Adams 14 leaders cite ratings improvements as they make case against state reorganization orders

Flags fly outside the Adams 14 school district headquarters. The district logo sits prominently in front of the building. The sky is a clear blue.
Adams 14 moved out of turnaround to earn a priority improvement rating, same rating as in 2019. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

Adams 14 leaders are hoping to stop efforts to reorganize the district and point to improved state ratings as evidence they’re on the right path.

A reorganization committee that was formed in November following state orders, submitted a recommendation earlier this month asking the state to stop reorganization, calling the process “unproven, time-consuming, and resource-intensive.”

Reorganization would hurt the community, the committee argued in its 40-page report.

This year, the Adams 14 district improved from the lowest rating of turnaround, to the second-lowest of priority improvement on the state’s annual ratings. Priority improvement is the same rating the district had in 2019, and four other years in the last decade during which the state gave the district consecutive low ratings.

Superintendent Karla Loría highlighted the improvements on state tests and in performance ratings compared to last year at a press conference Wednesday. 

Loría pointed to the improvements as evidence the district is on the right track, and that they don’t need state intervention.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we are heading in the right direction,” Loría said. “We just need to be given the opportunity.”

Based on the state’s accountability law, the priority improvement rating isn’t enough to release the district from state intervention. But Loría said she’s confident that, with more time, the changes she’s implementing will lead to better results than the district has seen under previous improvement plans in the last decade.

How the district got here

Adams 14 has had one of the two lowest ratings for more than 10 years. State law requires the state intervene and order certain changes after five years in a row of low ratings. 

Adams 14 was one of the first districts in the state to reach that mark, and to remain with low ratings after various state-ordered improvement plans. 

Current district leaders point to turnover, state pressures, and biased standardized tests that don’t account for many of the socioeconomic factors that impact children in Adams 14. The district has one of the highest percentages of students who are learning English as a second language, as well as a high number of students from low-income families and students with disabilities. The district points to poverty, trauma, immigration fears, and environmental contamination as some of the many factors that impact learning in Commerce City more than elsewhere in the state. 

This spring, just 17.6% of third graders met expectations on state reading tests, up from 13.6% in 2022, but still lower than the 21.2% who did in 2019.

In May 2022, Adams 14 was the first district ordered by the state to reorganize when State Board members said they no longer trusted that local leadership could make necessary improvements. The process for reorganization is spelled out in state law, but since it’s never been implemented this way, several questions remain. A Colorado Supreme Court decision that would impact whether the state can order reorganization is pending.

The law requires the district under order to reorganize to form a committee including members of neighboring districts and draft a plan for changes. That could mean anything from rebranding the district, changing district boundaries, closing some schools, or dissolving the district altogether.

The draft plan would be finalized with community feedback and sent to the state commissioner of education for approval. Lastly, voters would have the final say. 

Instead, the reorganization committee, after meeting four times, approved a 40-page recommendation that asks the state to stop reorganization.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said the commissioner is reviewing the request and will issue a decision to the committee. The recommendation is not being considered a reorganization plan, which would have triggered some timelines for a response. 

“Statute doesn’t contemplate a report that is a recommendation to not reorganize,” reads an emailed statement from the department. “The report asks the commissioner to accept the report and absolve the committee of any further obligations related to reorganization.”

The report initially was displayed on the district’s board website, but has since been removed and can only be viewed by search.

Under the law, the committee was supposed to review data, and gather community feedback about their draft plan before presenting it to the state. 

In its vote on Aug. 11, all members voted in favor of forwarding the report to the state, except committee member Chris Gdowski, superintendent of neighboring Adams 12, who recused himself because he had not seen or read the 40-page report before the 10-minute meeting.

The report claims the public had ample opportunity to provide feedback, since its meetings were publicized, school board members held individual meetings, and community members could comment at the end-of-year Adams 14 town hall meeting. 

However, the announcement for that meeting included no mention of the reorganization process, a draft plan, or recommendation. 

An archived online notice for that town hall meeting is just a handful of sentences: “Please join us for an end-of-year town hall meeting on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The superintendent will share some of our incredible achievements this year regarding state metrics, community engagement, and district initiatives. Join us in the Adams City High School auditorium on May 31 at 5:30 p.m. Dinner and child care will be provided. Interpretation services will be available.”

The report also cites that other local boards, including the neighboring school boards involved in reorganization, and the Adams County Commissioners, have passed resolutions in support of Adams 14. Teachers unions including the local Adams 14 association and the state teachers union also have voiced their support of the district and opposition for reorganization.

District attorney Joe Salazar said that community members always have a right to speak about reorganization or any topic at any meeting. 

Salazar said “by and large, people from all four districts didn’t want to take part in reorganization. They are so over this process.”

What is happening in the district now?

Since the state ordered Adams 14 to enter reorganization, the Department of Education is now led by a new state commissioner and has new state board members.

Momentum to make changes to the state’s accountability system have picked up over time and a task force has been formed to make recommendations for changes. 

Meanwhile, in the district, Adams 14 worked this past year with consultant TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project. TNTP was supposed to take the place of an external manager the state wanted the district to work with to ensure success. 

Adams 14 filed notice with the state this week that they don’t plan to renew TNTP’s contract due to budget constraints. Asked about that decision Wednesday, Loría said “we’re working with the state through that.” A department spokesperson said ending that relationship would put the district in violation of existing orders. However, the state is willing to give the district more money to cover some of the costs.

Two years ago, just after being hired, Loría cut ties with a state-ordered manager, for-profit consultant MGT, by locking them out of the district, and the State Board of Education temporarily removed the district’s accreditation

This time, Salazar, the district’s attorney, said the district would seek an amendment to the State Board orders to remove the requirement that the district have an external partner. It’s not clear whether the State Board would approve such a request.

Loría said the district is continuously re-evaluating district needs and prioritizing improvement efforts, but said the district’s budget woes also pushed her to the decision.

The contract with TNTP was signed in June 2022, for $5 million over three years. 

Loría said among other things, she has restructured administration staff for a savings of about $800,000. The district also closed Hanson, a low-enrollment elementary school, at the end of last school year, and is considering other closures in the coming years.

She said the district has been “bold” against the state’s orders, and now has a strong local vision and that has contributed to the district’s improvements. She also discussed the new career-focused academies that are being started at the high school, the district’s commitment to fund full-day preschool for all 3- and 4 year-olds, and the rollout of the community schools model at Central Elementary, one of the low-performing schools that has improved over 2022. 

Loría also announced Wednesday that the district is one step closer to earning an alternative accreditation from Cognia, a Georgia-based nonprofit that conducts reviews of schools, grants accreditation, and offers suggestions and resources for improvement. The district began seeking that one after the state removed its accreditation. 

Read the full report from the reorganization committee:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add additional information about Adams 14 considering cutting ties with TNTP, including a response from the Colorado Department of Education.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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