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Jesse Tang is the new principal at Denver's Schmitt Elementary.

Jesse Tang is the new principal at Denver’s Schmitt Elementary.

What one Denver turnaround school principal learned during his ‘Year Zero’

Jesse Tang and his crew walked through the grass surrounding the playground last week at an affordable housing complex in southwest Denver. Dressed in blue slacks and a button-down shirt, his Denver Public Schools badge dangling near his hip, Tang helped plunk down several cardboard boxes on a blue picnic table as the kids began to gather.

Inside the boxes were hot dogs, sweet potato fries, juice boxes and little cups of mandarin oranges.

“Javi!” Tang called to a boy he knows from Schmitt Elementary, where he’s set to begin his first official year as principal in August. “Javier! Do you want a hot dog?”

He did. So did more than 15 other kids who converged on the picnic in bare feet, pajamas, shorts and neon T-shirts, some of the older ones leading younger ones and helping them squeeze ketchup and pierce the foil on their juice boxes.

For the past year, Tang has been preparing to take over as principal of Schmitt Elementary, a struggling school a couple blocks away where 95 percent of the 400 students are minorities and 97 percent qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. On state tests last year, just 12 percent met or exceeded expectations in reading and 8 percent did in math.

While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations of the school, Tang got to know Schmitt, soliciting opinions about how to improve academic performance and crafting a plan.

It’s a strategy DPS calls Year Zero — and the district is hoping it makes the gargantuan task of school “turnaround” more doable, achievable and sustainable. This past year, DPS deployed the approach at three elementary schools: Schmitt, Goldrick and Harrington.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” Susana Cordova, DPS’s acting superintendent, told Chalkbeat shortly after Tang began his work at Schmitt in June 2015. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created, the ownership of that plan by a leader, and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

We sat down with Tang — who grew up the son of immigrants in California, taught in Chicago, helped found a school in New York City and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education — to ask him about his Year Zero experience.

Here are six questions and answers from our interview that provide insight into how Tang spent the past year and what he learned. They have been edited for clarity and length.

When you came in, what was your directive? What was your goal?

I think the goal of my first couple of months was to build relationships. And to learn as much about the community and the school as I possibly could.

And so initially, I was just present at the school, walking around, introducing myself, asking questions, listening, inviting people to come in and share more.

One of the first things you did was set up a school redesign committee of six family members and six staff members. You also held forums with the broader community. What did you learn about Schmitt in your Year Zero?

I’ve learned a lot about the community that we serve. … The neighborhood itself has gone through a lot of change. Informal relationships are very, very important. And so members know each other through many different ways, through years of history with each other. And that very much leads to our identity as a school being very community-based but also helps me think about the school beyond the walls of our building.

I’ve also learned that with increasing expectations around student achievement outcomes, we’ve got to invest in the support of our teachers and in their ongoing learning and development. … They’re going to be the secret to our success because they work with our students every single day.

The last thing I’ve learned about Schmitt is, because of the history that’s here, people’s biggest fears are that we were going to lose some of the things that made us special to begin with. … Year Zero helped me hold that tension of, change is necessary but you can be a part of it and you can help guide it and it’s not going to forget or throw out the special things about our school.

What are some of those things?

There are some community events, such as a fall festival, a fifth-grade trip to Mesa Verde. There are certain pictures in the hallway of former teachers who have passed on. Those things mean a lot to the generations of people who were here before. …

Digging beyond the surface of that event or that picture, I keep coming back to community. …

Many staff members have children who go to Schmitt or went to Schmitt themselves or grew up in this neighborhood. … To be honest, we talked about some of the drop in enrollment that came when we were announced as a turnaround school … We also have so many families who have made the decision to continue to come here because this place means something to them. And they’d rather be here and be a part of the change than leave and go somewhere else. …

That’s evident when you walk the hallways: people know each other, people care about each other, people look out for other people’s kids. … That is what I sensed when I came here and I had that kind of ‘diamond in the rough moment.’

There’s a sense of community here that if we can harness its power, if we can realize that potential, could be a huge resource to draw from in doing this work.

How much time did you spend at the school this past year?

It varied throughout the school year and increased as the year went on. At the beginning of the year, I spent about half my time on-site, engaging families, running redesign meetings, just building relationships. And then about half the time in the beginning part of the year, I was off-site doing turnaround professional development. …

Once January came and it was the spring semester, I spent much more than 50 percent of my time here. It was an opportunity for me just to continue to see how the school was running, to get an idea of what changes need to be made. We also then shifted into the recruitment and hiring season for this upcoming school year.

You also did dozens of home visits to get to know students and their families. Is there a story from one of those visits that has stuck with you?

Yeah, there are two.

We visited (one family) before last year’s school year began. This was a family for whom we might have traditionally negative ideas of how they engaged in school or how the children behaved.

And the fact that the first time I met the family, we just went to say, ‘The school year hasn’t even begun. We’re excited for you to come back. Tell me about you, tell me about your work, tell me about your life,’ immediately impacted the kind of relationship that I was able to build with them.

And so while that same parent has expressed frustration and perhaps guardedness with other staff in the building, every single time I see Mom or Dad, I always bring it back to that visit. ‘How’s So-and-So?’ Or ‘What are you doing in this job?’ And immediately, you see a visible change from interacting with others to interacting with me. And I don’t say that because there’s anything intrinsically in me that elicits that. It’s just the basis upon which I met them.

Another one was just the other day. We visited a family and it was an impromptu visit. We were just dropping off fliers to say, ‘We’re having a picnic next week!’ And they invited us in, served us some delicious bread from their home country of Eritrea. They served us tea, and it turned into 30 minutes of just talking about their family, how and when they came to the United States, looking at baby pictures, hearing about extended family, what the kids have been doing over the summer. I learned a lot about the refugee experience and who helped their family along the way, how they ended up in Denver, how they ended up in this neighborhood.

I knew the family for a whole year. But it wasn’t until last week when I was in the home, when there wasn’t an agenda, when I wasn’t checking my email, when I wasn’t running in and out of classrooms, (that I was able) to take the time to get to know the family that way.

Given what you learned in your Year Zero, what’s your plan for Year One?

Our turnaround plan has four main shifts.

The first one is a shift in our leadership structure. We talked about needing increased family engagement and teacher development and support. My belief was that the principal-and-an-assistant-principal model was just not enough leadership support. … So what we’ve done is shifted from that model to a principal and three deans, two who will support curriculum and instruction and one who’s going to support school culture. …

The second one is a language shift — so moving from the English Language Development model that we had to the multilingual model that we have now (in which English language learners will learn English and native English speakers will learn Spanish to promote bilingualism and celebrate students who speak more than one language). In so doing, we’re also opening up more collaboration time for our general education teachers. …

The third one has to do with time. We’re extending school day by about 15 minutes, which buys us more professional development and training time. …

Our fourth shift has to do with project-based learning. It’s the one that we’re starting off and ramping up in the next two or three years. So we’re just looking at project-based learning as an additional instructional model that helps us integrate across disciplines — so how reading and math impact science and social studies and writing throughout.