'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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”