Why this Denver elementary school has replaced detention with yoga

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A girl rests at the end of yoga club at Doull Elementary in Denver.

The lights were dimmed low in the high-ceilinged auditorium of Denver’s Doull Elementary School, where 13 barefoot students sat cross-legged on yoga mats arranged in a wide circle.

Their instructor, Trini Heffron, asked them a question: “What is yoga about?”

An older boy raised his hand. “I think yoga is about getting calm and chill,” he said.

Heffron told him he was right. It’s a state she’s found students at the high-poverty school are eager to reach. And this year, she’s been helping them get there in after-school yoga sessions for students whose behavior would have in the past earned them a detention.

“I want to create a space where they can embody all these beautiful things of life, like self-awareness and fun, … courage and kindness, and to be mindful of their feelings,” she said.

The school was able to hire Heffron, an experienced yoga teacher who once worked at Doull as a paraprofessional, with money from a $100,000 grant from Denver Public Schools. Forty-two schools applied for the funding, which will be doled out over two years. Doull, in the southwest Denver neighborhood of Harvey Park, was one of seven chosen to receive it.

Which schools got the grant?
  • Doull Elementary
  • Place Bridge Academy
  • Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
  • High Tech Elementary
  • McGlone Academy
  • High Tech Early College
  • Manual High

The district created the small grant program, which it calls the “whole child innovation fund,” with money from a $56.6 million tax increase approved by voters in November 2016. A big chunk of the tax revenue – $15 million – is earmarked for programs or staff to help meet students’ social and emotional needs, a recognition that education is about more than academics.

The innovation fund is just a small piece of the funding, but district officials said it has the potential to be an important one. The goal is to provide seven schools with the seed money to try a variety of out-of-the-box ideas, evaluate what works best, and share that with other schools, said Katherine Plog Martinez, the district’s executive director of whole child supports.

The schools that were chosen had all experimented with innovative approaches to social and emotional learning in the past, Plog Martinez said. For instance, a few years ago, Doull converted two small spaces, including a former closet, into “cool-down rooms” for students who become angry or act out in class. Decorated with colorful throw rugs, bean bag chairs, and a speaker that plays soothing music, the rooms provide a space for students to de-escalate.

“When you’re escalated, you’re not empathetic, you’re not listening,” Doull Principal Jodie Carrigan said. Allowing students to take a break for a few minutes before talking to them about whatever triggered them to get upset “has made all the difference in the world,” she said.

The school was taking what Carrigan called “baby steps” — until the grant allowed Doull to up its game. The school used part of its $50,000 this year to keep its full-time psychologist and hire a part-time counseling intern who meets with students whose parents are going through a divorce, for example, or who are dealing with grief.

Doull also contracted with a nonprofit organization called Playworks that sends “coaches” to schools to organize structured games during recess, and it hired a different kind of coach to come once a week to show teachers and students how to practice mindfulness.

And then there’s Heffron, who leads three hour-long yoga sessions each week. Two are for students who’ve gotten in trouble. Instead of after-school detention, students are now required to attend “reflection” with Miss Trini. Carrigan said it’s been a welcome change.

“The nice thing about yoga is our kids are leaving with a life skill,” she said. Heffron, she said, “talks to them: Why are they are in yoga, what can they learn from yoga. And then she follows up with the classroom teachers: ‘This is the talk we had; these are the things we worked on.’ She has the ability to follow up with the teachers to see, ‘Are they using the strategies?’”

The third session is an after-school yoga club that any student can join. The school added it after students began asking to go to yoga even if they hadn’t earned detention, Carrigan said.

Yoga can be quiet and serious, but Heffron’s sessions at Doull are full of laughter and wiggling. On a recent afternoon, she called out a series of poses, rapid-fire.

“Sky!” she said. “Heart! Earth! Star! Rock ‘n’ roll star!”

With their feet planted wide, the students pretended to headbang and jam on an electric guitar. After a few seconds, Heffron called out, “I am a superhero!” The kids snapped their feet together, puffed out their chests, and planted their fists on their hips.

Heffron then had them sit on their mats with their backs straight. With the sound of a copy machine whirring in the background, she taught them to touch the fingertips of their hands together and use them as a “breathing ball” to time their inhalations and exhalations.

“If you have a test and you’re nervous and anxious, you can put your hands under the desk and no one has to see,” Heffron said. To end the session, the students lay down. Heffron invited them to close their eyes as she circled the room, spritzing a lavender scent and speaking softly.

“There’s nothing to do, nothing to explain,” she told them. “You are safe.”


Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” the email said. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.