professionals, Mahannah said it wasn’t enough.
“We had teachers who just quit my first year, who walked away and said, ‘We can’t do this.’”
The school itself had a complicated history: after years of low test scores, it was turned into a charter school only to be converted back when the effort failed to boost academics. In some ways, Mahannah, who was hired to head the conversion, was starting from scratch.
She said she realized that if she was going to improve student learning, she’d have to improve student safety and well-being. She secured grant funding to move the school social worker from part-time to full-time. She took on two social work interns and supplemented the district-provided part-time psychologist with a student finishing his doctorate. She also hired two restorative justice coordinators to act as first responders to behavior incidents.
“I have to make sure my teachers can teach and students can learn — and the only way I could do that was to make sure we have this big team,” Mahannah said.
In her second year, she said she only called the district’s safety and security team once in the first three months. No teachers left. And while Oakland’s state test scores remain below district averages, Mahannah said about a third of students moved up two reading levels.
Mahannah is now in her third year as principal at Oakland. Because of a drop in enrollment she said was partly caused by families moving out of Denver due to rising rents, she has fewer per-pupil dollars in her budget. That means she’s had to cut staff, including teachers, administrators and one of her two restorative justice coordinators.
But she and her remaining staff said the need isn’t as great this year. As the preventative programs they’ve put in place over the past two years — teaching students about self-esteem, empathy and conflict resolution — begin to take root, there are fewer crises. The school counselor no longer has to wear tennis shoes to run from classroom to classroom.
Still, Mahannah knows that a sizable chunk of the money she uses to pay for her mental health team is fragile. Grants run out. And if the school shows the academic growth she hopes it will, it will move lower on the district’s priority list for extra funding, much of which Mahannah has poured into meeting students’ social and emotional needs.
She sees the nearly $11 million included in the mill levy override proposal as critical to keeping that support going.
“If the mill levy passes, it’s such a benefit for DPS,” she said. Personally, she said, “I would be able to not have to scramble every year during budget (season) to be like, ‘How am I going to pay for everything?’ … You build stability.”
And that, she said, is key.