New Leadership Improves Outlook, Enrollment, Performance Reviews
By Lynn Kalinauskas
When you enter Hallett Academy, the school shines. The walls are newly painted with bright, warm colors and the tiles sparkle. The message is clear: Welcome to our school.
Hallett is at 2950 Jasmine St. in Park Hill. In 1982, it became Denver’s first magnet-choice school and eventually took on the name Hallett Fundamental Academy. Its focus was to teach the basics to children who lacked opportunity.
When Dominique Jefferson was handed the principal’s reins in 2017, she petitioned DPS to have the word “fundamental” removed from the school’s name. “I believe children are capable of more than back-to-basics fundamental things,” says Jefferson.
The school is now an ECE-3 to fifth grade school that Jefferson describes not only as a traditional school but also a community school. Hallett offers physical education, art, West African drumming, and dance in a partnership with the Cleo Robinson Dance Company. There is before and afterschool care. Hallett also boasts free afterschool enrichment programs such as Creative Coding, Mad Science, Hip Hop, Video Production, Chess Wizards and more.
A school that needed love
Jefferson had been the assistant principal at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton for four years when she accepted the principal position at Hallett. Before that, she had worked for a decade in the Far Northeast as an 8th grade literacy teacher, a K-8 counselor, and an elementary dean of students. She is married with two children of her own.
Although her official position started in July 2017, Jefferson started coming to Hallett in March of that year, soon after accepting the job. The school was in serious trouble. The previous leader who had been there for two years left the school in disrepair. “It was dark and dirty, as though hoarders had been there,” Jefferson says. “Kids needed to clear space just to be students.”
Enrollment was declining and DPS, under its School Performance Framework (a color coded system that rates schools from red to blue), had branded the school “red” for failing for two years in a row. The building was hemorrhaging teachers and staff.
In addition to changing the school’s name, Jefferson hired 24 new teachers and staff. She then implemented other important changes. She improved the overall esthetics of the building. “It’s a wonder what a little color can do,” she says. DPS paid for the paint and some furniture, and Jefferson recruited teachers and their spouses, friends and anyone willing to give a helping hand to give the school a new look.
Jefferson also removed the uniform policy and began to talk of the school as a restored community, one that has hope and can look to a different, brighter future. The school’s rebranding is also embodied in Hallett’s mascot, the hawk. It is now re-designed as a multi-colored bird, with spread-open wings and soaring towards new heights.
Before she arrived, 48 families had choiced out of the school, heavily impacting the school’s per pupil funding. Jefferson wrote each of those 48 families a personal letter. Seven came back.
“I treat everyone else’s children like I treat my own,” Jefferson says. “They know that I love them and that I’m willing to do whatever I need to keep them safe and learning.”
The power of belief
I asked Jefferson what she thought had caused the school, that had in the past been a successful school, labeled “green,” to sink to a state of disrepair.
“Belief,” she answered and paused. “One must believe that a community is capable of more, to lead it to more. So long as there were children in here, I refused to let them down. I refused to fail. I’m not a failure and neither are they,” she said.
Jefferson took on the leadership of the school knowing others thought she would fail. “People doubted the drastic change I brought could happen.”
Surprisingly, Jefferson had to take a $5,000 pay cut to head the school. When DPS offered the position to Jefferson, it did not tell her, as per its negotiation practices, what her salary would be. She accepted nonetheless. Although it seems natural that a promotion from an assistant principal position to one of principal within the same district would come with an increase in salary, this one did not.
In a district that desperately needs to increase the number of its teachers and leaders of color, one has to wonder why it is asking talented and dedicated people to make personal sacrifices to take on more responsibilities. In addition, because the percentage of the school’s population that qualifies for Free and Reduced Lunch is not 90 percent – it is 89.3 percent – Hallett does not qualify for extra support for hard to serve and hard to staff schools. This makes recruiting and retaining staff at Hallett a challenge, admits Jefferson. Nonetheless, she has staffed the school and ensured that there is at least one person of color on every grade level team. “I have the most diverse staff in DPS,” she says.
A great first year
In just one year, Jefferson turned Hallett around. The place is not just brighter and happier but the numbers are good. The school met its enrollment projections this year, which is a challenge to do because Hallett does not have a boundary. One hundred percent of its families have to choice into the school.
“It’s extraordinary to have met this,” Jefferson says, “when the school had been red for two years, with a brand new staff and when every sign pointed to closure.”
The school’s SPF rating also increased. From red, the school has jumped to the top of the orange category and is just one point away from being yellow. The school is also rated blue, the highest color, for its “academic gaps indicator.”
According to DPS, “this rating shows how well each school is supporting and driving growth among specific student groups that have been historically underserved by the nation’s public schools.” With a score of 88.9 percent, Hallett earned the fifth highest rating in the academic gaps category for all DPS schools and the only yellow or orange school to have a “blue” rating in this category.
Jefferson retained 85 percent of her staff after that first year. Twenty-nine of the 32 families enrolled in ECE-4 in 2017-18 stayed for kindergarten in 2018-19. The kindergarten class now has 31 students. Parent satisfaction at the school is rated higher than the district average.
A challenging road ahead
The school’s successes are apparent, but Jefferson knows the road ahead remains challenging. Scores on the state’s CMAS tests were low and with no dedicated boundary, recruitment of new students with little to no budget dedicated to marketing remains problematic.
“In the spirit of equity, Hallett needs a boundary,” she says. “Then,” she continues, “folks who don’t look like me need to be courageous enough to join a community like ours.”
For all the freedoms it affords, choice is both a blessing and a curse. Hallett has to compete for students with Park Hill’s other neighborhood schools (Park Hill, Smith and Stedman). Until last month, Hallett also competed with Roots Elementary, at 3350 Hudson St. a little more than a half-mile away. In November, Roots founders announced the charter school will close at the end of this school year. (See story beginning page 1 and continued at right.)
I asked Jefferson what Hallett’s message was for Park Hill’s neighbors. This is what she said: “We love children into learning here. Here is where children are seen and known. Here is where they belong.”
For more information on Hallett, check out its website at hallett.dpsk12.org.
Lynn Kalinauskas is education chair for Greater Park Hill, Inc.