Taking on a troubled high school, a company tries internships, options, and building trust

For the first time in three years, Maria Rodriguez’s daughter started the fall semester knowing what classes she would have at Adams City High School.

In the past few years, parents and students complained that Adams City High would start the school year with confusion, uncertainty and long lines as the school scrambled to create schedules for many students after school started.

Students talked about waiting in the auditorium for days to receive a schedule, and then said they still ended up in classes that were overcrowded, didn’t have a teacher, or that they had already passed.

After it took control of the school four months ago, the private MGT Consulting Group set to work on a long to-do list, and fixing registration for classes was at the top. Ron Peterson, hired by MGT to oversee the principals at Adams City High and the smaller Lester Arnold High, was determined to get the schools started on the right foot.

Nothing hurts community engagement “like if you have to come here and wait for two hours to get in and register your kid because of a language barrier,” said Peterson, a former principal, administrator, and coach.

Overhauling student scheduling is one example of the pressing work MGT faces to improve Adams City High School, which has been one of the state’s lowest-performing schools. MGT is seeking community input into reorganizing the school. Part of that will include expanding career programs, creating community partnerships, and starting the tough work of building trust with families.

Before school started, Peterson made sure school staff were working on schedules for this year’s nearly 1,800 students. “I want to see every one of them,” he recalls telling staff. And then they practiced.

He had them navigate an obstacle course of stations where families would walk through on registration day, to anticipate the challenges they might face at each step. During registration, held over five days, including a Saturday, translators and multiple staff — up to 13 at one station — helped families.

Parents noticed.

“I think it’s brilliant that they made these changes,” said Rodriguez, a Spanish-speaking mom who has had problems getting translations in the past. “To me it was a good start to the year.”

For years Adams City High failed to improve its academic performance enough to get out of the state’s crosshairs. After ordering the Adams 14 school district to contract with an outside manager, state officials refrained from prescribing more fixes for the high school, as it awaited a plan from MGT.

Last month, MGT officials told the State Board of Education that they plan to reorganize the high school “to expand meaningful opportunities to meet the needs of the diverse learners.”

They were vague on details, but explained they want to offer more options for students. MGT wants to involve parents, students, and the community in designing exactly what those changes should be.

But through the high school’s long journey of trying to improve and the state’s rejection of the community’s choice of managers, many wonder whether their say actually matters.

“I invite my neighbors and other parents to attend school meetings and some parents have said, ‘For what, they don’t listen,’” Rodriguez said. “In my personal point of view, they do listen. In many cases, things don’t go how I would like them to, but I still push them to listen.”

MGT recognizes that trust will be one of its challenges.

“There may be distrust at first,” said Don Rangel, an MGT project manager who is acting Adams 14 superintendent. “I don’t have any magic bullet for fixing a lack of trust for any lack of follow-through in the past.”

A pending lawsuit also could complicate the company’s ability to gain trust. The teachers union has challenged the state’s ability to order the district to hire an external manager. If a judge were to side with the union, MGT’s work could be disrupted. For now, Rangel said, MGT is operating under the assumption that it will stick around for the four-year contract.

“It’s going to be about consistency,” said Rangel, a former superintendent in Weld County. “We will follow the process we say we’re going to follow. Over time, I think we’ll overcome any misgivings the community has.”

Some people say they are ready for a change. An official for the Commerce City Historical Society told the Adams 14 school board recently that the organization had pulled away from the district, but was ready to step back in to help out.

MGT wants to expand career programs that have been bright spots in the troubled school. Less than a quarter of the school’s students participate in one of its five career pathways. In 2017-18, students who participated in career programs had an 83.8% graduation rate — compared with the schoolwide rate of 74%.

Adams 14 was getting serious about expanding career programs at the high school, even before MGT started its work in the district.

Chris Duran now coordinates career and technical education for the district full-time, instead of having it as a role as an assistant principal. MGT has supported his new focused role. He meets with businesses across the metro area to enlist them in creating new training programs and offering student internships.

As a result, all career programs will lead students to some kind of accreditation or certificate, and in some cases, college credit. And two new programs, one for an electrical pre-apprenticeship and one in computer science, will be offered soon. Duran is also working with the network Centura Health to possibly prepare and funnel students into high-demand health care fields.

Duran also has secured internships for two students with the contractor for the Interstate 70 expansion project to learn about project managing.

But not everyone is on board with the job focus.

Lucy Molina, a high school parent active in the district, said she has encouraged her son to take a mechanic course, but she worries that putting too much of a focus on careers might not be the best thing for all students.

“We need industry, we need workers and our district is preparing our community, our children, for that,” Molina said. “It’s OK if people really want that option, but why can’t we aspire for more? It’s because they don’t give us that opportunity.”

MGT officials and school leaders say career pathways ensure students are engaged in what they’re interested in so that they are motivated to stay in school.

The potential pathway options the school may introduce could also focus on college, not just careers.

“Reorganization in this context means entering into conversations with the Adams City High School community and staff and principals to say what is it that we offer and how does it prepare kids for life after they graduate?” Rangel, the acting superintendent said. “Do we have programs necessary if students want to go to college? Have we prepared them for that?”

Looking at the number of students that require remedial courses when they enroll in college, Adams City High has had a higher than average rate, around 65% in the latest data for 2017 graduates. Some experts now question whether this really means student’s aren’t ready for college.

Looking at opportunities for college prep coursework, Adams 14 enrolled 399 students in 12 Advanced Placement courses in the 2017-18 school year, or about 19.7% of its high schoolers. One neighboring district, School District 27J, which takes students from eastern Commerce City, enrolled a lower percentage, about 17.6% of its students, in those classes.

Adams 14’s percent of students in Advanced Placement courses is also higher than that in Westminster, but is lower than the average state rate of 31.4% and lower than its neighbor, Adams 12, which had about 34.5% of its high school students in those advanced classes.

Adams 14 officials are considering how to strengthen academics. MGT is evaluating all curriculum materials and trying to align them so that what the middle schools use will prepare students for high schools, for instance. MGT leaders have acknowledged that it may take time to find funding for new resources and to train teachers to use them.

At Adams City High, MGT also created a freshman academy allowing students to see the campus before school starts and connecting them to upperclassmen designated as ambassadors. Similar programs for freshmen are becoming popular as they are showing promise in other schools. Officials hope this early engagement will pay off in better attendance, which could help boost achievement.

MGT officials in Adams 14 are working under Harry Bull, former superintendent of Cherry Creek School District. All the hires are also former local educators, and Duran said that their connections have helped him look outside the district for solutions and ideas including by meeting with career and tech leaders in other school districts.

Adams 14 district and high school leaders recently took a field trip to Cherry Creek to visit that district’s brand-new “Innovation Campus” for specialized career and technical classes. Duran said the point was for teachers and leaders to shape a vision of what is possible.

“This could be in our district as well,” Duran said. “We can not be limiting what we’re saying our kids can and can’t do.”