Colorado Public Radio is airing a year-long series on a school called Trevista in Northwest Denver. It’s a place where a few years ago, fights brought cops every week, students didn’t follow rules, learning suffered. Some recent improvements just haven’t been enough. Now the district has designated it a “turnaround school” and that means big changes lie ahead, starting with a new principal who has broad power - and extra federal money - to fix Trevista. In part 2 of “Following Trevista” CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin tells us how that principal got the job.
Here is a transcript of her report.
Reporter Jenny Brundin: A want ad for a “turnaround” principal might sound something like this: Must produce quick academic gains in chronically low- performing school. Must improve discipline and attendance. Must be fearless –may call for replacing popular teachers. And perhaps trickiest of all - must mobilize and get parents on your side -as you completely overhaul their school. In sum, says, Denver Public School’s Yana Smith:
Yana Smith: Turnaround work is really, really hard.
Reporter: Smith is talking to a cafeteria full of parents. It’s a Saturday morning and she and a district team are briefing them on the tumult that’s about to hit. DPS’s Antonio Esquibel heads up the West Denver Network, which oversees “turnaround schools” on the city’s west side. He goes over the twists and turns that brought Trevista to this point. Last fall, teachers and staff were warned that the school scored “red” – the lowest ranking-on the district’s scorecard.
Antonio Esquibel: and said that red’s not good. Right, so beware. Something might be happening. The state might be coming down. The district might be saying this or that so beware!
Reporter: That ominous warning meant upheaval was just around the corner. The first step in the overhaul is selecting a new principal. Esquibel tells parents they’ll have a role. He wants to hear what they want in a new leader.
Parent: (Spanish translation) We want the new principal to be more accessible to parents.
Reporter: Many in the crowd – about two-thirds Spanish speaking - say they want someone whose bilingual, who really reaches out and works with parents. They’d like more discipline and more homework. And they’re tired of turmoil. They went through it three years ago when several schools were merged to form Trevista. The parents have lots of questions, like this one:
Participant: Are they going to give us three years for this and will this happen again three years from now?
Reporter: DPS’s Laura Brinkman is adamant.
Laura Brinkman: It’s our expectation that this is not happening again at this point in the year next year.
Reporter: How fast the school is able to make academic gains will depend a lot on the new principal. DPS’s Antonio Esquibel tells them those gains need to happen immediately. And he says, the new principal must believe that every kid can go to college.
Esquibel: That’s the goal. If these principals do not believe in that, they’re not going to be here Tuesday.
Reporter: Tuesday night. Parents are back in the cafeteria. It’s their chance to meet the two principal finalists. First up – TJ Cole. Neither candidate is bilingual but Cole grew up in this neighborhood.
TJ Cole: I am North Denver proud! There’s nobody in the rest of the city that can touch North Denver..
Reporter8: The Boulder magistrate and founder of two high school charters tells parents he grew up poor, raised by a single mom. She told him she scrubbed floors so he wouldn’t have to. Cole tells parents he understands their lives. He even attended this school. Cole is passionate.
Cole: ECE to Master’s degree!
Reporter: Cole admits he doesn’t have all the answers about how he’ll raise scores, but tell parents if their kids stay on grade level, he’ll find businesses to pay for their college. Parent Alma Garza is listening carefully. She likes how Cole speaks about relationships, between the principal and teachers, and teachers and kids. When Cole says he’d show their kids love and respect, Garza said it felt like this principal could be part of her family.
Alma Garza: (Spanish translation) When he told us that he understood what it’s like to grow up in this neighborhood, how we live, we felt a connection, wow, he’s going to understand us and our kids. Then when she came on, there’s wasn’t a connection between us.
Reporter: “She” was the other candidate, La Dawn Baity.
Baity: I came to Denver Public Schools 10 years ago.
Reporter: Baity has a completely different style. She’s quiet and technical. Instruction is her specialty. She’s been a principal at Steck Elementary in Denver’s upper-income Hilltop neighborhood. When she arrived, she saw the struggling kids weren’t improving like they should. So she put systems in place, and last year, Steck posted the highest growth scores in the state.
Baity: [more on growth] In fact, our average growth was almost in the 70th percentile.
Reporter: Baity talks a lot about the strategies, structures and systems – that are needed to make sure every kid progresses. She talks about being a literacy coach….and tells them her belief that you can’t pick and choose different elements of successful school models.
Baity: It’s kind of like taking a gourmet recipe and substituting the ingredients, hoping you come out with a great recipe…
Reporter: The crowd is getting a little restless. Beattie’s answers are heavy on educator lingo. She later says many of the questions she got seemed like they were from the teachers in the audience so she was trying to address those. Parent Robert Cox took detailed notes on each candidate. He thinks TJ Cole is the man for the job.
Robert Cox: We need someone with direct authority, and voice, someone who can speak out and say, hey, you’re not going to do that. You’re going to do this. We need somebody with like they say ‘ganas,’ guts, somebody who’s going to speak out and say this is what we need in the school.
Reporter: It doesn’t turn out that way. A week later, La Dawn Baity is hired. DPS’s Laura Brinkman says Baity’s a proven leader, who knows how to train, how to get teachers to teach reading and math at the highest levels. And that’s what Trevista needs.
Brinkman: Because that piece is so critical. The staff has got to see their principal as the instructional leader.
Reporter: Some in the audience that night agree. Donna Lucero heads the Northwest Coalition for Better Schools which provides tutoring and other help to the school.
Donna Lucero: After I got to thinking about it. I realized that TJ Cole does not have the academic strategies that would move us forward, so I was fine with her being selected.
As for La Dawn Baity, she’s already off and running, looking for the answers to this big question.
La Dawn Baity: How can I organize building systems and resources, where can I find the money, to get the interventionists and people in place and services in place, so that every child gets whatever child needs.
Reporter: In part three of our series, the spotlight turns on teachers, who must fight for their jobs.