More stability and time: Independent panel calls for continuing improvements in Adams 14

Two large brick school buildings with students walking along the sidewalk between them and cars parked on the street in the foreground.
The State Review Panel noted “early indicators of progress” in Adams 14 and "promising early academic results" at Adams City High School. (Yesenia Robles / Chalkbeat)

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Adams 14 schools need more time and stability to build on improvements that have begun, according to a panel of outside experts.

The State Review Panel, a group of external educators that visits low-performing schools and reports to the state, noted “early indicators of progress” in the school district, but said improvement efforts have “not yet become systematic or sustained.”

The panel recommended that Adams 14, and its high school, Adams City High School, continue current improvement strategies, working with an outside group. Currently, the district works with the New York-based nonprofit TNTP.

“Disruption of this current strategy would likely be detrimental to a fragile system,” read the latest recommendations from the group, which were shared by the district Friday.

This school year, Adams 14′s 2023 state rating improved from the lowest category, called turnaround, to the second-lowest, called priority improvement. The number of points earned by the school district was still slightly below what it received in 2019 before the pandemic began.

In the previous rating, in 2022, Adams 14 earned the fewest points in the rating system in all Colorado.

Adams 14, a district north of Denver with about 5,400 students, has long had some of the lowest quality ratings in the state, and has faced many firsts with the state’s accountability system. In 2022, the district was ordered to reorganize, which could have meant closing schools or merging with other districts, but the community fought the orders and the state relieved Adams 14 from the order in September.

But since the district is no longer following that order to reorganize, and still hasn’t shown enough improvement to be free of state intervention, the district and high school face a new hearing with the State Board of Education in May.

The State Board hearing will consider the panel’s recommendations as well as feedback from the Department of Education staff, the district’s own proposal, and community input.

The district celebrated the state review panel’s recent recommendations.

“I am astounded at what a difference two years can make,” Superintendent Karla Loría, said in a news release. “In 2022, the SRP created this narrative of a failing school district, failing leadership, and it made the most heinous recommendations to shut down our school district. Their past report resulted in litigation that reached the Colorado Supreme Court. We defeated every recommendation made by the SRP at that time. Now, two years later, the amount of work and the real progress made is finally being recognized.”

In 2022, the last time the state convened a State Review Panel to provide recommendations about Adams 14, the panel suggested closing Adams City High School and reorganizing the school district, citing ineffective management of the district.

At the time the panel visited in spring of 2022, the district had just spent months fighting to cut ties with the formal external manager, MGT Consulting. And although Loría had already been in the district for about a year, she argued she had not had the authority to lead.

The State Review Panel at that time found that the district did not have a clear plan for moving forward and they doubted that there was enough leadership for the district to improve.

Since then, the district has created a new strategic plan and overhauled the district’s administrative team, and the school board has received new training to focus on policy governance.

Although some in the district have questioned the new administration, the State Review Panel this year found that school leaders and other educators they talked to in the district were all clear about the district’s priorities.

While the district was able to avoid reorganization, they have for the most part continued working with the external partner, TNTP, which was another requirement of the State Board’s order in 2022.

This year, the panel found that work beneficial and recommended that it continues.

“Multiple indications point to this partnership being the likely driving factor for the indicators of progress the district is beginning to experience,” the panel’s report stated.

The panel stated that it did not recommend closing schools this time because the district has closed schools itself. This year, the district closed one elementary school, and it has drafted plans to continue consolidating schools in the coming years to respond to declining enrollment.

The panel also stated that it wouldn’t recommend reorganizing the district in part because that had already been attempted, and the state found it was not in the best interest of the community.

One other option the panel could have recommended would be to turn schools into community schools, a strategy that the district is attempting at one elementary school, Central Elementary. But the State Review Panel reported that the effect of that strategy is still unclear. It also noted that the model requires a lot of resources and given the district’s “diminishing financial resources” it didn’t make sense to attempt the model districtwide.

The financial problems of the district, while not a significant component that the state usually reviews, came up more than once in the state review panel report this time.

This past fall, Adams 14 considered ending its relationship with TNTP altogether, citing a need to cut its budget and reconsider the scope of the partner’s work.

The report notes that the district leaders said they should have the flexibility and authority to review whom they partner with, on what, and to what extent. While the panel acknowledged the challenges, especially around budget problems, it recommended that any needed changes still should go through the state.

“Frequent change and movement away from the strategies and practices that are showing promising results would be disruptive to the potential success of the work and the integrity of the state order,” the report states.

Read the panel’s district report here:

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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