Say You'll Be There

On an upward trajectory, Adams 14 reaches out to community to earn back trust

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams 14 is on an upward trajectory, Superintendent Pat Sanchez told an audience of about 100 Thursday at Adams City High School. But the district needs the help of the community.

After years of struggling, Adams 14 officials celebrated pulling itself out of the red zone on state accountability measures and turned to the task of re-establishing trust with parents and civic leaders Thursday night.

But more work still needs to be done, they said, to avert drastic intervention from the state.

The first step in that plan: holding a community-wide meeting of stakeholders for the first time in anyone’s memory that aimed to foster stronger relationships with members of those groups.

Commerce City school officials hope by proving they’ve put in the initial work to boost academic achievement, the community will follow. They want the community’s help in creating the necessary political and social environment to push the district over the finish line as it races to beat the Colorado “accountability clock.”

“There are so many wonderful groups doing great things in the community, but it feels fragmented,” said Deputy Superintendent Kandy Steel. “We wanted to bring everyone together to talk about how we can work together to help out children.”

Specifically, the district hopes to pass a bond override issue in order to build a new “super” middle school and finance other academic programs and support services it believes will be essential to complete the turnaround work. The district’s last middle school was built in 1953. While the district did pass a construction bond in 2006 for a new high school, the last override, or general tax increase on the Commerce City community was 1996.

In attendance at the meeting were about 100 teachers, parents and representatives from various nonprofits such as the Rotary Club, Community Health Services, Boys and Girls Club and the alumni committee.

The last year it posted any sort of academic growth worthy of praise was in 2007, before the state began rating schools.

Two years ago Adams 14, which serves mostly poor minority students and a large English language learning population, was among the five lowest performing school districts. Among districts of similar size and demographics, it was the lowest, said Superintendent Pat Sanchez.

But that all changed this year, when Adams 14 posted enough academic growth to climb out of “turnaround” status and be accredited by the state as a “priority improvement” district. Districts that are accredited as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” have five years to improve their students’ test scores or face the loss of accreditation from the state. Adams 14 is one of about a dozen districts nearing the end of that timeline.

“We’ll know in about 18 months whether we’ve beat the clock,” Sanchez said after the community forum. “I’m betting we’re going to be sliding sideways across the finish line.”

Both Sanchez and Steel were hired 18 months ago. Their vision is for the district to be accredited with distinction, the state’s highest recognition for school districts, by 2020.

“We’re no longer going to aim for the middle,” Sanchez said.

Since being hired, Sanchez’s work has been focused mostly on data-driven instruction and equity work. He’s also been an outspoken critic of the state’s accountability framework, but said he agrees with the state’s premise students deserve a quality education.

He told the audience the district rating mechanism is meant to hold adults accountable, but the loss of accreditation would only punish children.

“Why is this work critical? Because it doesn’t hurt the adults or the organization, it hurts our kids,” he said.

No school district has lost its accreditation, but at an October meeting of the State Board of Education, Colorado Department of Education officials said they believe students who graduate from an unaccredited district may face hurdles in applying for colleges and scholarships. Districts may also lose out in federal grants and aid.

Teachers union president and Dupont Elementary School teacher Barb McDowell said after the forum teachers are invested in the district’s future.

“The fact is, the teachers who have stayed here are committed to the children, to the community,” she said. “These are the kids we want to teach.”

A 17-year veteran of Adams 14, McDowell said the district of today is drastically different then when she started.

“You could get away with stuff [back then],” she said. “But expectations have grown. It’s night and day.”

Nearly every Commerce City elected official attended Thursday’s meeting including Mayor Sean Ford, an Adams City High School alum.

“How we support our schools, districts, our teachers and our students is critical to the long-term success of our community,” he said.

He vowed the city would “do what we can do,” to help Adams 14 meet its goals.

The meeting was just one of many the district plans to host through the next year, said Deputy Superintendent Steele. One parent, Renee Lovato, hopes future meetings will have more detail about the work the district is doing at individual schools. She considered most of the information surface details.

“It’s scary,” she said being a parent in a turnaround district. “You wonder if you should stick it out and hope things improve or send your child to a neighboring district. When it’s your kid, it’s takes things to a whole other level.”

Sanchez, whom Lovato praised for transparency and hardwork, said he’s excited to raise awareness of the district’s turnaround process and how it’s turned the tide and create an agreement with the community.

“At the end of the day, there is an urgency,” Sanchez said after the meeting. “We need to end the predictability [of low test scores] that comes with educating students of color. The education our kids have been getting is horrible.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

College Access

Michigan is struggling to put kids through college. So why is a promising solution stuck in first gear?

As an ambitious high school freshman in Illinois, Jasmin Wilson had a simple goal: rack up enough college credits to earn a two-year degree before she was 18.

Then her family moved to Michigan, and now that goal is out of the question. A tangle of state laws makes it hard for high schoolers to take classes at local colleges, an approach known to boost college graduation rates, even as lawmakers worry that too few Michiganders hold college degrees.

Those laws mean that students like Wilson cannot get an associate degree before graduation, unlike their peers in neighboring states.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, now an 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “There shouldn’t be a limit on how many courses you can take. I feel like they’re limiting students.”

A growing body of research suggests that the standard U.S. educational timeline — four years of high school followed, ideally, by four years of college — is badly out of date. So-called dual enrollment provides a major boost to rates of college enrollment, college and high school graduation, and even students’ academic performance in high school, according to a review of the evidence by federal education officials.

Many districts are recognizing the appeal of dual enrollment. Earlier this week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to help more students take courses at a local community college.

But Michigan puts unusually strict limits on dual enrollment, capping the number of college courses students can take while attending high school at 10. The availability of such programs across the state is also limited by a funding system that requires Michigan’s already cash-strapped school districts to pay for dual enrollment courses, leading to gaps in access across the state.

Some education leaders are urging lawmakers to make dual enrollment easier.

“There’s a lot of positive things here,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Directors, referring to dual enrollment. “We haven’t in this state caught up to the rest of the nation.”

Although the number of participants in Michigan has grown in recent years, the rate of dual enrollment remains lower than advocates would like, with fewer than 1 in 6 Michigan high schoolers taking classes for college credit, Miller said. (Thousands more take Advanced Placement classes, which can also lead to college credit.)

More than 2 million U.S. high schoolers participate today, including 81,000 students in Michigan, and that number is growing. Early middle colleges — high schools that offer college courses in-house — have also expanded.

Yet Dave Dugger, executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, worries that the number of students enrolling in dual enrollment in Michigan could be slowing down.

Although some influential policymakers have expressed interest in dual enrollment, the idea hasn’t developed the popular support necessary to drive a major change to the deeply ingrained timeline on which American education is based.

“We’re a time-based system,” he said. “Everyone filters education through their educational experience, which tends to be 30 years behind the times.”

Dugger has spent the last 25 years creating dual enrollment programs and helping educational organizations build their own. He says it’s just common sense to allow motivated high school students to take the more challenging coursework offered in college.

And as advocates often point out, there are plenty of other perks.

By accumulating college credits in high school, students can save money on tuition, no small matter at a time when Michigan families are paying more than ever for college. The classes prepare them for the fast pace of college work. And crucially, they shorten the path to a college degree, increasing the odds that students will end up with a credential.

That fact alone might be enough to win a powerful ally in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who focused her State of the State address on Michigan’s relatively low rate of college completion.

“Dual enrollment becomes a contributor to increasing education attainment in the state,” said Doug Ross, Whitmer’s newly appointed senior advisor on higher education attainment and economic development. “As the full strategy is laid out for moving from roughly 43 percent [of Michiganders age 25 to 65 with a college degree] to 60 percent in the next decade, dual enrollment is an issue that will come on the table early in the process.”

The cap was put in place in 2005 to ensure that school districts wouldn’t be forced to pay too much for college courses. Districts don’t have to promote dual enrollment, but they can’t opt out of it, either.

The legislature has shown little interest in lifting the cap — the last effort to do so passed the state senate last year but did not pass the house. No bills introduced in the legislature this session would lift limits on dual enrollment, Miller said.

The problem that the cap sets out to solve could be fixed, in theory, with a carrot. Miller says the state should send extra funding to school districts who otherwise would have trouble making the case for dual enrollment.

But that proposal could run into trouble in the statehouse. The Republican legislature has voiced skepticism about new spending, while the Democratic governor is trying to find revenue for several major initiatives at once.

Sarah Anthony, a newly elected Democratic state representative from Lansing (her district does not include Michigan State University), is tired of waiting for people to grasp the stakes of this debate.

While lawmakers fail to come up with a solution, she said, far too few students are completing college. The effects are especially pronounced on students who, like her, are the first in their family to attend college.

“As you sit in some of these rooms, sometimes you have to step back and say, who’s looking out for students and families?” she said.