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Class Dismissed

Barnum Elementary struggles to understand Hillary Adams's last lesson.

And soon Adams was thriving. "She was so attached to that place," says her sister Wendy. "She was busy every afternoon after school, doing something with kids. A lot of kids' parents didn't speak English, and she was able to talk to them. For that matter, some kids came to school without coats or shoes, and she'd take them to the lost-and-found and get them stuff."

Barnum is in a working-class neighborhood where the need for bilingual teachers was--and is--acute: At least 150 of the school's 475 students come from homes where either a mixture of Spanish and English, or Spanish alone, is spoken. But Adams didn't limit her attentions to this group.

"The average teacher was just not as creative as Hillary," Wright recalls. "If her kids were reading a book, she had them perform it as a play for the whole school, and it was always a class-A production." Colleagues still marvel over the time Adams's class performed "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" as a rap song.

When a decision had to be made whether to raze or renovate the old Barnum building, Adams volunteered to sit on the redesign committee. Soon still more of her after-school hours were taken up with a seat on Barnum's Collaborative Decision-Making team, one of the innovations that helped avert a Denver Public Schools teachers' strike three years ago. CDMs were designed to give parents, neighbors and teachers more say at individual schools; Adams was one of three teachers elected to Barnum's team. The job wasn't easy.

"I remember Hillary going to seven-hour-long meetings after school, quite a few of which were not productive," Wright recalls. "She hadn't liked the CDM training, either--she told me it was nothing but eight hours of games."
Adams plugged away, despite her reservations. And she had a good outlet for stress: Her particular group of teachers enjoyed socializing on evenings and weekends, and always on Friday afternoons at Bob's Pizzeria, when vented frustrations flowed as freely as the beer. Outside of school, Adams devoted herself to her dog and two cats, and to softball and volleyball--passions she shared with Barnum's then-principal, Donald Wilson.

By the time Wilson came to Barnum, in 1988, he'd spent 31 years with DPS. By his own admission, he was more than ready for retirement, and some teachers and parents regarded him as tired and passive. Others, however, grow nostalgic whenever his name is mentioned. Many recall seeing Wilson walking children home from school or breaking up fights in the neighborhood. "He was the old-style principal," says Dave Reithman, who retired from teaching early this fall. "His idea was that the school will present a united front to the outside world. From my point of view, he was a great principal. He supported the teachers, provided discipline and let the teachers teach. He and Hillary were friends."

Wilson retired in the spring of 1992, just when the Barnum renovation was beginning and the school's entire population was being bused to a vacant school two miles away. His replacement, Judith Chavez, had to deal with that, as well as with the aversion to change that seems endemic with teachers. But Chavez looked forward to the challenge. After spending almost a decade in the DPS curriculum department, she was ready to go back to school.

"I came to Barnum to really make a difference in the lives of children," she says. "My number-one priority was children."
At her first school assembly, she mentioned that she was from Barnum. "You can make it, too," she told the students. At her first meeting with teachers, Chavez reiterated that she had come to Barnum as an advocate for the children--hardly a controversial statement, it would seem. But Reithman didn't like the sound of it.

"It was more than what she said," he recalls. "There was the implication that kids came first, teachers came second. As if there were sides to be chosen." An old-school teacher by his own definition--he was not above ordering troublemakers to drop and give him twenty pushups--Reithman expected the principal to be firmly in his corner. Not long into the 1992-1993 school year, he decided that Chavez was not--and walked out of a staff meeting she was conducting. "She was saying all kinds of unbelievable things to us," he explains. "Yelling at us as if we were children, telling us we were unprofessional, going on and on about 'the rumor mill' and people talking about her behind her back. I didn't need that."
"We sat there stunned," another teacher recalls. "We sat there in a big group while she harangued us about being unprofessional and overly emotional. Then, when she was done with that, she said if we ever need anything, don't hesitate to come to her. It was confusing and scary."
It wasn't long before the rumor mill was working overtime. "But it was more than that," one teacher insists. "I have taught for a long time, and my previous principals let us teach and were happy to have us ask questions. When we question Judy, she seems to feel we are attacking her."

Librarian Jerry Smith was one of the more persistent questioners. Although it was his first year at Barnum, he had arrived with two decades of teaching experience, not just at DPS, but in prisons, foster homes and the Peace Corps. The time he'd spent counseling gang members in jail had made him particularly interested in working with problematic children. But that, along with many of his plans, never materialized at Barnum, where he was assigned to hold detention time in the library and also run the gifted-and-talented program.

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