SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nationwide, millions of students are attending online classes or not. Online classes can be pretty easy to blow off. In Denver, one middle school is truly going the extra mile to try to check up on youngsters who aren't logging on. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin reports.
DINO REYES: Take it all the way down near Sheridan.
JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: I'm with 8th grade school dean Dino Reyes and a couple of other deans checking up on students teachers have flagged, kids at Lake Middle School who haven't showed up online in a while. At the beginning of the year, attendance averaged 77%.
REYES: So we might as well roll up on Mr. Chavez, too, bro, since that's down the street.
BRUNDIN: The guys check in with the grandfather of two sixth-graders new to the school. The father's at work.
REYES: They have experienced a whole lot of trauma. And mom just died this year, and the dad's been trying to balance work.
BRUNDIN: The dad says they are on the laptop when he leaves for work, but the school doesn't see the girls logged on. Grandpa gives them permission to swing by the girl's apartment. Reyes jokes, enough time to quick log on.
REYES: Hi. Hi. How are you all doing?
BRUNDIN: He explains in an upbeat way that they're just checking on them, making sure they have Wi-Fi because the teachers haven't seen them log on and how can the school help. The older sister, 14-year-old Nivea, speaks up.
NIVEA: I've been sitting with them all day, and they've been on their computers.
REYES: Yeah, OK. Well, it's cool. Like, you guys aren't in trouble. So, like, it's just - we're just here to be supportive and just have your back.
BRUNDIN: Nivea says the girls would do better at the school where there's a remote learning center for students having a hard time learning at home. Reyes says the school is trying to make it easier to get there. Until then, a nudge.
REYES: So what's funny - and a lot of cats don't know that the district can see every single website that you all go in. They know when you turn it on. They know when you turn it off. And they know when you're logging in when and you're not.
BRUNDIN: The 11-year-olds are quiet, but Alisa finally says this about online learning.
ALISA: It's sometimes hard, and sometimes I don't know what to do.
BRUNDIN: The guys hand them T-shirts, tell them to call if they need help, and walk silently back to the car.
REYES: Because I don't know them, you know what I mean? That's the first time I ever met them. So it's going to be hard to, like, even, like, jam them up, you know what I mean? Like, hey, I know y'all ain't getting on. Clearly y'all are on Netflix right now chilling (laughter).
BRUNDIN: The situation doesn't deter Reyes. It inspires him in a school where 90% of the students live in poverty and a third are learning English as a second language.
REYES: Like, it's our people. This is our community. This is our culture. This is our responsibility.
BRUNDIN: Reyes knows the best-executed lesson plans won't get all students logging on. There are other reasons some kids would show up to school. It's the culture he and staff members created inside the school starting two years ago. Back in 2018, Lake was considered the worst school in Denver on citywide ratings. Others were in charge of improving academics. Reyes had to shift the culture.
REYES: My goal was to get buy in.
BRUNDIN: As a student, Reyes himself was kicked out of Lake Middle School. He explains, many kids in poverty seek identity in gangs, in sports or in music. He knew the school needed an identity to say, this is who we are. This is what we do as Knights. The school's mascot is a night. The school looks like a castle. So four virtues - honor, hard work, generosity and humility - became the new pillars on full display every day at school.
REYES: Using our virtues in our daily vernacular, like are you being honorable, making sure that they know what that is, know what that looks like when it's exemplified. So we want them to embody those traits.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Somos DPS.
BRUNDIN: The school held weekly assemblies highlighting a virtue. And once a month, students vote on who embodies those virtues.
REYES: Sixth-grade champion, give it up for Nigel. Come on up, brother.
BRUNDIN: Reyes created a barbershop called Castle Cuts. They converted a storage room into the Hall of Heroes, where kids could come and let off steam and work out. There's a DJ school and three school gardens. They built pride in the kids' neighborhoods and who they are.
REYES: We're from Sun Valley. We're proud. We're from Barnum. We're from the Clare Gardens.
BRUNDIN: On the academic side, they completely overhauled how the school operated, and kids were just starting to grow academically. Bullying plummeted. District ratings bumped up. This spring was going to be big. They planned big events for families, and then everything changed. The culture that kept kids in school disappeared.
REYES: All right, so this is John. I think what the note was he was just struggling to get on.
BRUNDIN: Back on the road, Reyes explains all the layers of why some kids aren't logging on now. Some need a teacher in front of them to get it done. They're also used to technology being for fun.
REYES: It's like having your PlayStation and having to write an essay using that. Like, it's just kind of like, what? I don't want to do that, you know?
BRUNDIN: Some kids struggle to read or have ADHD. Sixth grade dean Juan Rangel, a.k.a. Mr. Staxx, knows another barrier well. He says his mom and aunts and uncles were pulled out of school young to work and help pay the bills.
JUAN RANGEL: When it came to me growing up, my mom didn't really stressful very much or education or the importance of it.
BRUNDIN: He sees that in families, especially now, who are just trying to survive.
REYES: This is Sun Valley. I love the Sun Valley.
BRUNDIN: Reyes grew up in the Sun Valley projects. But the 10-block housing project will soon be torn down - part of the city's plan for a new entertainment, business and housing district.
REYES: Breaks my heart. It really does. Feels like a colonization, man. What are our students going to do, you know?
BRUNDIN: Move, it turns out. It's noon, and we've woken up eighth-grader Marcus Broadus, nicknamed Brody. He was up really late packing boxes into a U-Haul. No logging on to school today.
MARCUS BROADUS: With all the stuff I have going on...
BRUNDIN: A construction truck passes by. Brody doesn't know where the family's going. In sixth grade, he struggled a lot, had outbursts. The staff worked with him hours. He spent a lot of time in the Hall of Heroes, the weight room where kids can calm down. Staff say Brody's improved leaps and bounds, but Brody tells me he's still failing.
MARCUS: I was just like, I don't think I'm going to make it to high school.
BRUNDIN: But he wants to. He really does. Maybe he could be a cop one day. When I ask him why...
MARCUS: It just seems like I get to see more city, learn more.
BRUNDIN: From Brody's door, you can see the city's towering skyscrapers about three miles away. He's glad he went to Lake.
MARCUS: They have a lot of caring people there. So if you go there, try to do your best.
BRUNDIN: He says Reyes is one of the nicest people he knows. He cares more than most.
REYES: You're going to make me cry right now, Brody. You're going to make me cry today. I just want to come and smile. I love you, bro.
BRUNDIN: Reyes gently urges him to tune into school tomorrow.
REYES: And if you want to come by the school tomorrow, if you need a ride or whatever, just tell your mom to text me, OK?
MARCUS: All right.
REYES: All right. I love you, bro.
MARCUS: I love you, too.
BRUNDIN: Until then, as attendance rates start to creep up, Mr. Reyes will keep checking up on his kids, putting out videos of his visits in the neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REYES: Hey, what's up, everybody. It's Mr. Reyes over here at Lake Middle School.
Remember this; this is who we are. Remember the fun we had. Remember how passionate we are for this community.
BRUNDIN: And he remembers Lake's motto that he rediscovered in an old library book from the school he once got kicked out of - Semper Deinceps - always forward.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).
BRUNDIN: For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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