Special Report: The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, the small southern Colorado city could pose the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of Pubelo’s educators and parents. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

Julianne Williamson spreads out her children’s academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane. (Nicholas Garcia)

Part 1: As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward

There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards. “My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.” But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long. Among them: “What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked.

Students at the Pueblo Academy of Arts participate in a science lesson in April. The middle school, formerly known as Pitts, was once considered toxic — like five of the city’s other middle schools. (Nicholas Garica)

Part 2: Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenge

This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge. Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state.

Students at the Chaves Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy, a charter school, read at the beginning of class. Pueblo parents don’t appear to be interested in taking advantage of the city’s two high-performing middle schools. (Nicholas Garcia)

Part 3: Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo

While the Pueblo school system has gotten better since Pueblo’s outgoing superintendent Maggie Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains. And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new leader, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year. The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.