'destination blue'

Opening a new chapter, a Denver elementary school on the rebound changes its look and feel

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
In place of tall olive green lockers at Trevista at Horace Mann: hooks and shelves that 4-year-olds can reach.

Each morning, the littlest students at Trevista at Horace Mann school would fight with the olive green lockers.

They’d struggle to unlatch them. They’d stand on their tip toes in futile efforts to hang up their jackets. Then in rapid succession they would slam the doors shut, because 4-year-olds tend to slam things.

This, school leaders thought, is not what an elementary school should sound like.

That was before. When students arrived for classes this fall in the art deco building in northwest Denver that for decades housed a middle school, they passed through freshly painted bright blue doors and under a new school logo designed by an outside marketing firm.

Those intimidating first-floor lockers are hidden from view — framed up and splashed with yet more blue paint. There are hooks within easy reach of small hands and shelves for lunch boxes and water bottles.

The striking visible changes at Trevista at Horace Mann grow out of a school of thought at a number of Denver public schools in or coming out of turnaround — schools that were performing so poorly, drastic changes were put in place accompanied by an influx by district and federal resources and dollars.

Along with a relentless focus on strengthening school culture and experimentation with schedules and curriculum, these schools are fundamentally changing how they look and feel, from tossing old furniture to plastering their logos on yard signs to spread the word.

At Trevista, the aesthetic changes that greeted students this year carry special weight. Last spring, DPS shut down the middle school portion of what had been a preschool through 8th grade school due to plummeting enrollment, and talk heated up about moving the elementary school out of the 1931 blond brick building.

That sea of blue is meant to send a message — the Trevista community’s goal is to stay put and climb from being one of the district’s lowest performing schools to one that is rated blue, or distinguished, on DPS’s school performance framework that measures academic proficiency, growth, enrollment and more.

“The aesthetic changes really represent what we feel as a staff and a community about the possibilities our students hold,” said Jessica Mullins, who as a teacher leader splits time between teaching 5th grade language arts, coaching colleagues and planning. “It’s a physical representation of what we believe our students are capable of. As an educator, it looks like to me a place where anything is possible.”

Changing school culture

Trevista was put on turnaround status four years ago, beginning a tumultuous period that included the hiring of a new principal, most of the teaching staff being cut loose and the granting of innovation status, which gives the school more freedom with staffing, scheduling and curriculum decisions.

New Trevista principal Jesus Rodriguez lives five minutes from the school and often runs into families at Safeway or a local pizza place (photo by Eric Gorski).
New Trevista principal Jesus Rodriguez lives five minutes from the school and often runs into families at Safeway or a local pizza place (photo by Eric Gorski).

The school adopted an extended day and calendar that includes extra time for data analysis, planning and staff training. It gained waivers from district assessments and curriculum, allowing it to begin experimenting with a Common Core-aligned curriculum, EngageNY, the district has since embraced.

The City Year program, staffed by AmericaCorps personnel, provides after-school homework help.

Perhaps most notably, Trevista went to work on improving school culture, said Jesus Rodriguez, who took over as principal this year after previously serving as an assistant principal.

The school adopted three core values: work hard, show respect and be responsible. The idea, Rodriguez said, is to create an environment that sets high and clear expectations but also celebrates joy.

Students who demonstrate those values are rewarded with falcon feathers — for the school mascot — and are entered into drawings to win donated college T-shirts they can wear in place of their uniforms.

Between periods, students are instructed to walk silently, hands hooked behind their backs in two straight lines — which calls to mind practices at no-nonsense charter schools.

The changes were not enough to save the middle school, which had seen enrollment decline and performance lag. Last spring, however, the elementary school crept into green status on the DPS school performance framework, meaning it meets expectations.

Critics say the framework system is broken and includes far too wide a range for schools to meet that bar. But it was cause for celebration at Trevista.

Last year, Trevista ranked among the top 40 DPS schools in median student academic growth. Still, on the most recent state test scores available — 2014 TCAP assessments — Trevista students lagged behind their peers in the district in academic proficiency, often by wide margins. For instance, just three in 10 fourth-graders were at grade level in reading, compared to the district-wide rate of about 50 percent.

Trevista has chosen to set the bar higher — to strive to become the first “blue” school in northwest Denver.

“Blue represents distinction,” Rodriguez said. “No one questions whether it’s a great school.”

‘A crayon box full of colors’

To brighten the school more, Trevista did away with the uniforms of old. For the previous seven years, elementary school students wore blue polo shirts and middle-schoolers wore gray ones.

The student handbook barred red on campus, based on Denver Police concerns about gang associations. Rodriguez said the middle school closure made that a non-issue. Now, children can choose from a rainbow of T-shirts and polos — including red ones.

“The moment I walked into the rooms, it felt to me like when color TV hit the mainstream,” Rodriguez said. “I had spent the last few years in this seas of blue and gray and now am seeing a crayon box full of colors.”

The rallying crying for the Trevista community is "Destination Blue" (photo by Eric Gorsk).
The rallying crying for the Trevista community is “Destination Blue” (photo by Eric Gorsk).

 

Then there are all the physical changes. For the first time, the school has a sign bearing its name, rather than just Horace Mann Middle School. Grant money paid for the paint jobs on the framed-in lockers and panels on the second floor.

Rodriguez anticipates the new logo, stationery, banners in the entranceway and other branding will cost about $10,000, tapping into funds that support multicultural efforts.

Mallory Powell, who has two daughters attending Trevista, said the visible changes at the start of the school year “just shows kids and parents that the school cares — and that you are walking through a great school.”

She has seen other, more meaningful changes at the school over the last four years, including a transition from teachers who told her everything was fine — when it wasn’t — to those who called from their personal cell phones to welcome the family back for the new year.

Trevista borrowed much of its makeover blueprint from other DPS turnaround schools, in particular DCIS Fairmont and Ashley Elementary School, both of which like Trevista are innovation schools.

DCIS Fairmont, which replaced a dual-language K-8 school, adopted four core values, developed a system for rewarding positive behavior and and splashed everywhere it could its new logo — a colorful globe-shaped “cultural mosaic” that represents its international focus. Principal Anne Jacobs likened it to a company rebranding.

“We came into a neighborhood that has so much history with the school and the campus, and this is very true for Trevista, as well,” Jacobs said. “It can be a very tough and emotional ride.”

DCIS Fairmont made surprisingly quick gains, lifting itself up to green status within a year and seeing behavioral problems and suspension rates drop.

At Ashley Elementary in northeast Denver, the turnaround process included a similarly deep emphasis on school culture along with repainting the entire school and replacing every desk and chair.

“In the turnaround setting, we need to completely change what the perception of the school is — that the school looks and feels different than it did before,” principal Zachary Rahn said.

At the same time, Rahn said school leaders were careful to hold onto cherished school traditions. So December still brings the annual Nutcracker performance and International Arts Night arrives in the spring.

High ‘choice-out’ rates

The Trevista boundary is big, sprawling and unwieldy. It includes the city’s largest public housing project — the Quigg Newton Homes — and new arrivals moving into high-priced box-shaped duplexes.

But so far, the gentrification of the Sunnyside neighborhood at the heart of Trevista’s boundary is not reflected in the school. About 80 percent of students are Latino and 15 percent are black. About 97 percent qualify for government-subsidized meals. Those figures have remained about the same for years.

For two weeks before school began, educators at the school attended training dubbed "Trevista University" (photo by Eric Gorski).
For two weeks before school began, educators at the school attended training dubbed “Trevista University” (photo by Eric Gorski).

The percentage of families in the Trevista boundary choosing to attend schools elsewhere was in the mid 60s last year.

This fall’s head count showed considerable work remains. Enrollment was about 340, or 26 students short of projections, setting up Trevista’s budget to be short about $115,000, Rodriguez said. Because Trevista is designated as a priority school, DPS provided money to help make up some but not all of the difference. Rodriguez made cuts in the operational budget, and a school psychologist is in the building one day fewer per week.

Rodriguez, unsurprisingly, would like to improve on those numbers.

He envisions Trevista as a large, diverse neighborhood school, a place where everyone vies for one of those college T-shirts, girls can wear red bows in their hair and the hallways are free of the sound of crashing lockers.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.