'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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.