Why this Denver elementary school has replaced detention with yoga

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A girl rests at the end of yoga club at Doull Elementary in Denver.

The lights were dimmed low in the high-ceilinged auditorium of Denver’s Doull Elementary School, where 13 barefoot students sat cross-legged on yoga mats arranged in a wide circle.

Their instructor, Trini Heffron, asked them a question: “What is yoga about?”

An older boy raised his hand. “I think yoga is about getting calm and chill,” he said.

Heffron told him he was right. It’s a state she’s found students at the high-poverty school are eager to reach. And this year, she’s been helping them get there in after-school yoga sessions for students whose behavior would have in the past earned them a detention.

“I want to create a space where they can embody all these beautiful things of life, like self-awareness and fun, … courage and kindness, and to be mindful of their feelings,” she said.

The school was able to hire Heffron, an experienced yoga teacher who once worked at Doull as a paraprofessional, with money from a $100,000 grant from Denver Public Schools. Forty-two schools applied for the funding, which will be doled out over two years. Doull, in the southwest Denver neighborhood of Harvey Park, was one of seven chosen to receive it.

Which schools got the grant?
  • Doull Elementary
  • Place Bridge Academy
  • Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
  • High Tech Elementary
  • McGlone Academy
  • High Tech Early College
  • Manual High

The district created the small grant program, which it calls the “whole child innovation fund,” with money from a $56.6 million tax increase approved by voters in November 2016. A big chunk of the tax revenue – $15 million – is earmarked for programs or staff to help meet students’ social and emotional needs, a recognition that education is about more than academics.

The innovation fund is just a small piece of the funding, but district officials said it has the potential to be an important one. The goal is to provide seven schools with the seed money to try a variety of out-of-the-box ideas, evaluate what works best, and share that with other schools, said Katherine Plog Martinez, the district’s executive director of whole child supports.

The schools that were chosen had all experimented with innovative approaches to social and emotional learning in the past, Plog Martinez said. For instance, a few years ago, Doull converted two small spaces, including a former closet, into “cool-down rooms” for students who become angry or act out in class. Decorated with colorful throw rugs, bean bag chairs, and a speaker that plays soothing music, the rooms provide a space for students to de-escalate.

“When you’re escalated, you’re not empathetic, you’re not listening,” Doull Principal Jodie Carrigan said. Allowing students to take a break for a few minutes before talking to them about whatever triggered them to get upset “has made all the difference in the world,” she said.

The school was taking what Carrigan called “baby steps” — until the grant allowed Doull to up its game. The school used part of its $50,000 this year to keep its full-time psychologist and hire a part-time counseling intern who meets with students whose parents are going through a divorce, for example, or who are dealing with grief.

Doull also contracted with a nonprofit organization called Playworks that sends “coaches” to schools to organize structured games during recess, and it hired a different kind of coach to come once a week to show teachers and students how to practice mindfulness.

And then there’s Heffron, who leads three hour-long yoga sessions each week. Two are for students who’ve gotten in trouble. Instead of after-school detention, students are now required to attend “reflection” with Miss Trini. Carrigan said it’s been a welcome change.

“The nice thing about yoga is our kids are leaving with a life skill,” she said. Heffron, she said, “talks to them: Why are they are in yoga, what can they learn from yoga. And then she follows up with the classroom teachers: ‘This is the talk we had; these are the things we worked on.’ She has the ability to follow up with the teachers to see, ‘Are they using the strategies?’”

The third session is an after-school yoga club that any student can join. The school added it after students began asking to go to yoga even if they hadn’t earned detention, Carrigan said.

Yoga can be quiet and serious, but Heffron’s sessions at Doull are full of laughter and wiggling. On a recent afternoon, she called out a series of poses, rapid-fire.

“Sky!” she said. “Heart! Earth! Star! Rock ‘n’ roll star!”

With their feet planted wide, the students pretended to headbang and jam on an electric guitar. After a few seconds, Heffron called out, “I am a superhero!” The kids snapped their feet together, puffed out their chests, and planted their fists on their hips.

Heffron then had them sit on their mats with their backs straight. With the sound of a copy machine whirring in the background, she taught them to touch the fingertips of their hands together and use them as a “breathing ball” to time their inhalations and exhalations.

“If you have a test and you’re nervous and anxious, you can put your hands under the desk and no one has to see,” Heffron said. To end the session, the students lay down. Heffron invited them to close their eyes as she circled the room, spritzing a lavender scent and speaking softly.

“There’s nothing to do, nothing to explain,” she told them. “You are safe.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.