Re-Examination: Montbello High School Redesign

Re-Examination: Montbello High School Redesign

Connecting Success to Trust-Based Relational Intervention® Principles

The more we learn about Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI) practices at Clermont Eliot, the more we’re seeing how they played a key role in our previous civic engagement successes. This overview examines a recent project, the management of civic engagement efforts for the redesign of Denver’s Montbello High School, through the TBRI lens.

“When You Attempt To Re-Establish, You Can’t Cut Corners”

Denver Public Schools (DPS) opened Montbello High School in 1980, serving the Far Northeast Denver community. For the next 40 years, the traditional high school became a center of the majority-minority community of Black and Latino residents, developing a legacy of celebrated academic and athletic accomplishments. However, despite intensive community involvement to keep the school operating, declining test scores and graduation rates ultimately prompted the closure of the school in 2014. In its place, the school district placed three smaller schools on the campus and divided the shared space. In the following years, calls from the community to invest in returning a comprehensive high school to the site were heard and the school district used approved bond measure funds to redesign the school. 

In an October 2022 article in Chalkbeat Colorado, a Montbello High School alumna said this about the process of bringing back a traditional high school: “When you attempt to re-establish and you want that same sacrament, you can’t cut corners. I’m not necessarily talking about cost. I’m talking about voices. … If you don’t create a process that’s inviting to those voices, you’re about to perpetuate more pain.”

While Denver Public Schools had conducted multiple community surveys, more than 40 dialogue circles, and dozens of one-on-one interviews for this specific project, we were hired to establish a process for engagement for the difficult work of converting hopes, aspirations, and needs into finite design plans. What separated our civic engagement work from previous phases is that design is where a negotiation must occur. In ideation, a building can be anything. In design, real decisions must be made. Not every idea can be included. Trade-offs must be explored and agreed upon. Our role focused on creating a community-led conversation that synthesized, then amplified, community priorities and ultimately, led to a consensus in design very much informed by the past, present, and future school community.

Key Techniques Using TBRI Strategic Framework

  • Connecting Principles: A primary strategy for connecting with the Montbello community was acknowledging that trust in the district had been negatively impacted. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we embraced this acknowledgement as beneficial. It helped us to get to the real issue to solve: not simply how to give the neighborhood its school back, but to allow community members space to talk about the impact of the district’s choice to close the school. Through early virtual interactions, our team heard the stories that were most important to alumni and other community members, understood how that history affected their current beliefs and perceptions, and reflected back what we heard. This attunement supported our plan to connect with the community throughout the summer at events.
  • Connecting Principles: In order to be consistent, responsive, and empathetic to the Montbello community’s needs, our team had to balance our excitement (and contractual mandate) for what was to come in the redesign process with awareness that we were, ultimately, like guests in someone’s home. It was essential to enter both virtual and in-person interactions with positivity, but also be mindful that trust and connection would take time. We didn’t try to create deep relationships in five minutes, or assume that we had. 
  • Connecting Principles: We fostered connection throughout the summer by using lighthearted interaction and experiences. Describing the types of amenities for the new Montbello High School could have been a presentation of a blueprint or renderings, rather than using that somewhat traditional approach, we used colorful, bilingual displays that illustrated categories of amenities for the facility. We then guided community members through an interactive activity of prioritizing those amenities, which created opportunities for two-way conversation. On a basic level, we were gaining a majority opinion on design, on a deeper level, we were exploring the emotion and identity informing those preferences.
  • Empowering Principles: Our physiological event strategy was to meet the needs of parents and children, the best way we could. Purposefully selecting four or five types of summer events that featured food, beverages, music, sensory and physical activities—all that were relevant to our audiences—gave us better odds of having great conversations. Similarly, giving community members the ability to connect with their neighbors, friends, and family while we were having discussions about Montbello High School’s redesign fostered a sense of safety and high comfort which increased the depth of our discussions.

A word before you read on…the following two examples describe strategies used with someone other than yourself. That’s not the case here. We focused on adapting our behavior (us and our clients on the design team) toward the Montbello community to improve trust and connection.

  • Correcting Principles: In TBRI, there are a number of proactive strategies that can reinforce a healthy relationship between two people. It’s particularly effective when significant work has been done to establish respect. The foundation of outreach for the Montbello design team was demonstrating respect by understanding the community’s values. Put another way: Asking for input is one thing, demonstrating you’ve heard it, understand it, and applied it is another. Closing the loop on feedback during our spring, summer, and fall outreach was a major focus. Sometimes a process takes months and people may engage sporadically. Knowing this, our team was deliberate in infusing updates and information about next steps with background about how and why community input guided decisions.
  • Correcting Principles: In Montbello, we shared control of the process by defining the limits of our expertise. It’s understandable when underserved communities feel frustrated when someone comes in and says, “Here’s this great thing for you, you’re going to love it!” and those in charge never asked anyone who lives in the community if that’s what they truly needed. Our team worked to consistently communicate and demonstrate choices, compromises, and problem-solving. We were there to turn the community’s vision into an architectural design—what it looked like, incorporated, and said about their identity was up to the community, the experts.

“We want it back to the way it was”

Here the school district was offering to build a new, state-of-the-art facility. Yet a significant portion of the community wasn’t convinced that was the right thing to do. Much of that was driven by sentimental attachment. Many had strong, positive memories of the old school and its spaces. But there was another driving force: lack of trust.

Some community members believed that a complete redesign of the school would ultimately leave them with less than they had with the current facility (even with its aging spaces and outdated safety and accessibility design). Given the community’s history with the district, it was reasonable to see how some felt like the promise of something new came with the prospect of once again being let down.

Bringing the conversation forward required both compromise and involving another important audience: current students.

Compromise came in the form of preserving some notable spaces in the old building: its main gym, auditorium, and swimming pool as well as incorporating spaces in the redesigned facility to honor and display the achievements and legacy of previous classes. Engaging current students allowed the larger community to hear the perspective of those who would be the primary users, and how newly designed spaces would provide for enhanced educational opportunities.

Conclusion and Opportunity Insights

The promise of using a more comprehensive TBRI process in community engagement compels us to look back on the Montbello High School redesign. Naturally, we ask ourselves what would have made the experience even better for the community. Adapting our interactions by understanding stress and past negative experiences, as well as the strengths of residents, would have created more opportunity from the start. We could see conversations about priority amenities for the school developing more quickly and tracking toward consensus more efficiently. 

Using TBRI strategies, such as creating predictability, felt-safety, and routines that support connection, we could have empowered community members to feel more in control of relationships with systems many believe they are naturally disconnected from. It would have been honest and authentic if we stated that we were in their community to learn all about them: what they like, what they feel, and what they need. As in Trauma-Informed Design’s (TID) process of “Know-Learn-Commit,” our approach aimed to create a new social norm between an educational system and its customers—young residents and those with many years of lived experience. By applying these strategies more fully, Clermont Eliot believes future projects will greatly benefit by creating stability where there has historically been instability.