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Why we spent more than a year telling the stories of students at this Colorado high school

The full 9NEWS Original Documentary "The Jefferson Project" is available above, on the 9NEWS YouTube channel or via Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire devices.

EDGEWATER, Colo. — This whole crazy idea was born when Photojournalist Anne Herbst and I finished shooting a story at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School in Edgewater in May 2018. The story was about their annual tradition of having the graduating seniors visit Jefferson’s feeder schools to inspire the younger students to reach that attainable goal of graduating.

While the story itself was important, Jefferson used to be a place where graduation rates hovered around 50 percent and now is steadily climbing. The thing that made Anne and I decide to do it was what happened after we shot the story.

Principal Michael James had just finished his interview with us for the story that day and walked up to a nearby student and asked him if he had anything nice to wear to graduation. It was clear he didn’t have much money or really any money at all and the only “nice” clothes he had were the ones he was wears to school every day. He had planned to wear those same worn out jeans and a grubby shirt to graduation.

Michael told him that was unacceptable and basically ordered him to accompany him shopping so he could buy his student something decent to wear to celebrate him making it through high school. Michael didn’t do it for the camera. He didn’t do it for the attention. He simply did it for this teenage boy who has been through so much.

Anne and I learned this is the sort of thing that goes on at Jefferson nearly every day. It wasn’t just the principal. It was the teachers who spent their own money to support kids at Jefferson to buy them food, to give them clothes, to even provide a place for some of them to live.

On paper, Jefferson Junior/Senior High School looks terrible. It has the state’s lowest academic ratings. It has a high poverty rate and an enrollment that has declined over the last five years. Jefferson has a reputation of being a rough school.

But, we realized that is not the whole story of Jefferson. There were amazing things happening here -- amazing triumphs and unbelievable challenges. We wanted to capture that story and bring it to the public. That’s how The Jefferson Project started.

RELATED: Storytellers: The surprising ending to the Jefferson Project

RELATED: Watch full episodes, extras of The Jefferson Project

We talked to Michael about it a few days later and then to the Communications Department at Jefferson County Schools. They were all on board. We didn’t really know what to expect. As the 2018-19 school approached, we had one basic idea. Let’s follow the story of seniors from the first day of class through graduation.

At first, we thought we could follow six students and tell the story through their eyes of what families at Jefferson really go through. After the first day of school, we realized that was too many people and focused on four seniors – two boys and two girls.

We will be forever grateful to Mason Ham, Joe Martinez, Ariadna Santos-Arriaga, and Jayline Lucero for agreeing to let us into their lives. I know they didn’t know what to expect either. Initially, they were all a bit nervous (maybe not Jayline) and a little reserved. But, as time went on, I believe they started to feel more comfortable with us and started sharing with us things about their lives we never imagined. We started to find the real stories of struggles with homelessness, alcoholism, addiction, incarceration, immigration and mental health.

We quickly realized that these were not bad kids. These were good kids in really bad situations. Good families who maybe didn’t know that life wasn’t always so bad. These students brought that with them every day they entered the doors of Jefferson Junior/Senior High School.

RELATED: He's got 678 students, but this high school principal wants to know everyone's name

RELATED: 91% of students at Jefferson High qualify for free or reduced lunch

Jefferson is in the middle of a unique social dynamic in Edgewater just west of the Denver border. This is a little town that is undergoing serious gentrification. The result of that is home prices are going up driving the poor families out. People are moving in that don’t have kids or if they do, they usually don’t send them to Jefferson because of its reputation. Yet, students who are forced to move away due to increasing rent still drive an hour or more just to stay at the same school where they started.

Why would parents do this? Why not just go to the school down the street? The answer is the same reason why Anne and I felt compelled to create this documentary. There is a something underlying here that doesn’t exist at most schools. The word, family, sounds trite and is used by many. But, at Jefferson, family means something more. There is a genuine trust and bond between teachers, students, and parents. The school wants to be there for every need in and out of the classroom.

In the midst of creating more than dozen stories for air on 9NEWS, Anne spent 70 days shooting at Jefferson. To put that in perspective, the school year is only about 180 days. So, she was in the building on average more than once every three days. That is total commitment. She is clearly the engine behind this project.

As graduation approached, we thought our story was nearing the end. But, circumstances changed and we found ourselves continuing to chronicle this story well into 2020. What unfolded at the end is something we could never plan for. Yet, it is the kind of thing that unfortunately Jefferson families experience.

Jefferson is not just "a bad school." There are not teachers and administrators there not doing their jobs. 

In fact, it is quite the opposite. 

The principal would say they do their jobs better than anyone else considering what they have to deal with on a daily basis. 

After spending more than a year there, we believe it. After watching this documentary, we hope you do, too, and maybe decide something more needs to be done to support schools like Jefferson.

The full Jefferson Project documentary is posted on the 9NEWS YouTube channel, on the video player attached to this article, and be available via Roku, Amazon Fire and Apple TV. 

See all of our coverage at 9NEWS.com/jeffersonproject

WATCH THE SERIES: The Jefferson Project