up close and personal

Northeast Denver charter puts a new spin on teaching and learning

Roots Elementary students hold iPads as they stand in line to go into one of the school's mini-classrooms.

One hundred kindergartners and first-graders scrambled to get their iPads from black metal cases around the lunchroom on a recent morning at Roots Elementary, a new charter school in northeast Denver.

A few stared blankly at the screens, which displayed large letters or symbols showing the children their first learning station of the day. Some swarmed around teachers for help while others figured out their destinations and headed off with little fuss.

The September morning marked a new beginning for students at Roots, which opened its doors in mid-August in the Holly Square neighborhood’s Hope Center. It was the first day that each child was following a personalized schedule, moving to a new station every 15 minutes for much of the day.

Principal Jon Hanover, a former business consultant and kindergarten teacher, said, “It’s literally the first time something like this is happening with elementary school.”

The scene—with 5- and 6-year-olds checking iPads and navigating along colored tape lines to get to their appointed stations—does appear to be a huge departure from the traditional school model. Students no longer have a single teacher, classroom or a standard sequence of lessons.

But Hanover said such a drastic shift is needed in an area that’s not been well served by traditional neighborhood schools.

“When you look at the achievement data of the schools in the region, there’s a crisis at the elementary level,” he said.

The percentage of third-graders reading proficiently at five nearby district schools — Smith, Barrett, Hallett, Columbine and Stedman — ranged from 35 to 47 percent, according to 2014 state tests. All have large populations of low-income students.

Roots, where about 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, won’t have a comparable third-grade achievement data until 2018. Still, when the time comes, Hanover’s goal is that 90 percent of students who’ve been at Roots for at least two years will be proficient or advanced in all subjects.

It will be an immense challenge, he said, but one that can be overcome by teaching “the right objective to the right scholars, at the right time, in the right way.”

For parents like Adam Harmon, who lives a few blocks from the school, Roots is a godsend.

“This is a new school with a revolutionary idea,” he said. “I don’t see the traditional elementary school surviving in 20 years.”

He believes Roots’ personalized approach will allow his 5-year-old son, Sir Adam, to advance unfettered by traditional grade levels.

“Their structure…is blended so you don’t know where kindergarten stops and first grade starts,” he said. “My son is in kindergarten but he just learned to count to 120.”

Differentiation with a twist

On the inaugural day of personalized schedules, 5-year-old Leilani was confused at first. She followed the crowd into The Grove, the large open room where students work independently at stations like the “Writing Center,” the “iPad Center” or the “Flex Center.”

Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.
Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.

Hanover came to the rescue, reminding her that the orange symbol on her iPad corresponded with the orange sashes hanging from the ceiling above the Writing Center. After a couple reminders by a supervising teacher to find her portfolio, she settled in to draw a picture of a house.

A few minutes later, chimes sounded, signaling students throughout the room to move to a new station. Some stayed in the Grove and others followed a blue tape line called “The Trail” to mini-classrooms around the perimeter.

It’s in these spaces, named for the neighborhood’s flora-themed streets, that students will work more directly with teachers. All told, the children will spend about half their academic time in these rooms, but the size of the group and the lessons they’ll focus on will depend on their personal needs.

In the “Birch” mini-classroom, the scene was similar to that in any early elementary classroom—though it was impossible to tell which students were officially kindergarteners and which were first-graders.

During one rotation there, writing and social studies teacher Mackenzie Wagner led 18 students as they practiced tracing then writing their names on paper attached to clipboards. During the next rotation, Hanover, subbing for a teacher who was sick, read the classic book, “Where the Wild Things Are” to a group of 24 students.

Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called "The Grove."
Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called “The Grove.”

Students do have breaks from shuttling between stations. Besides lunch and recess, they have “opening circle” and “closing circle” each day. Staff members called coaches lead these sessions, which focus on social-emotional skills and always include the same group of students.

“It’s very familiar there,” said coach Debbie Van Roy, a former teacher who will follow a cohort of 50 students throughout their Roots career.

In addition to working with children in groups and individually, coaches spearhead communication between home and school.

“We’re constantly in touch with kids’ families,” she said.

Another piece of the puzzle

While Roots may be a school to watch for its re-imagination of instructional delivery, it’s also distinctive for the gap it will fill in the geography of the Holly Square neighborhood.

Its permanent building, set to open next fall, will soon rise a stone’s throw away from its current quarters, on a plot once occupied by the Holly Shopping Center. That building was burned down in 2008 in a gang-related arson.

Roots Elementary's permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.
Roots Elementary’s permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.

The new school will be nestled among a complex of buildings that includes a Boys & Girls Club, the Hope Center, a library and a city recreation center. It was selected for the spot, which is owned by the Urban Land Conservancy, by a group of community stakeholders.

“This idea of creating a children’s campus…really resonated with everyone around the table,” said Tony Pickett, vice president of master site development at the Urban Land Conservancy.

“Seeing Roots fit into that was a sort of natural evolution.”

That evolution is set to continue in the fall of 2016 with the opening of a new charter middle school, the Near Northeast Community Engagement School, inside the Boys & Girls Club space, Pickett said.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity to really change the life course of young people in that community,” he said.

While Roots, like any charter, is technically open to students from across Denver and even outside the district, Hanover and his team have put a premium on attracting students from the neighborhood.

“We knocked on every door in Northeast Park Hill at least four times during the enrollment process,” Hanover said.

Pickett noted that Hanover and other school leaders have consistently showed up to community meetings and worked to build relationships with parents.

Those efforts seem to have paid off. About 80 percent of students are from the immediate neighborhood.

National influences

Before Hanover taught kindergarten for two years at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school, he worked at the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund.

roots uniforms

That organization, which gave Roots a $200,000 “Next Generation” grant, funds expansion of high-performing charters across the country and provides start-up grants for promising schools.

Given Hanover’s background, it’s not surprising that Roots is heavily influenced by certain high-profile charter sector practices. Examples include the school’s gray and blue uniforms, the way teachers address students as “scholars” and reminders for children to track the speaker.

But it extends beyond that. For example, the school’s math program, Cognitively Guided Instruction, is drawn from the high-achieving Success Academy charter network in New York City. Summit Public Schools, which operate in California and Washington, was the model for Roots’ “Habits for Success.”—reminders like “I stop, think and make a good choice when I’m upset.”

Finally, the school’s approach to culture, which emphasizes core values like kindness and respect as well as community-building activities, comes from the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.

Hanover describes the various charter school influences as “taking the best from the best.”

At the same time, he believes working closely with other local youth-serving groups is critical to the school’s success.

“A great elementary education is super important but not enough,” he said. “The only way for us to meet our mission is if we’re really smart in how we’re partnering with other entities in the community.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.