Trevista students Jawhara Adan, left, and Tiffany Cabrera watch an operation during a school field trip to a vet clinic. 

(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)
In our series Following Trevista, CPR's Education Reporter Jenny Brundin has spent the past year tracking Denver's troubled Trevista K-8 school as it goes through the federally-funded "turnaround" process.  The school started this year with a new principal and an almost entirely new set of teachers.  As the school year comes to a close this week, this is the first of two reports on how things have progressed. 

It’s 8 o'clock in the morning, and Trevista 7th graders are busy moving chairs into a circle. To start the day, the teacher asks the class an atypical question: If the kids had to lose one sense, which one would it be?

“I would give up hearing so I wouldn’t have to listen to all the bad stuff,” said one student.

This is called a Circle of Power and Respect. It’s something the school started doing in the second semester to deal with behavior problems that were getting out of control. Middle school students were  swearing at the teachers, disrupting class. They were angry.

“To be honest, I was one of those out of control kids. I just didn’t care,” said 12-year-old Esperanza Medina.

Medina says the teachers they liked from last year had lost their jobs, and the students were staring at a whole new set of faces.

“I had no respect for the teachers. We didn’t know them. They were new, and it seems like a lot of the kids were Hispanic, and it seems like all the teachers were Caucasian, and we felt - not mistreated, but like our school was going to become so professional and we’re not used to that,” Medina said.

The Circle of Power and Respect is a chance for kids to share their own stories, their fears, and sometimes really painful things. Kids learn empathy, build trust in each other, and learn how to respect other opinions.

It’s all part of Trevista’s attempt to make students feel more engaged.  The school also brought in volunteers from the City Year program, who helped create more clubs, a student council, sports teams, even a cheerleading squad.

In addition, students can now petition to go on what the school calls “passion-based” field trips. One group of kids recently went to Planned Pethood, a vet clinic in Northwest Denver,  to watch a dog get spayed.

“Are you guys OK with blood?” asked the vet’s assistant. The kids nod. 

Student Jaharah Adan has a lot of questions: How long does the operation take? Is the dog sewed back up?

“The surgery, does it always go the right way, or do mistakes happen?” she asked.

As a vet gently drags an unconscious dog down the hall, Arianna Leal watches, fascinated. She loves science and wants to be a vet.  This visit’s had a big impact on her.

“It actually has inspired me in many different ways,” she said, “opened up ideas.  It makes me want to go out there and go even further in life than I imagined.”

The visit has helped Jawhara, but in a different way. Maybe veterinary medicine is not for her!  She’s stepped outside because the blood has gotten to her. She and her friend are also afraid of dogs.  

“But we could take care of cats!" she exclaimed. "We’re OK with cats. We could help cats out!"

Trevista has also been working behind the scenes to deal with the behavior problems.  It’s trained teachers in new methods for conflict resolution; it’s used federal money from the turnaround program to hire two full-time counselors and a school psychologist; and Principal La Dawn Baity says she’s doubled the number of administrators, which she thinks is key to dealing with unruly kids.

“In the past years when there's a principal and an assistant principal and you’re spread so thin, you can't possibly address those needs as quickly,” she said.

The school acknowledges the problems haven’t gone away completely.  Student Jahawra Adan agrees. 

“I say it’s still the same cuz kids don’t really listen,” she said. “They like to be bad just to impress people.”

But for some kids, the school’s efforts have made a difference. Back at the Circle of Power and Respect, the end is the part students like best. They get to nominate someone to be recognized for working hard, showing respect, or being responsible. One student nominates Esperanza Medina, the girl who admitted she’d been “out of control” at the beginning of the year. 

A wide smile spreads across her face as she wins the vote.

“All in favor of Esperanza, say ‘Aye’,” said the teacher. 

The students shouted, “Aye!”

Esperanza said later she believes the “circle” has helped calm everyone down, including herself.

“It has changed our class,” she said. “We are much stronger. We used to be so separated in different groups, and now we are a class and we can ask each other for help. We just reunited.”

The school has big plans for next year.  It's contracting with a non-profit company to reduce playground bullying; it's scheduled more teacher training this summer in dealing with behavior and attendance issues; and it plans more fine tuning of what officials have already put in place.