Facing a hearing this week that could determine the fate of Adams 14 schools, district leaders plan to ask the state to trust local leaders to oversee their own plan to improve schools.
The state has threatened to dissolve the 6,100-student school district, which serves mostly working-class suburbs north of Denver and has received the state’s lowest ratings since 2010. Adams 14 leaders will argue that they have both the will and the skills to pull up the district themselves.
State Board of Education members have expressed concern about local leadership after the school board fired an external management company, MGT Consulting. A state panel of outside experts has recommended closing the main high school and reorganizing the district.
Thursday’s hearing will consist of two parts. In the morning, the State Board of Education will consider how to improve the district as a whole. Those orders could include changes at the high school, despite district leaders telling the community the high school’s future is not on the agenda.
In the afternoon, the State Board will hear recommendations for Central Elementary.
In both hearings, State Board members will consider information from education department staff, an external review panel’s report, the district’s own plan, and public feedback.
While the review panel’s recommendations have been public for some weeks, the district has been less open about its own plans.
Documents given to the state and recent public meetings give some insight.
Adams 14 leaders propose hiring a new external manager overseen by the district, instead of one that would have full authority over the district.
They propose turning Central Elementary into a community school with partners that would provide resources to address non-academic issues that could affect children’s abilities to learn.
The district, which refused to grant an interview, has not presented a plan specifically for the high school. It has publicly insisted that the state would not decide the school’s fate this month.
But a spokesperson for the state confirmed that the State Board can order changes to the high school, or any school, on Thursday.
Adams 14 School District
The state-ordered improvement plans in Adams 14 have escalated over the years, and in the past have included partial management plans where a previous superintendent oversaw consultants’ work. Most recently in 2018, the State Board of Education required the district to hand over most daily operations to an outside entity, expressing a lack of trust in local leaders to improve low achievement.
The district now has new leadership, but a new state review panel, convened after Adams 14 released its previous external manager, reported that district administration still lacks the skills.
The panel suggested possibly reorganizing the district, including closing at least the main high school. That could mean entirely or partially dissolving the district, or redrawing boundaries to give neighboring districts control over parts of Adams 14. To do that, state law lays out a process that has never been used. This represents the most aggressive state intervention possible in a school district.
Adams 14 leaders argue they are qualified and their leadership really only began in February, after MGT left. The district submitted the resumes of board members and other district leaders to back their claim.
A new attorney hired by the district during its fight with MGT has said the district is prepared to fight the state to retain local control. A lawsuit seeking to change the terms of this week’s hearing was unsuccessful, but in one win, the district will get an extra 30 minutes to make its case.
Although the district plan calls for a management partner, it does not name one. The district put out a request for bids and received only one application, from nonprofit TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project. The district has refused to release a copy of that application.
After removing a vote on the external manager from a recent board agenda, the district instead has hosted several community forums with the applicant in recent days.
“This is not by any means a process we want to rush or push through just to finalize it,” Superintendent Karla Loria said at one of the meetings. “I think this is an important aspect of our planning on how to improve.”
At the forums, district principals and board members asked questions about what kind of support the consultant would provide for English learners, who make up about half of all Adams 14 students, about what their first 90 days with the district would look like, and how they would incorporate community engagement.
Team leaders from TNTP gave many examples of their work in other districts similar to Adams 14, where they have trained teachers to tailor lessons for students with different needs such as English learners. They said community engagement was important, and that student voice was especially useful for letting teachers understand how their teaching was being received.
They said they wanted to be sure that the Adams 14 community wanted to work with them. Much of the first 90 days would be listening to the community and the district about its needs, TNTP leaders said.
TNTP worked with the Houston school district at the same time Loria led a team of schools there. A case study from TNTP’s website about work in the district talks about how teacher evaluations changed so that teachers had more feedback about how to improve.
Meanwhile, the district plans for Central Elementary may win more favor from the State Board.
Before the pandemic, the school seemed to be making improvements, and external observers found reasons to be hopeful.
Adams 14’s plan for Central would consist of using innovation status — a status that gives schools, where staff and community agree, autonomy from certain state mandates or teacher union rules — to become a community school. The draft plan as submitted to the state would consist of expanding the time students spend on math and reading, using tutors, adding before- and after-school child care, and creating financial incentives for hard-to-staff positions.
The district also plans to put out more requests for bids to work with other organizations to bring additional resources to the school. So far, the plan notes, the district has secured commitments from groups that MGT had hired and that were already working with Adams 14 schools.
Vocal parent advocates with students at Central say they trust district leaders because they feel heard, and they want to see the community school model put in place.
Adams City High School
While the district hasn’t submitted a plan to the state about the high school, leaders at Adams City High School say they’ve been working on improvement plans anyway.
And much of what they started with MGT is continuing.
“When I speak to instruction and school structures and program monitoring of our performance — those three things have been consistent,” said Chris Garcia, principal of Adams City High School.
The plan includes the introduction of more career tracks, or pathways that let students earn certifications along with their diplomas.
This semester, the school is expecting about 80 seniors to graduate with certificates in business or construction from Front Range Community College. The high school resumed participation in the state’s ASCENT program which allows high school students to stay in high school for a fifth year while earning college credit for free.
Natalie Johnson, an assistant principal at Adams City, said she wishes the number of students taking and passing college courses at the high school were given more consideration in evaluating the school’s performance.
“These kids are working hard,” Johnson said.
The school has been using a RISE grant to build out the career pathways, but finding teachers is a challenge. Johnson said there are 69 students on a waitlist hoping to participate in a Certified Nursing Assistant program, but the high school has struggled to recruit a credentialed instructor.
Garcia said the school’s challenge is getting students motivated to be in school and to turn in their work. The school is considering moving some classes to the evening to accommodate students who are working to support their families.
“We have to find ways to encourage them to stay and grind it out, and parents have to help us with that expectation,” Garcia said, “but also understanding that some of our kids are having to deal with other things.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.