Following Trevista – Bracing For Change

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Photo: Trevista - JBrundin

When a school is facing failure, district officials can shake things up by launching a process called “Turnaround.” We’ve been talking about what that means for one school - Trevista - in Denver as part of a series following the school’s progress. Yesterday we looked at the selection of a new principal - who now has lots of freedom to fire teachers, assemble her own team and set new rules. For many, it’s an unsettling, emotional process, especially in a school like Trevista where kids are struggling already. Colorado Public Radio’s education reporter Jenny Brundin has the story of how teachers are bracing themselves for big changes.

Here is a transcript of her story.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: It’s not easy being a teacher at Trevista.

Veronica Benavides: Each year for the past three years, we’ve turned over a minimum of 12 to 15 teachers. This is a tough school to be in.

(school ambience)

Reporter: You can see the evidence in the steady stream of students being called into Principal Veronica Benavidez’ office for making trouble in class. And academically? A good number of kids are years behind. But there are plenty of teachers who want to stay. And who are making progress. Sharon Wilson is one of them.

Sharon Wilson: And our stop time is how many seconds? 57 seconds!

Reporter: She quizzes her fifth graders during a science experiment. The school didn’t receive a complete set of materials. So they’re having to improvise.

Wilson: Tell ‘em.

Student: The temperature went to 33.

Reporter: Assistant Principal Yolanda Ortega calls Wilson a “phenomenal instructor” who knows her content. Wilson also excels at making the class rigorous for students at different levels. But Ortega says Wilson has another quality that not everyone is capable of.

Yolanda Ortega: She loves them unconditionally as individuals. Who they are. What they come with. What they know, what they don’t know and holds them all to the same expectation.

Reporter: Qualities like this couldn’t save Trevista from getting designated as a turnaround school, triggering all these changes. That’s because even though Wilson’s students had strong scores, overall all the state says Trevista is failing. Only about a quarter of students are reading and doing math at grade level. Wilson says they needed more time.

Wilson: I was angry because we were only in existence for two years, so they only had two years of data on us and now they were turning us around?

Reporter : Even though her class is doing well, Wilson is still nervous about whether the new principal will ask her back. And she worries about her students. Ayleen Lepe is one of them. I ask her how she’d feel if Mrs. Wilson didn’t come back.

Lepe: Um, I would cry. She’s my favorite teacher.

Reporter: Unconditional love is something kids sense –especially at Trevista. Teachers say many students live in the nearby housing project and many have turbulent family lives so they look for stability in their teachers. They find it in Wilson.

Wilson: As you can see, all these kids come up for recess, ‘cause they want to.

Reporter: All kids except two stay in the classroom to study during recess, just to be around her. Wilson believes some of the criticisms about Trevista are fair. Not all teachers do what’s expected of them. But she thinks the school could have made faster gains had it got the support it was promised when it opened as a newly organized school in 2008 years ago.

Wilson: So we came into this thinking we were going to get a full time nurse, a full time social worker, a full time psychologist, and we have none of that. Really? The largest housing project in DPS? No services. So we play this game. Do you cut teachers or do you cut services?

Reporter: Another teacher who has shown good results with her students didn’t want to use her real name because she’s afraid speaking up could jeopardize her employment. We’ll call her Anna Jackson. She came to Trevista four years ago because she wanted to be where the need is greatest. And she wants to stay.

Anna Jackson: The kids at this level of poverty and need get a shaft because they have a history of people giving up on them, walking out on them, broken promises and I don’t want to be one of those people in their life. And I’ve never, ever in my life, 30 years of teaching, been at a school, where students ask me every year, will you be here next year, and they all ask that. And it really catches me off guard, why wouldn’t I be?

Reporter: And that's what she thought every year--until the turnaround, and now her jobs on the line. The stress teachers are feeling is intense. For years they’ve relied on one another. Many are good friends, the kind that go on trips together. Like Sharon Wilson, Jackson thinks its good the new principal gets to choose who stays.

Jackson: I think some people need to be cherry-picked to be here and others need to be selected to move on and I call it coaching you out of your job. Maybe it’s not for you. The population is very hard, the behavior management is so difficult and if that isn’t managed, then you can’t teach.

Perez: (reading from essay) …writing the first paragraph (fade under)

Reporter: Down the hall, 6th grader Anthony Perez is reading his essay about how he overcame the obstacle --of not wanting to write an essay.

Perez: (reading from essay)I.I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know what to do. Mr. DeRose came and told me that is baloney, I came and asked him for some help.

Reporter: Anthony’s talking about his teacher Joe DeRose. With his bushy grey beard, DeRose reminds you of beatnik poet – one of the originals. He did, after all, run a cafe for 20 years. DeRose is warm, open, and honest with the kids. Last year, he and his team posted some of Trevista’s highest growth scores. But DeRose prefers to talk about developing the whole child. And he relates to kids that way.

DeRose: This very beginning, I really love this, you’re trying to draw me in. And I love that piece.

Reporter: DeRose is going over new student Briana Cabraera’s essay.

DeRose: It was my sister’s birthday. Me, my mom. I lot of times teachers say my mom and I. But me, my mom, and my three sisters, we were leaving to a hotel. Were you leaving to a hotel, or were you going to a hotel?

Reporter: DeRose thinks there is learning happening at Trevista. He sees hope and growth, not enough yet, but he says they have made big progress and he’d like to see it continue rather than going through a disruptive overhaul.

DeRose: We don’t keep with any program long enough to have the guts to see if it’s going to be productive.

DeRose says he mourned – wearing all black –when he learned of the turnaround. And he was offended at first, when told he’d have to reapply for his job. But he’s decided to make the best of the new plan and hopes to stay. Back down the hall, Sharon Wilson wasn’t offended about reapplying. She says-- it broke her heart.

Wilson: I don’t want to leave, to be quite frank, I don’t want to leave.

Reporter: We’ll find out tomorrow whether Sharon Wilson, Joe DeRose, and Anna Jackson are coming back to Trevista.