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Using new, innovative methods for teaching, Roots Elementary in Northeast Park Hill is looking to transform elementary education. All photos by Benjamin Rasmussen.

Testing Ground

When Jon Hanover launched Roots Elementary, a charter school in Northeast Park Hill, in 2015, he hoped to create an innovative, high-performing community school by transforming the way elementary education is taught—all on a spot once devastated by gang violence. Two years later, has the school made the grade?

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Year One

September 10, 2015

The early morning ritual of teachers sorting folders, stapling worksheets, and copying coloring pages is something parents rarely see. As soon as drop-off starts, schools are filled with a mighty cacophony of tiny voices. Roots Elementary, a new charter school in Northeast Park Hill, is no different; at 7:25 a.m., the doors will open and kids will burst in, running, their shoes thrump, thrump, thrumping on the carpeted floors.

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At 7:04, though, all is quiet. Teachers look gargantuan because everything from desks to the spacing between bookshelves is sized for five- and six-year-olds. In the calm, 29-year-old Jon Hanover, the school’s founder, executive director, and principal, strides quietly from workstation to workstation to check in with teachers. He looks something like a politician, with a trim build, perfectly groomed dark hair swept to one side, and a uniform of a dress shirt and khakis. What people remember most about him, though, is his persistent smile, one that stretches wide and brightens his eyes. Now, he’s glancing at the clock repeatedly, sipping coffee, and waiting for the true start of the day.

The first student—a girl* wearing a gray Roots polo shirt and a neon green bow in her hair—walks into the Neighborhood Grove, the school’s main classroom, right at 7:25. Assistant principal Eve Bunevich is perched on a low bookshelf to meet her.

Roots-Exterior
Roots Elementary School’s new building in Northeast Park Hill. Courtesy of Benjamin Rasmussen

“Your hair looks so beautiful,” Bunevich says as she points the girl to her first class. She continues to greet kids, but the line stops as Bunevich counsels a small boy who’s got his chin buried in his chest. She bends down so she can look him in the eye. “You know we never run out of food, right?” she says, reminding him the school has free breakfast, lunch, and snacks. (More than 86 percent of the students at Roots qualify for free and reduced lunch.)

Hanover watches from a far corner, which he can do because the Grove has no walls. The area is divided into several ad hoc classrooms and includes a maker space for projects. Lines of tape on the floor mark pathways that branch off to small rooms on the sides. These spaces look a little more like traditional classrooms, but with small horseshoe-shaped tables or large carpets for students in lieu of desks. The rooms’ names echo those of nearby streets—Ash, Birch, Forest—in Northeast Park Hill.

The space mimics a sketch Hanover drew about three years ago. The school, he hoped, wouldn’t feel like a traditional collection of classrooms. It would focus on individual learning, catered to what students are ready for rather than their “dates of manufacture.” Instead of multiple rooms with 30-some kids sorted by age, Hanover wanted to mix two grades into a single group of 100 students.

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Then, he dreamed about giving them all iPads and having “coach” teachers, in addition to traditional instructors, who would interact more with families and focus on social and emotional learning. He planned to extend the school day and year so families wouldn’t be so stretched to find childcare. He wanted to make sure the city’s minority (92.1 percent of Roots’ student body) and low-income students would have access to a high-quality elementary school. Eventually, he thought the school should be located in Holly Square, a six-square-block business center between 33rd and 35th avenues and Holly and Hudson streets.

It was a grand plan, and now that the school was open, Hanover just needed the rest of his ideas to take hold. On this morning, at 8:30, all the teachers sing in unison: “Bum, ba ba, bum bum!” to indicate that the day is officially starting. Thin faces turn to them with open, bright eyes. The students grab iPads wrapped in bright blue protective plastic cases and line up to march off to their first classes of the day.

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Good Morning Teacher Jaclyn Gorman greets a student at Roots Elementary’s main entrance.

October 28, 2015

A light frost coats Northeast Park Hill’s trees and car windows with a silvery film as both kids and leaves tumble down the sidewalk and into Roots. In the hallway, students strip off their backpacks and winter coats and stuff them into large plastic bins on the floors instead of more traditional lockers or cubicles. Not requiring a kid to hang up a coat might seem like a small detail, but Hanover says little adjustments in expectations like this ensure Roots doesn’t waste learning time on tasks that are difficult for kids to do consistently.

Today, though, the process is stalled. The building’s Wi-Fi is down, so Hanover updates the staff with an unflappable smile as a beehivelike buzz rises from the students. The kids are waiting to transition to new classes; they’ll scan QR codes on the walls with their iPads to “check in.” They do so with a proprietary app the Roots staff built over Google Calendar. Kids match colors, shapes, and letters to find their next classroom. And while each day has a certain rhythm to it—first math, then writing—the app can direct kids into small groups for specialized lessons. If six kids are having trouble reading sight words like “as” or “is” but the rest of the class has mastered the content, a teacher could do a special session with those students to help them catch up. Conversely, if those same kids excelled in math, they could get a special lecture on shapes before the rest of the Grove.

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The focus on individuated learning draws a crowd. Many days, adults float around the classroom. Today, City Councilman Albus Brooks stops by to observe, as does a group of potential funders and a few parents. There are so many spectators that the kids tend to treat them like school staff.

The school is located in the Hope Center, which holds a vocational program for the developmentally disabled in Holly Square; it is just a temporary home for Roots Elementary, which is only serving kindergartners and first-graders during its first year. It’s difficult to imagine that this room used to be a Safeway. Where piles of produce and meat cases once stood, stacks of books for beginning readers and whiteboards for math lessons fill the space. Today, kids sit quietly in the reading center, an open area filled with movable cube seats, flipping through books or working on their iPads—all the students, that is, except for Deron, a kindergartner who is wasting time. He sits down. Stands up. Lies on a cube. Stands up again. Slinks to the books. Floats back to the cubes.

“I don’t like to read,” he complains loudly to no one in particular. “You have to sound out the words.”

“We’re going to show grit today,” a teacher says and points back to the books.

Deron pulls one randomly from the bin. Trout, Trout, Trout! (A Fish Chant) is a brightly illustrated book featuring different fish species. The words—cavefish, swampfish, salmon—are difficult for beginning readers and beyond Deron’s reading level (he started the year testing in the sixth percentile nationally for reading). He pages through the book, stares at a picture, and finally looks up. A deep frown contorts his smooth face in what looks like pain.

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“It’s hard to read,” he says in a whisper.

Obviously frustrated, he keeps working. He focuses on the cover and slowly starts to sound out “trout.” He points at each syllable with an index finger, tracing the letters as his voice accelerates. “Trrrr-owwww-tttt!” “Trr-owww-ttt!” “Tr-ow-t!” he chimes repeatedly, like a steam engine picking up speed.

The Navigator Roots founder and executive director Jon Hanover pauses between meetings to help a student work through a mathematics problem on a digital learning app.

December 2, 2015

The Grove is surprisingly quiet around noon, even though dozens of kids are working on various tasks in the open space. Two boys, their cheeks puffed wide holding air “bubbles” to keep quiet, are speed-walking around the taped lines on the floor. They’re trying to catch each other while simultaneously not drawing a teacher’s attention. If they crack up, it’ll be a “Dojo down” for both. In the hallway, one boy stops to proudly tell a teacher he’s still 100 percent Dojo up.

Teachers track students’ behavior through ClassDojo, a digital app. With Roots’ individuated learning plans, a student might interact with as many as eight teachers in a day. If a girl punched another classmate for taking her crayon in the morning, a teacher in the afternoon wouldn’t typically know why the two are tense. ClassDojo helps track those hourly incidents and provides insight into patterns of social and emotional growth. Some teachers enter Dojo points, up and down, throughout class on their iPads; others keep notes on paper scraps and update the app later. Parents can download the program to see how their kids are doing throughout the day.

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Many of the Dojo ups and downs relate to kids’ behaviors as they sit on the brightly colored grid carpets. Each child is assigned a two-foot square where she is supposed to sit in a star position—with legs crossed and hands resting in her lap. It usually works for a few minutes, but even the most attentive students start stretching out, inching fingers across the lines between the squares, after a while.

To combat this, teachers give out Dojo ups and downs. If that doesn’t work, the teacher will text a coach to take the child out of the classroom for a few minutes to try to reset her day. Another option is an in-school suspension for an hour or longer. Occasionally, kids are sent home. What won’t ever happen, Hanover promises, is expulsion.

Expulsion is a contentious topic in education circles right now. Proponents say that schools need to protect students from unruly pupils. Detractors argue that expulsion doesn’t solve the core behavioral issues and disproportionately affects communities of color: Black boys are three times more likely to be expelled from preschool programs in Colorado than other students, a pattern that continues into elementary school. As a no-expulsion institution, Roots was enrolling students in 2015 whose parents had already heard via word of mouth that the school would work with their children.

Roots’ individual promise extends to other areas as well, including kids with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. The plans play an important role in legally ensuring that children who qualify for special education services get what they need in public schools. Hanover believes in the importance of IEPs, but he also likes to see beyond the plans or, at least, to not make assumptions about a student’s potential. He learned that quickly this year as a child who came into the school with a “nonverbal” IEP transformed. The child was so gregarious and talkative—he’s the one who stopped the teacher to proclaim his 100 percent Dojo status—that Hanover thought there was some sort of file mix-up. “There’s a massive problem with overidentification,” Hanover says. “With kids this young, everyone kind of pops at their own time.”

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Fresh Start Two Roots students load up trays with breakfast foods, including milk, orange juice, and cereal, before the school day officially starts.

March 10, 2016

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On a warm late-winter day, the wind is blowing over school posters set in front of old basketball courts. A row of black pillars, marked with words about hope and peace, lines one side of the courts. Hanover rushes to prop up the signs and then hurries to shake hands with politicians such as Denver City Councilman Christopher Herndon and members of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) board, who are there because Roots is ceremonially breaking ground for a new building.

Hanover speaks briefly but quickly turns the microphone over to Gerie Grimes, who talks about Holly Square’s transformation. As the CEO of the Hope Center, Grimes has witnessed the plaza’s regrowth firsthand. “Folks, we still have a lot of work ahead,” Grimes tells the crowd. “But know some of us are rooted in this community.”

When Hanover started dreaming about his school, he didn’t know it would be built in Northeast Park Hill. Raised in rural Ohio, he went to Harvard University and started working for Bain & Company, a consulting firm, in 2008. Looking to shift into education policy work, he joined the Charter School Growth Fund, a Broomfield-based group that helps high-performing charter schools grow and replicate; there, Hanover worked directly with more than 50 schools. (In Colorado, charter schools are part of public school systems but follow different educational, operational, and financial models than traditional schools.)

Not one to waste a learning experience, Hanover started tracking ideas that stood out—and ones that didn’t. Those notes turned into sketches, and then the idea that he could start a school of his own coalesced around 2011. But he’d never been a teacher, so he signed up for Teach for America and spent two years in a DPS kindergarten classroom.

By then, what would become Roots was more than an idea, and Hanover asked education experts—including Nate Easley, then the president of the DPS board—to help flesh out his plan. Easley, a Denver native, was impressed with Hanover but challenged him to think of where his school needed to be located, not just what it would do. Easley suggested he look at Northeast Park Hill. “There might have been enough schools to accommodate the kids in the neighborhood,” Easley, who is now on Roots’ board, says, “but there were no quality schools. Nowhere I’d send my own kids.”

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Hanover started driving around the neighborhood’s wide, tree-lined streets and attending community meetings. He wanted to hear people like Anna Jo Haynes—a longtime area resident who helped start the Denver Preschool Program, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and the Women’s Foundation—explain how this neighborhood became a predominately African-American community in the late 1950s and how desegregation and forced busing efforts (Denver was one of the first cities outside of the Deep South to use busing to redress racial imbalances in classrooms) changed Denver’s eastern neighborhoods.

Specifically, Haynes and others told him about Holly Square, a shopping center at the heart of the community. Gang activity had eroded the plaza’s shine in the 1980s and 1990s, but the strip still supported several businesses, including a liquor store and a Family Dollar. On May 18, 2008, that changed when a group of Crips gang members drove across town, poured gasoline into glass bottles, stuffed rags on top, lit the Molotov cocktails, and threw them on top of the Family Dollar.

That could have been the end of Holly Square. After the fire, the buildings were damaged beyond repair—save for several columns that had once held up awnings—and the fear of asbestos and chemicals from a dry cleaner stalled demolition. Immediately, though, residents began talking about starting over at “the Holly.” While it may have felt like change moved slowly if you lived in the neighborhood, by 2013 the plaza was transformed. The square is now home to a Boys and Girls Club and a Denver Public Library branch. The Hope Center, which was not burned in the 2008 bombing, still provides vocational training for the developmentally disabled. The last spot to be built out is Roots Elementary.

At the groundbreaking, after Grimes speaks, another neighborhood alumnus takes the stage: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “My grandmother lived diagonally across the street from here,” he says, pointing to the north. “I remember so well Grandma walking across here getting her cigarettes. Or sending me to get cigarettes. She sent me to get a six-pack of beer once. It was a little much.”

The crowds laughs, but quiets down as he talks about what this center meant to the neighborhood and how education can make a difference for students who, like him, need to find their own ways of learning. “I hope you continue to innovate to better serve our students and inspire them to also break the mold while on their path to success,” he says, speaking directly to the Roots team. “I hope that you do not abandon this.”

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Reflections Students created self-portraits, which decorate a glass wall in the school.

May 2, 2016

The wood-paneled library at Morey Middle School in Capitol Hill is packed at 5:30 p.m. Educators, parents, and kids from various schools are camped out at the tables, all hoping to sway DPS’ New Capacity and Quality Learning Environments subcommittee to fund construction projects at their facilities. Come November, Denver will vote to approve a $572 million bond to help improve area schools. The money will be distributed across the district, but Roots and the other schools in the room are making two-minute presentations with the hopes of securing additional funds.

A group of students from Slavens Elementary School uses a piece of string to show the subcommittee how small the space they use for their Spanish class is. Representatives from DSST: Cole ask for office space and a new soccer field. Roots brings more than a dozen kids and parents to the front for its presentation while Hanover passes out packets with information about why his school needs to grow.

School financing in Colorado is the stuff legislative battles are made of. Although the state once fared well nationally in the amount of money spent per-pupil on education, Colorado’s funding has fallen in the past three decades to 39th in the nation, according to recent data. The biggest factors in that reduction are the 1982 Gallagher Amendment (which creates a proportional balance between residential property taxes and business revenue) and the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, otherwise known as TABOR. Together, the two limit the amount of money the governor or state legislators can set aside for education. DPS estimates the financial handcuffs have reduced the amount that individual homeowners pay into the school system—the district’s main source of income—by approximately 78 percent.

DPS’ proposed budget for this school year estimates spending $7,829 per student, which is more than $2,000 short of the national average. As a charter school, Hanover and his team have fewer restrictions about how they spend their budget than traditional DPS schools. If Hanover and his team decide they want to hire a Spanish teacher, bring in a mental health professional, or contract with an art instructor, they can. Roots paid out more than $650,000 in salaries in the school’s first year. And although Hanover tries to offer competitive salaries, he acknowledges that it can be a hard sell: Roots teachers will receive similar pay to other DPS teachers, but their summer break is shorter (they do have more time off throughout the year) and the hours are long (most teachers I spoke with worked 10- to 14-hour days).

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When Roots is fully built out in the 2019-’20 school year, it should be financially sustainable, but the school is currently hemorrhaging money. The state only funds half-day kindergarten, meaning that parents who want their children in full-time schools or need to have them there for childcare reasons pay tuition—up to $400 per month. Roots is different: It offers free full-time kindergarten to everyone because many of its families can’t afford to pay for full-day care. It’s a way of staying true to Hanover’s mission, but it’s an expensive proposition before the school is fully grown.

To fund full-day kindergarten, pay teachers, and build a new building, Roots has attracted national donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Charter School Growth Fund (Hanover’s former employer). Locally, the Gates Family Foundation and the Daniels Fund have helped bolster the school’s coffers.

Indeed, in its first school year, Roots raised around half a million in private grant revenue. What it doesn’t have is a donor who will pay for the new building. Without DPS funding, Roots will have two building loans totaling more than $6.2 million. Hanover, who (for year one) is playing the dual role of principal and executive director, is working both angles. He’s at the presentation seeking DPS’ help, and he’s fundraising on a consistent basis—up to 30 percent of his workweek. The school projects that 20 percent of its revenue will go to debt services for the building. Or, as board member Stephanie Itelman says now: “We’re spending that money on the building instead of the students.”

An easier route, Hanover acknowledges, would have been to take over an existing DPS school building and spend only 10 percent of revenue on rent and building costs, but he couldn’t imagine starting Roots someplace other than Holly Square. “We’re committed to serving that community, and so we couldn’t just go into a district building in some other neighborhood,” Hanover says. “The work that we’re doing is very much grounded in a sense of place.” The ultimate plan—and a goal for some donors—is that the model could be replicated in other neighborhoods and cities. Hanover is on board with that concept, but not until he makes it work in Holly Square.

After Roots’ presentation in the library, Hanover optimistically gives out high fives with his characteristic smile. The committee had seemed receptive to their pitch—but in the end, it didn’t put the Roots building on the 2016 bond. Both Slavens’ and DSST: Cole’s projects were added.

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Year Two

Kathryn-Martinez-Roots
Change Agent Current principal Kathryn Martinez is tasked with helping the growing school navigate a variety of transitions during the year.

August 8, 2016

Around 7:30 a.m., cars start rolling into Holly Square and past the south side of the new Roots Elementary building. Two girls get off a school bus and walk hand in hand toward the doors. A row of staffers greets the cars and ferries kids either into the cafeteria for breakfast or to test out the new playground equipment that stands on the spot where the buildings burned. A boy—about 10 or 11—crosses the street with two younger kids on either side of him. He chides the younger boy about his backpack, hands the children over to a Roots staffer, and skips across the street and down an alley.

On the surface, the start of Roots’ second school year looks seamless. In truth, the first two months will present challenges that even Hanover didn’t expect. At the end of the 2015-’16 school year, he announced he was stepping down as principal to be executive director and focus on all the things—especially fundraising—that position required. Eve Bunevich would take over as principal with Kathryn Martinez, a charter school veteran, as assistant principal.

There were more changes. The new building was gleaming and shiny and bright, but to the returning students, it was a new place with different routines. Many staffers returned, but more than 40 percent of the teachers hadn’t (a typical turnover rate for charter schools). Roots had also added second-graders to its roster, bringing the total number of students from 89 to 150. “Scale has a tendency to widen small cracks,” says Jill Tew, who helped found Roots and would rejoin the board in 2017. “Anything that wasn’t fully buttoned up last year was going to show up more.”

Most surprising, though, was the high number of children, particularly in the incoming kindergarten class, who’d experienced trauma in their lives. Although the school doesn’t keep official data on trauma—and is reluctant to quantify one person’s experiences as worse than another’s—Hanover estimates a quarter of Roots students have a family member who was killed in gang violence. Many face housing instability. He says about half have a close family member who’s been involved with the criminal justice system.

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The school also suffered a major blow when DPS released its School Performance Framework (SPF), a complex matrix based on test scores, family retention, and other factors that ranks how schools are performing across the district, ranging from red (accredited on probation) to blue (distinguished). Roots came back in the red, which can be a major obstacle for enrolling families who might already be skeptical about joining a new school.

The SPF is typically based on an average of two years of data, and as a new school, Roots only had one. In addition, most schools can pull academic testing data from several grade levels, but Roots had just two grades last year—and kindergartners’ results weren’t included. That left a pool of 19 kids on one reading test (the statistical cutoff point for a small data pool is 16 students) to sway the SPF matrix. While he wouldn’t mind if the SPF ranking had a footnote to explain the small sample size, Hanover won’t take the easy way out. “I think it is better to have accountability for schools sooner rather than later,” Hanover says. “There is nothing more important than how we are educating our kids. We should have some way of measuring performance and holding schools accountable.”


November 8, 2016

The photocopier is spewing out worksheets at 7:20 a.m. Teachers bound up and down the stairs, and the new linoleum floor is starting to collect scuff marks from their shoes. One instructor checks in with other staffers before a 7:30 meeting with a student’s parents.

At 7:45, 14 staffers gather in the cafeteria for a meeting to go over the events of the day, which will include a special schoolwide election to choose a president from three fictional book characters. Assistant principal Kathryn Martinez leads the meeting, emphasizing that the day will be disruptive and how school culture forms habits. “We’re the emotional constants,” Martinez says. “Scholars will start to follow that.” The meeting is cut short because kids start flowing in for a breakfast of bagels, oranges, and apple slices.

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“Ready. Set. Grow!” Martinez yells simultaneously with the team before turning around to give a kid a high five. “Happy Election Day!” she says to a student. Hanover is giving a similar pep talk nearby. “Ready to learn?” he says enthusiastically to a sleepy-eyed student. “Always,” she responds.

Upstairs, the City Grove houses about 60 first- and second-graders. The space looks similar to the Neighborhood Grove from the previous year; smaller rooms are named things such as City Park, Mint, Capitol, and DU. Teaching fellow Keenan Ross diverts his group of students—the self-named “Chicago Bulls”—into the Museum room after the assembly to calm them down.

“Why do you think it is important to vote?” he asks. In one hand, Ross has a book about elections, and in the other, he holds a five-foot-long stick that has clothespins labeled with each student’s name. When a kid sits patiently, he moves her name up the pole; if someone misbehaves, he moves her pin down. This “Choice Stick” makes it easier for teachers to record real-time behavior analysis than the ClassDojo app (which is no longer being used), but it also makes discipline the focal point of every classroom.

Instructors try to give three positive affirmations for every admonishment, but sometimes it doesn’t work. Kids who have trouble sitting still or have more serious behavioral issues tend to fall to the bottom of the pole day after day, which means they get pulled out of classes for individual coaching or in-school suspension.

“Why do you think it is important to vote?” Ross repeats. But his question is lost on the students, who are rolling around on the floor. Ross tells everyone to get up and move back to the City Grove. As the class moves outside, Deron lingers to trace a few words on a whiteboard with an outstretched finger. “Goldfish,” he reads loudly, without hesitation. “Can I read a page?” he asks Ross as he walks past.

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Deron doesn’t get a chance to read because even after the scenery change, the kids can’t stop moving. Ross puts down the pole and tells everyone to stand up. “Baby shark, do do, do do do do,” he sings as he pinches his forefinger and thumb together in a chomp. The class dances and sings with him as he moves on to Grandma shark, Mama shark, Daddy shark, and Grandpa shark, all accompanied with claps or giant hand motions. By the last one, they are all singing as loudly as they can: “Shark attack, do do, do do do do.” Every last one is wiggling and wobbling, acting as wacky as they can. When they’re done, they sit quietly on the floor as Ross reads aloud about America’s election system.


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Keeping FocusTeaching fellow Keenan Ross floats from table to table and answers questions from students while they eat in the City Grove.

December 12, 2016

Like any living thing, Roots is constantly changing. Although iPads still play a role in individuated learning, the students no longer check into class with QR codes. In general, instead of differentiated schedules every day, the kids are placed into smaller groups, like the Chicago Bulls, which travel together part of the day. Teachers still give individuated assignments and pull students for small sessions.

The near-constant tweaking of the education model is difficult for just about everyone. It requires teachers to try to make the transitions feel less jolting for the kids. “Change is hard,” Hanover says. “But [it] is something that is really important to me as a leader and I think, broadly, as an organization. It’s in our DNA. It’s who we are, as we set out to really redefine what elementary education looks like in our country. And the only way to do that is to be a learning organization.”

The biggest change for the school is something it has no control over: Northeast Park Hill is transforming. Gentrification, which had long ago pushed up housing prices south of 23rd Avenue, has crept north, increasing property values in the greater neighborhood. Northeast Park Hill is compelling to investors: The area has quick access to I-70 and is close to both downtown and DIA. The housing stock includes a variety of solidly built homes constructed in the 1950s with big lawns and mature trees.

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Hanover isn’t surprised the neighborhood is changing, but the pace astonishes him. “In the year and a half that we’ve been open, we’ve lost 28 families to housing issues,” he says. The displaced are moving to Aurora, Montbello, and beyond—which encouraged the school to start running a bus line east to service those families. Hanover, Martinez, Tew, and other staffers all help shuttle Roots kids to and from school. “Even if a housing event doesn’t cause a family to disenroll in Roots,” Hanover says, “the disruption for the family is tremendous.”

In the classroom, the housing trauma can impact everyone. Today, a group of students is working on reviewing sounds by sounding out words, like “brother,” which is written on a whiteboard.

Brrrrrr…,” shouts the class in unison.

Uh, uh, uh,” they respond as the teacher points to the “o.”

Th th th th thhhhh!” they yell, barreling into “rrrrrrrrrr,” which they draw out like baby lions learning to roar.

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They’re moving on to “broken” when somebody notices that a student has nodded off. The girl is still sitting in star position—feet crossed, hands on her lap—but her eyes are closed and her chin rests on her chest, which rises and falls in the slow, steady cadence of a sleeping child. A boy nudges his friend. Another girl pokes the sleeper in the ribs. She wakes for a moment, rests her cheek on her hand, and falls back to sleep. The teacher pauses and then refocuses the class. When the students ask what’s wrong, the teacher redirects them to the whiteboard and tells them to stay focused so that their friend can rest.

The chime signaling the end of class sounds after a few minutes, and the kids scamper out to recess. It’s only then that the little girl wakes up. Two teachers guide her over to a table. They start to ask questions, gently, about why she’s so tired. They listen as she talks about new spaces and different schedules. They implore her to get more sleep; her little brain needs the energy to learn. The girl nods, nods again, and closes her eyes.


May 16, 2017

With just six weeks left of school, Martinez seems even more energized than she did at the beginning of the year. “We’re cramming,” Martinez says. “We’re going to teach until the last day of school.” She’s got data to support her plan: A few weeks of summer break can set students’ learning back several months, especially without summer camp programming. That is part of the reason Roots’ school year is so long; the administration hopes a few extra weeks on both the front and back end of the year will help keep students on track.

Around 11 a.m., Martinez’s day hasn’t slowed since she arrived at school. She’s got a family meeting later; she just finished supervising recess; and her phone is face up in front of her because a teacher is out sick and she’s on call for classroom help. Nearby, a kindergartner is at a table drawing a picture during a quiet-time session.

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Martinez stepped into the principal role midyear when Bunevich decided to return to the classroom (she’s now teaching reading in the Neighborhood Grove). The schoolwide changes that picked up in the fall have continued—at an even more rapid rate—but Martinez seems comfortable adapting. She spent two years at a public school in Houston with Teach for America before moving back to Chicago to teach at a charter school. Martinez helped build that school out grade by grade for five years while also completing a master’s program in principal training at Columbia University. But she’s uniquely suited to Roots because she knows this school: While Hanover was busy drafting plans, Martinez was crafting a similar open classroom concept with individuated learning for her master’s program. “I’m dedicated to making our model work,” Martinez says.

One of the first things she did as principal was an extensive outreach effort to parents to get feedback about what needed to improve, which led to ideas like moving kindergartners into a separate classroom with one main teacher. Or cutting down on the number of transitions between classes while keeping the one-to-15 ratio of teachers to students. She also asked for teacher input, acting on quick-fix items when she could—or allowing people to do so themselves. When Nick Timmins, who joined the school in April as a teacher in the Neighborhood Grove and will be assistant principal for the 2017-’18 school year, felt he was spending too much time trying to get kids to focus while sitting on the carpet, he asked Martinez and Hanover if he could do something about it. He came in over a weekend, tore off the tiny desks that had been attached to the wall, and brought in small tables for kids to sit at instead of on the floor. The room is not as open as it once was, but the resulting calm was worth it.

Both Hanover and Martinez encouraged more changes, but it wasn’t enough—or maybe it was just too late—for most of the teaching staff. There were five departures midyear, and most of the teaching staff won’t return. Some, like Bunevich, are moving on to other teaching jobs. Ross is focusing on an MBA program, which he’d been balancing with teaching. Jacyln Gorman, who taught kindergarten, is returning to the school but shifting to working with special education students. Another teacher is starting a master’s program in education policy at Stanford University.

Still, Hanover knows the turnover is too high. “If our teachers are going to do this work well,” Hanover says, “then the way that we’re thinking of taking care of our kids is [what] we also need for our teachers.” Next year, the school will add trauma-informed practices in the classroom and will implement a weekly staff meeting to address how teachers are coping with secondary stress. For now, though, they want to hold off on major changes until the fall so the kids have time to adjust to everything else. So some switches, like the contained kindergarten and discipline changes, will be implemented later. They’re also getting rid of the “coach” position. “We want to put the onus back on teachers for the relationship-building,” Martinez says.

Like Hanover, Martinez has boundless enthusiasm, which is why she regularly talks about Project Wonder, a new initiative she hopes to expand next year. The program is based on the idea that while the school could afford, say, one physical education teacher at this point, they can’t also afford an art instructor and a music teacher. Project Wonder attempts to do a little bit of everything by creating mini workshop sessions—which can last six weeks—to explore specific topics.

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This spring, students interested in furniture built and painted a bench (it’s now in the City Grove’s reading area). Others learned about break dancing or monster trucks. “If we’re giving them little doses of [knowledge], they can help develop who they are as a person and form that sense of identity,” Martinez says. “What they are good at and what they like.”

Roots-Graduation
Eye Level Hanover crouches down to chat with students at the continuation ceremony on June 21, 2017.

June 21, 2017

At 11 a.m., a group of grandparents in wheelchairs and pregnant women crams beneath a shade structure on the south side of the school to avoid the 91-degree heat. Other family members sit in perfectly arranged rows of plastic chairs. It’s the last day of school and Roots’ second continuation ceremony to celebrate kindergartners progressing to the first grade.

Hanover picks up the mic, and a grandparent shouts: “Yeah! Jon!”

He nods his head, smiles wide, and says: “Thanks for that.”

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It’s sincere. The day, like most end-of- school moments, is emotional. Parents cry. Children beam. Teachers look forlorn, tired, and exalted—all at the same time. Today is especially bittersweet: Many families are learning for the first time that most of the teaching staff won’t return in the fall. Even though the kindergartners are sitting in quiet rows today, it is easy to remember the challenges that are leading to changes in 2017-’18.

Hanover—as well as the staff and teachers I spoke to for this story—is quick to identify what needs to be fixed. Parents, for the most part, are better at pointing out the positives. “No plan survives engagement,” says Dustin Caballos, a parent who volunteers at the school regularly. He noted that the school’s ability to adapt and the returning staff are reassuring. “There’s a lot of engaged kids,” he says. “I think there is a real effort to meet people where they are and let that be OK.”

Another parent, Kete Blonigen, says the midyear changes were difficult, but the school helped find ways to make the transitions better for her child, such as giving her a task in the morning that made her feel consistently involved. Tracy Rhines, a parent who also grew up in the area, compliments the school’s ability to improve the neighborhood. “A school that is as academically rigorous as they are really helps,” he told me in April. “It’s been transformative to have something that is new and nice.”

Ultimately, though, schools are judged on test scores. While DPS’ SPF ratings won’t be finalized until this fall, it is probable the school will move up one or two levels based on student growth. Roots’ early literacy catch-up rating, part of the SPF matrix, should be higher, meaning it exceeds districtwide expectations. And on the national MAP test, the students scored better in both reading and math in all grades. Hanover can’t stop smiling when he talks about these scores. But he emphasizes the school also tests for social and emotional growth and the sum of a young person’s accomplishments is more than one exam.

Then there are students like Deron. “He’s a rock star,” Hanover says. At the end of his second year at Roots, Deron tested in the 90th percentile on a national reading assessment, the same one he ranked in the sixth percentile for at the start of the previous year. As a first-grader, he’s reading at a second-grade level. His math and science growth follows a similar pattern.

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So Hanover will go on, to help kids like Deron and ones that might not achieve the same amount of growth. “I knew it was going to be hard,” he says. “I’m as convinced as ever that we’re working on the right problem. And one that is not only critical for our kids and our community, but perhaps the most important problem for our generation from a civil rights and equity standpoint.”

Not one to allow a single learning moment to pass, Hanover will assemble his team tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. They’ll grumble about the early hour, but that’s just how Hanover works. They’ll talk about the school year, but most of the focus will be on the future. What brought them to education. What brought them to Roots. And, most important, why they are staying.

Back at continuation, Martinez takes the mic to reinforce Roots’ four values of grit, relationships, ownership, and wonder. “At Roots, we believe in empowering your scholar to determine who he or she is and will become by delivering a joyful and rigorous education,” she says. “This year your scholars not only outgrew their clothes but also learned to read, write, and even divide.” She calls out students who excelled—not based on overall test scores, but on how much they improved over the year.

“Pomp and Circumstance” blares over the speakers as the students’ names are called. They walk across the green grass to Hanover, who’s kneeling to be at their eye level. He shakes hands, gives a quick hug, and says something to each one:

“I’m so proud of you.”

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“You’re amazing.”

“You’re going to do great things.”

Martinez echoes his sentiments, handing each student a blue folder that contains a picture of the child wearing a cap and gown and a certificate marking the occasion. Families, who’d been asked to hold their applause, can’t help but burst out when their little ones’ names are called. At the end, Martinez gives one more “thank you” to the teachers, and the group offers its loudest applause yet. The impromptu stage clears, and people move back into the school for a barbecue. Hanover sticks around, making sure to invite everyone to the meal and giving out more hugs. He’s perched in the doorway, holding it open for a stream of merrymakers, when one woman stops and commands his entire attention.

“You’re going to be here?” she demands, more than she asks. Hanover pauses for just a moment, a rarity for the young educator. But he’s not lost for words; he’s just waiting, almost to give his answer more permanency. His voice gets deeper, like it always does when he’s serious: “Yeah,” he says, reaching out his arm to touch hers. “I’m going to be here.”


*Children’s names have been omitted or changed to protect their privacy.

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This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of .

Natasha Gardner, Articles Editor

Natasha Gardner writes and edits longform journalism and multimedia projects for 5280 and is a regular columnist for 5280.com.

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