Reporting from Denver — Five years ago, students walked the halls of Bruce Randolph School in packs of 20, to avoid being jumped by gang members. Classrooms were full of thrown paper and insults. The state was poised to shutter the place.
Now the students stroll leisurely down the halls, which are lined with banners from colleges and posters noting awards the institution has won. Its latest accolade came this week, when President Obama singled it out in his State of the Union address as an example of how troubled urban schools can turn around.
"Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado," the president said. "But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college."
Camera crews and reporters have traipsed through the school all week, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — the former head of Denver's school system — spoke to a jubilant school assembly via Skype. Those who have worked to turn around Bruce Randolph are heartened by the attention.
"It just gives us a burst of energy," said Taylor Betz, a longtime math teacher. "It helps confirm we're doing the right thing."
But what makes Randolph different is that it escaped many of the rules that burden other urban public schools. State legislation was pushed through to allow the 900-student school to extract itself from district regulations and the system's contract with its teachers union.
"When you get a school leadership and a faculty that are very committed to working together and working in behalf of kids — and you lift from them so many of the rules and restrictions that we have, that school can flourish," said Denver schools chief Tom Boasberg.
The idea remains controversial. Boasberg noted that efforts to create more schools like Randolph have been fought by the teachers union, which did not return a call for comment Friday.
Randolph's two-story brick building looks more like a suburban school than a stereotypical troubled urban one. The campus was opened in 2002 because its neighborhood in northeast Denver — an assemblage of clapboard houses threaded through an industrial area dominated by a dog food processing plant — lacked a middle school.
But the new student body consisted of kids from rival schools and gangs abruptly thrust together. The first principal left after two months. By 2005, it was ranked as the worst middle school in the state. The district decided to re-engineer it and sent in Kristin Waters to be the principal.
Waters and her number two, Cesar Cedillo, decided to implement strict academic standards. They interviewed the school's 48 teachers to determine who should stay. "Many people responded with: 'Yes, but they [the students] come from poverty. Yes, but they don't speak English as a first language,' " Waters recalled.
Those teachers, she said, were let go. Only six were invited to stay.
Waters and the teachers decided to expand the school to a sixth- through 12th-grade operation. As the school grew, Waters was forced by the district's contract with the union to take teachers who had lost jobs at other schools. Administrators and teachers alike grew frustrated with having to deal with the bureaucracy.
"Our kids come to us and ask us for things," said Betz. "We need to make real-time decisions and not turn in a form and wait two months for our union or our district to decide."
Prodded by reformers, the state Legislature passed a law allowing schools to draw up their own contracts with teachers if 60% of the teachers there approve. Randolph became the first school in Colorado to use the program. Now the administration can quickly decide from year to year if it wants to, for example, replace a librarian and gym instructor with special reading instructors to help students.
Students feel the difference.
"They communicate with their students rather than arguing with them," junior Larissa Orona said of her teachers.
"They really want us to go to college," added another junior, Noemy Rodriguez.
Though there has been dramatic progress at Randolph, the school still faces great challenges.
It has vastly increased the percentage of its students who can perform at grade level. But still only 19% of middle school students there do math at grade level, and only 26% read at grade level. The numbers are higher for high school students, but still far from perfect, said Cedillo, who is now the principal.
Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, said Obama needs to be sure he doesn't use stories like that of Randolph's turnaround to jump to simplistic conclusions — like that all that's needed is to weaken teachers unions.
"You really have to come back in five years and see, did the new teachers stay or get burned out?" Jennings said. "They should be careful about prescribing remedies that aren't proven."