Management and district leaders say first year of Adams 14 turnaround was a success despite pandemic

Adams City High School junior Alexandra Hernandez, in a white long-sleeve shirt, looks at her notebook, with a cell phone next to her. In the background are about five students working at tables and a teacher standing in front of a white board, in an AP language class on Feb. 4, 2019.
Adams City High School junior Alexandra Hernandez works on her literary analysis essay in AP language class Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Adams 14. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

Despite not having hard data on achievement, Adams 14 officials and community members say signs point to a success for the district’s first year in private hands.

One indication is more parent satisfaction.

When the principal at her Adams 14 elementary school changed along with other district leaders, Beatrice De Luna immediately felt more welcome.

This year she said she was more involved in school than she had been in the last five years of her children’s education. And one of her five children, a girl entering sixth grade this fall, started showing “huge growth” after two years of struggling.

“As a parent, this past year has been a great year,” De Luna said.

Connie Bonnel, a district grandmother who has served on a district oversight committee, said this was the first year her group was able to review each school’s improvement plan to make recommendations.

“Everyone was surprised,” said Bonnel, who sits on the district’s accountability committee. “I am grateful for how collaborative they are with us.”

The 2019-20 school year was the first year MGT Consulting, a private, for-profit firm based in Florida, managed the Adams 14 school district north of Denver. The year was marked by curricular changes, leadership reorganization, and a new plan for the high school. Four of the five board members joined halfway through the year

But turnaround work was delayed as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down school buildings for the last 2½ months of the year and the focus shifted to teaching students remotely. Officials believe students did lose some learning, but it’s still unclear just how much.

It was the first time that a private group has taken the reins of an entire school district in Colorado. It was done under orders from the state as a last resort to try to improve the achievement of the nearly 7,000 students in the struggling district.

The order put MGT on a four-year timeline. Under the $8.3 million contract, each year the company would return more control to the district, slowly putting them back in charge. The state is closely monitoring the work, but with no state testing this year and thus no comparable achievement data, it’s hard to tell how effective the company’s improvements have been so far.

Don Rangel, MGT’s project director and acting superintendent for Adams 14, called the first year a success.

“It was critically important for the Adams 14 team and the external management team of MGT to develop a quality working relationship,” Rangel said. “Even though the year was interrupted we were able to do that.”

MGT officials provide quarterly reports to the State Board of Education. The next one is scheduled for this fall. 

MGT and district leaders point to staff surveys conducted by the state. Overall, staff in Adams 14 feel more positive about the direction of the district than in previous years.

In a recent meeting of the local Adams 14 school board, Lisa Medler, the state’s executive director of accountability and continuous improvement, said the state has also seen positive work.

“On implementation, despite all of the disruption, certainly a lot of strides have been made,” Medler said. 

Board members asked, given the pandemic, about giving MGT and Adams 14 more time to show improvement. “This was a huge disruption,” said Adams 14 board member Maria Zubia. 

Officials said that’s being discussed. Medler suggested that if MGT or Adams 14 want to ask for more time, they must have specifics around what the time would be needed for.

Harry Bull, MGT’s Colorado project manager, said officials haven’t thought it through as the focus has been on adjusting to remote learning, and now planning for the multiple scenarios in the fall. 

So far, like Rangel, Bull said that MGT has been able to make needed investments in the district, but is concerned about how the district will keep prioritizing improvements if more budget cuts are needed.

“It’s never a good time to be a turnaround district, but in a challenging economic time, it most certainly makes for a greater challenge,” Bull said.

In the first year of management, MGT focused on aligning varied curriculum materials at the district’s 11 schools. Adams 14 now has a new literacy and math curriculum across all grade levels and is planning to introduce a new social and emotional learning curriculum this fall.

Adams 14 has also expanded the career and technical education budget to create more opportunities for high school students.

District leaders also spent the year rewriting the district’s plan for educating English language learners, including creating a new bilingual education plan. The district is waiting for feedback on the plan from the federal Office for Civil Rights.

One other critical piece of the district’s improvement has been to retain more quality teachers. Adams 14 historically has a high turnover rate for teachers, and many teachers just starting their career.

Adams 14 did approve a stipend, on top of salary, for teachers for their work during remote learning, but the district may not be able to pay teachers more soon if state revenue for schools continues to drop. 

MGT plans for the district to hire its own superintendent again soon. The plan is for the board to begin a search in December, and perhaps have someone in place by the 2021-22 school year. For now, MGT has covered the role.

Deborah Figueroa, co-president of the Adams 14 teachers union, said she understands that there were unpredictable delays this year, but is still frustrated that the pace of change can’t be faster.

“There’s a lot of work that has to be done, and in my opinion, MGT is outnumbered,” Figueroa said. “For the millions of dollars we pay them, it’s been a handful of people — they have been of quality, but it is not enough for the amount of work that the system needs.”

The beginning of the year included coaching for teachers, but Figueroa said it wasn’t enough.

Figueroa said she especially wants to see a strategic plan. That’s one thing that the state is also tracking. While it’s not done, officials expect it could be finished soon. Board members worked their first months together to agree on a unified district vision with goals that are still being finalized.

Adams 14 board President Ramona Lewis said she believes that the work MGT and the new board have done is making a difference. Lewis and several of the other new board members ran in part with the interest of keeping tabs on the new company that would be managing the district.

To track progress now, Lewis said she hopes schools will be able to administer district assessments in the fall, and also hopes to see more staff surveys. If it’s safe to do so, she’d also like to see the district and MGT resume the listening tour that began and ended just before the pandemic.

“I think the climate of the district has changed,” Lewis said. “But we want to continue to make sure people are being listened to.”

The Latest

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson asked Illinois Senate President Don Harmon in a letter late Thursday to hold a bill that would block changes to selective enrollment schools and prevent any school closures until 2027.

Lawmakers last year relaxed income eligibility rules so that most Indiana families now qualify for the Choice Scholarship program.

Students work with artists to find themselves, learn about their world, and see their work showcased around the city.

El programa capacitará a jóvenes de entre 18 y 24 años para actuar “como navegadores que sirven a estudiantes de secundaria y preparatoria en escuelas y en organizaciones comunitarias.”

The teachers union’s 7,000 members are scheduled to take a ratification vote on June 6.

The state superintendent said cuts to staff won’t be prevalent in all districts. But educators say the “fiscal cliff” existed in the state well before federal COVID relief funds.