Denver school’s first ‘turnaround’ year gets mixed reviews

Listen Now
5min 00sec
(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)
<p>8th-grader Efran De La Rosa, left, speaks with City Year volunteer mentor Joe Tanner at Trevista.</p>
Photo: Trevista mentor and student
8th-grader Efran De La Rosa, left, speaks with City Year volunteer mentor Joe Tanner at Trevista.

Last August, Monique Henderson showed up to Trevista’s welcome party with high hopes. Her third-grader Rayshawn was kicked out of his last school, and this was a fresh start. His mom’s wishes for this year were simple.

“That they just receive the education they need - and I’m pretty sure that they will with the turnaround,” said Henderson.

Fast forward nine months. I ask her how the year’s gone.

“Wow, where do I begin?” she asked.

Henderson says it’s been a rough year. Actually, she loves Rayshawn’s new teachers, but she says he has a hard time settling down and focusing. She’s also disappointed in the school’s response to a boy who bullied her second-grade daughter.

“She came home with a bruise on her left cheek, she has a scar on a her back from being stabbed with scissors, her hair being pulled out of her head literally,” Henderson said.

She said the boy was suspended once, but the bullying continued. And Rayshawn lately has been fighting more. Discipline, in fact, is something Trevista struggled with. School leaders admit they made mistakes. Right out of the gate, teachers may have come on too strong with strict rules and academic rigor. Parents were confused and many students rebelled. They missed the old teachers.

“They took a lot of the community out of the school," said parent Tia Delaney. "They took the relationships out, and they wondered why they had a problem at first.”

The school has tried several ways to address the behavior problems, with varying degrees of success.

Academically, there has been some progress, but it’s been slower than leaders hoped. By May, tests showed only 16% of third graders were reading at or above grade level; in sixth and seventh grade math, less than 20% were on target in March. Part of the problem, says Assistant Principal Guy Pasquino, is that the kids just weren’t motivated.

“They really didn’t see a purpose for doing well in school," Pasquino said. "They didn’t truly understand that their effort could make a difference."

That attitude was not like the school he and Principal La Dawn Baity came from, Steck Elementary in Denver’s affluent Hilltop neighborhood. There, he says, there was peer pressure to do well. At Trevista, Baity tried setting frequent academic targets so students could get immediate results.

“Creating that excitement around, 'I can be a better reader. I can be better at mathematics,'" Baity said. "And we’re really starting to see kids say ‘yeah, if I do this, this will happen.”’

Also, Baity fired 27 of Trevista’s 41 teachers and brought in a new crop this year. But still, the academic progress was slow.

“We’re still a long ways away,” she said. “There are kids still four years below grade level. You don’t change that overnight or even in one year, which is why turnaround takes more than one year.”

School leaders soon realized if the buy-in from parents and students isn’t there, nothing’s going to happen. Many Trevista students come from multiple generations of poverty. Their challenges are complex and often seep into the classroom. Despite intense school efforts, including a home visit program and a doubling of administrative staff, 20% of students are still chronically absent.

Take Sergio Hernandez. We met the fourth grader and his teacher Rachel Rosenberg earlier this year. Rosenberg said Sergio was on track to improving in math, but then he began missing his six-week target goals.

“I haven’t been here a lot," he said. "Sometimes I’ll be really sick or my mom is really sick and I’ll have to take care of her.”

His mom is Tia Delaney, who we heard from earlier. Her father was dying and she knows her mood impacted Sergio.

“When I got back up, when I when I was out of that mood with my dad, a lot of that changed,” Delaney said.

As for the new Trevista teachers – three left during the school year. Nine are not returning next year, some for personal reasons and others because they were not up to the rigor and long hours. Seventh grader Esperanza Medina says some of her teachers haven’t been been as good as the ones she had last year, but others have.

“I appreciate our principals, our teachers now," she said. "It seems like there’s more doors open, we have more counselors, more principals, we can share things,” she said.

She shared her feelings recently in a poem during a school “poetry slam.” She reads the last line:

“I am Esperanza Medina, a bright flower that shall bloom one day into something special and beautiful.”

That’s the hope many have for Trevista in the years to come.

[Photo: CPR]