To once-skeptical parents of a troubled school, principal now a sign of stability — and hope

One of the first things you see walking into Central Elementary is a bell that hangs just outside the main office, above a poster explaining that every time the bell rings, a goal has been met.

Students get to ring it after meeting their goals. The youngest kids climb up a stepladder to reach the bell.

“Any student, class or grade level goal,” said fifth grade teacher Theresa Fedorco. “They can go up to the office, talk about their goal and people from the office, or anyone who’s there, will cheer for them.”

It’s a positive reinforcement tool the school started last year. And Central’s principal, Deana Valadez-Barnes, found that it’s been meaningful to students.

Those celebrations are part of the culture that Ron Cabrera has observed since July when he started overseeing the district’s elementary schools for the management firm, MGT. “It’s nurturing. It’s welcoming,” Cabrera told the State Board of Education of the school. “There’s a positive feeling even among staff.”

The stability in leadership, a positive school culture, and small academic progress despite chaotic district changes are signs that MGT says show that Central can shed its label as one of Colorado’s worst-performing elementary schools.

But MGT, which in June began managing Central specifically as well as the entire Adams 14 district, also sees challenges blocking progress. Company representatives identified terms of the teachers contract as a problem and might seek waivers from them — which they could get from the State Board of Education through a designation known as Innovation status.

Because of low achievement, the state has rated Central, with about 500 students, the second to lowest state level, “priority improvement,” every year since 2012.

Instead of laying out an improvement plan for Central, as the state has done with other chronically low-performing schools and districts, the state waited for a private manager it had already ordered to take over the district to give it a chance to propose a plan. Adams 14 is the first district in Colorado that has been ordered to hire an external manager.

That manager, MGT, had until October to come up with an improvement plan for Central. The plan, presented to the State Board of Education this month, includes possibly seeking innovation status.

“Time and instruction are two key variables for school success, so we want to explore the issue and figure out, can we make time a child’s friend when it comes to learning,” said Don Rangel, MGT’s project manager and acting superintendent for Adams 14, referring to changing the school day. “The process will also clarify the work that needs to be done at Central.”

Colorado law requires school leaders to explain how winning an exception to a contract, policy or law would benefit teaching and learning, and also detail what they would do instead. A majority of school staff would have to approve the plan. While those conversations are just starting, Principal Valadez-Barnes said her staff is “equally committed to whatever it takes,” to improve the learning for kids.

The school is one of seven district elementary schools. Based on last year’s numbers, it had 76% who qualify for free lunch, the district’s highest among elementary schools. Central also has an additional 13% of students who qualify for reduced-priced lunch, both of which are measures of poverty.

Valadez-Barnes is in her third year leading the school, which is almost double the average tenure of an elementary school principal in the district, according to an analysis by MGT. Before her, Central had five principals in five years including one who lasted just a few months.

“I drive through two or three districts to get here, and every year I work, the commute gets a little bit longer,” Valadez-Barnes said. “But this is the community I serve. I am committed to this community.”

Valadez-Barnes has worked in the district in different positions for 14 years. When she started as a principal at Central in the middle of the 2016-17 school year, she recalls her first meeting with parents. Three showed up, and each sat with their arms crossed, skeptical of her vision.

“‘They’ve all said they’re staying, what makes you different?’” she recalls the parents asking her. “I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you.’”

So, everyday, Valadez-Barnes stands at the school’s front doors, greeting students. She stands there until 8:40 a.m. in order to catch the students and families who arrive late. She doesn’t ask students why they’re late. Instead, she tells them, “I’m so glad you’re here, I’ve been waiting for you.”

This year, the very first meeting for parents brought in a record 18 parents. One of them was Alicia Rodriguez, who has a 14-year-old who used to attend Central, and now has a 9-year-old who has been at the school since he was 3.

“It was very stressful,” Rodriguez said of the last few years.

When Valadez-Barnes started, she said parents were confused.

“I didn’t know if she wanted to stay or just wanted to get experience and find something else,” Rodriguez said. “I was kind of scared and mad but now I see that she really loves Central. I can see that she really loves the kids.”

Rodriguez said that even as more parents are giving Valadez-Barnes a chance, some of the doubt left in their minds won’t go away.

“Being through all those principals, you just need to see the results, not just words,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m really happy with her. She’s doing a great job. I hope she can stay.”

Having consistency now, Rodriguez said, means she’s better informed about what’s happening in the school. Notices home are always sent on Mondays, so she knows when to look for them. And Rodriguez said she can tell that the principal is working with teachers.

“Before, it seemed everyone was doing whatever they wanted to,” Rodriguez said.

The churn in leadership also contributed to a high rate of turnover among teachers. But before school started this August, officials report the school only had to hire two new teachers for this year.

Leadership is one of the things MGT wants to focus on across Adams 14.

One of the first things MGT did was hold a three-day retreat over the summer for school and district leaders to train them on how to make their schools feel welcoming and how to be better leaders.

In a recent district discussion about what they’re seeing in the schools, Cabrera of MGT said officials landed on the idea of “moral purpose” as what has united some of the leaders that stay and are committed to the work.

“They all have this common mission,” Cabrera said.

But stabilizing staff is only one piece of MGT’s work. Like other schools in the district, Central went through various program and curricular changes in recent years. Adams 14’s seven elementary schools have three math curriculums and several different ones for literacy. Now the consultants want to get all schools on the same programs, meaning more changes to come.

With all these changes, MGT would like to train staff; However the Adams 14 teachers contract does not allow elementary schools to require teacher attendance at meetings outside the school day.

Principal Valadez-Barnes, seeking to make the most of teacher prep time, so far has redivided allotments into four 55-minute planning periods, so that she could take one 40-minute period per week to lead joint planning. But administrators think more time could help.

She sometimes holds staff meetings, but can’t make them mandatory. Still, she says, about 80 percent of staff do show up, and some teachers have volunteered for leadership teams that require meetings outside of contracted hours.

“I value my teachers’ time and preparation time, I know it’s essential,” Valadez-Barnes said. “But some of the work we need to do has to be in a team conversation.”

“It takes some schedule jiujitsu to make moves and changes to create space in the day for teachers to come together to talk about those important things that affect student success and to also learn from each other,” Cabrera said.

It’s one thing they’d look to change through innovation status. If teachers and leaders agree on a plan to waive contract or district rules, Rangel, the district’s acting superintendent, said he would hope a vote could come this school year, so the changes could be in place next fall.

“There is still an urgency to having this school perform,” Rangel said.