Trevista ECE-8th grade in northwest Denver has struggled for years. It has tried to remake itself, even making some gains. But not fast enough according to state and district officials, so now the school is facing the most radical restructuring in the education arsenal. It's called a Turnaround - a new approach backed by the federal government, which is spending $5 billion dollars on 1200 of the worst schools in the nation. CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin will be following Trevista for the coming year to see if the big changes work. In the first part of her series, she introduces us to the challenges this school faces.

Here is a transcript of her report:

Reporter Jenny Brundin: Three and a half years ago, Veronica Benavidez had her work cut out for her. Her task? To bring together three struggling schools. One of them was a middle school that students were leaving in droves. The new school was called Trevista. So Principal Benavidez set out to build a safe school culture, a place where kids respected each other, and above all, learned. A gargantuan task. 

Veronica Benavidez: That first year was a rough year because the kids felt like they ran the school.

Reporter: Everyone knew it was going to be a tough haul. Many of Trevista’s students come from Denver’s largest housing project. Forty percent of students are English language learners. Every student comes from a home that’s poor enough that they qualify for the federal school lunch programs. Some of their parents work 2 or 3 jobs. Or no job at all. Some are even in jail. Teacher Lisa Hennesey says the kids had, and still have, a lot of needs, and some days, it’s hard to learn.

Lisa Hennesey: When they walk in the door and they’ve seen their parents duke it out literally before they even leave the house, or there’s no food at all and they get here late and they have to get siblings up and get them ready and they miss breakfast.

Reporter: Here’s how teacher Joe DeRose describes that first year.

Joe DeRose: Pretty pretty pretty outrageous place. And I think we have slowly turned this ship around.

Reporter: School leaders established rules and expectations for behavior. They worked especially hard to help kids who were angry or had trouble socializing -giving them counseling, teaching them coping skills and bringing in their parents to help. Things have calmed down, and where cops used to be called every week, it’s rare now. And students made some academic progress, but not all of them. 

(school ambience)

Reporter: So let’s see how things are working at Trevista. 

(classroom ambience)

Reporter: In this classroom, the lesson objective is front and center. This is one of the cardinal rules of good teaching. And whenever there’s a spare moment, the teacher makes sure kids know what they’re supposed to know when the lessons over.

Teacher: We’re reviewing what? What are we reviewing? What is our new unit? I like it when kids raise their hands and tell me what we’re working on.

Reporter: There’s lots of visual aids, and items for hands-on learning – another sign of good teaching.

Students/Teacher: Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. OK, we’re going to start with a brand new piece (fade under)

Reporter: We go into another strong classroom. The teacher asks lots of questions and the kids jump in to help a girl who is completely lost.

Student: See how the pencil is this long? 

Reporter: I’m struck by how caring these fifth-graders are towards one another. Assistant Principal Yolanda Ortega says some of that’s because of a practice called “looping” - the same teacher stays with the kids for two years.

Yolanda Ortega: You saw when the young lady did not know, they were respectful, they did not get on her, there was no making fun of that she didn’t know. They’ve been together. They trust each other.

(classroom ambience)

Reporter: Things,  though, get trickier when we peek into a fourth grade classroom. The disruptive behavior of five or six of the boys has prompted emergency meetings. Last year, more than half of this group of students was at grade level in math. Now, there are four.

(Ambience on steps)

Reporter: The challenges only grow as we climb the steps to the third floor. It’s where the middle school students are. Right away, it feels different. The kids are definitely more wild.

(noisy classroom)

Reporter: We head into a 7th grade class. The kids are supposed to be writing three questions about something they’ve read.

Teacher: I want three questions about what you’ve read. Knock. Knock. Knock. Please open your notebooks.

Reporter: One kid simply tells her he can’t. Another kid is reading a 3rd or 4th grade level book and completely ignores the teacher. After the teacher’s sixth time of clearly explaining what to do, kids still ask what they’re supposed to write about.

Teacher:  You’ve got a pencil. Would you please write the title and three questions? This is taking too long, hurry up.

Reporter: In the hall, Ortega tells a girl with red shoe laces to see her at lunch so someone can come and get her different shoes. There’s no red, because of …..

Ortega: …the gangs in the neighborhood and the color that they…Hi Saul! Quick question. First of all I have to tell you, honey, I love your watch. Second of all, were you supposed to be eating that lollipop in class behind your book? 

Saul Ortiz: No. 

Ortega: So why were you?

Ortiz: Because I’m hungry. 

Ortega: I’ll take it. 

Ortiz: No miss! It gives me a sugar rush! 

Reporter: 13-year old Saul Ortiz has left the chaotic class where they were supposed to be writing three questions. He says he actually prefers the stricter class of a nearby teacher.

Ortiz: ‘Cause, it’s quiet in there and she gets mad when people talk and it helps me concentrate more. And it’s easy to pass her classes because she knows how to teach and explain right.

Reporter: That pretty much sums it up. A disciplined class where the teacher knows how to teach right. That’s what Trevista has been striving for, but with uneven results so far. With two years of data collected, and an independent evaluation, district officials said Trevista needed what’s known as a “turnaround.” That means a new principal, possibly replacing many teachers, and it means a federal grant to the tune of $1 million. Trevista leaders and parents said the school simply needed more of one thing. Principal Veronica Benavidez.

Benavidez: Time became the enemy for the word that we were doing, because we just needed more of it. 

Reporter: Studies show it takes five to seven years to make a failing school thrive. But at a school board meeting in December, DPS’s Laura Brinkman said only a quarter of Trevista’s students are reading and doing math at grade level.

Brinkman: At the beginning of the year there were only 19 students in the school that didn’t need some kind of reading intervention. By November for a monthly visit, it had moved to where 97 students didn’t need some type of intervention. So you’re talking a large percentage of the school, still close to 500 students in need of some type of intervention.

(sound of school board voting)

Reporter: The board voted to approve the turnaround status for the school, and now big changes are in store. It leaves librarian Cat DeRose wondering this about Trevista’s impending “turnaround.”

Cat DeRose: The thing that I always wonder is, if you have something else, what haven’t you given us that to do? What miraculous intervention are you going to initiate that is going to make the difference that we couldn’t have initiated?

Reporter: We’ll find out as the year goes on.

Turnaround Schools: National Reporting Project

Part 2 - Trevista - Choosing A New Principal

Part 3 - Trevista - Bracing For Change

Part 4 - Trevista - Who Stays And Who Goes