reaching out

Why a group of Commerce City teachers spent a day asking parents how they could do their jobs better

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams City Middle School teacher Trish Ramsey, left, speaks with parent Christina Zavala during a neighborhood canvas event.

COMMERCE CITY — On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen teachers from the Adams 14 School District walked through a trailer park asking parents how they could do their jobs better.

Christina Zavala, a parent of three students, had a list. At the top: stop the rampant bullying and pay more attention to her son, who has a learning disability.

“In my experience,” she said, “it doesn’t really feel like the teachers care.”

The cadre of teachers hope what they heard — good or bad — can help reshape their schools to better meet the needs of the mostly poor and Latino families that call Commerce City home. The teachers are advocating for a “community school model,” which in part calls for more partnerships with nonprofit groups to help curb the effects of poverty on the classroom.

“The only way we can make a difference with the families in our district is if we get involved,” said Barb McDowell, the Adams 14 teachers union president. “There are a lot of disenfranchised people. We’re not talking to the community.”

Relations between the Commerce City community and the 7,000-student school district have long been strained. Voters consistently have rejected pleas to increase local taxes to repair or replace aging schools and support educational programs. And in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education found the district had discriminated against Hispanic students and teachers.

The district’s response included more culturally responsive training for teachers and the creation of a committee of students to regularly talk about race issues.

Facing state sanctions for chronic poor performance on state English and math tests, the Adams 14 school district, just north of Denver, is overhauling many of its schools. The teachers union believes this provides an opening to put into practice some of the elements of the community school model. Schools are still finalizing their innovation plans, which are expected to be made public later this fall.

Teachers across Colorado are engaged in similar work. It’s all part of a statewide campaign organized by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, called “The Schools Our Kids Deserve.”

The community school model can be traced back to the 1880s. Modern-day community schools have popped up in Chicago, Baltimore and Lincoln, Neb. Perhaps the most famous community school model is the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.

In Colorado, the Edgewater Collective in Jefferson County and Blocks of Hope in neighboring Westminster Public Schools are two efforts to create something like a community school.

While supporters of the community schools model have long said that no two community schools should look the same because the needs of communities vary, there is a growing effort to identify common themes that apply everywhere, said Reuben Jacobson, deputy director for the Coalition of Community Schools.

The Colorado teachers union, working with the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools and the Center For Popular Democracy, has created its own list which includes strong and proven curriculum, community support services, and positive discipline practices.

Community engagement, like the work the teachers in Adams 14 are doing, is also a must.

Trish Ramsey, a teacher at Adams City Middle School, put it simply: “This is the first step to rebuild trust.”

top down

Board president of troubled Adams 14 school district abruptly resigns

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

In a surprise announcement Tuesday night, the president of the Adams 14 school board abruptly resigned — a departure that could reshape the leadership of the split board.

In a statement Wednesday Timio Archuleta noted the need for “new energy” in the troubled district.

“As the board president, I have worked hard to represent the community and make decisions that put students first,” Archuleta wrote. “After reflecting on all the work that needs to be done in Adams 14, I believe at this time, that we need new energy that will help the district and our students succeed.”

Timio Archuleta. (Photo courtesy of Adams 14)

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18. But Adams 14 appears to be struggling to meet required benchmarks. If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.

Archuleta, whose first term would have ended in November 2019, is part of a majority on the five-member board who has supported Superintendent Javier Abrego’s efforts to improve school performance, despite criticism from some parents.

Archuleta’s vocal opponents welcomed his departure.

“It’s actually going to be a step forward in the right direction,” said Joanna Rosa-Saenz, who organized a meeting earlier this year calling on the board majority to fire the superintendent or step down themselves. The group specifically targeted Archuleta and two other board members and threatened a recall.

She said the resignation could provide hope to parents who felt the board was not listening to them.

Archuleta, 65, said he will miss his time on the board, but will continue to advocate for the district. Reached briefly by phone, he said that he still believes in the district, but said he has been frustrated by the lack of parent involvement in district improvement efforts.

“It’s not just the board. It’s not just the district. It’s the parents also that have a role,” Archuleta said. “That’s a message that people refuse to hear. It’s hard to make decisions that are best for kids that way.”

Board member Bill Hyde, part of the board minority, said in a statement Wednesday that while he disagreed with Archuleta on several issues, he appreciated his service.

“I see his resignation as a sad commentary on the state of affairs within the district,” Hyde said.

In a written statement, Abrego praised Archuleta for improving the district.

“Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mr. Archuleta to push the district forward as we make improvements and changes for the betterment of the district,” the statement read. “I have admired his passion for the students of Adams 14 and the community. As a long-time Commerce City resident, we cannot thank him enough for his service and he will be truly missed.”

District officials promised to post online information about the board’s process to appoint a new member to finish Archuleta’s term, but did not say when.

According to state law school boards have 60 days to appoint a new member to fill a vacancy. The law does not specify how a board should seek out candidates for appointment.

Hyde said the board is likely going to meet Thursday to elect a new president and start the search for a new member.

Janet Estrada, a Denver educator and Adams 14 resident and parent, said she had already been considering running for Archuleta’s seat next year.

“One of the issues with the board members is a lot of them don’t have an education background,” Estrada said. “They haven’t really been in the classroom and I think that really helps a board in their decision-making. I want to run because I think this district for a very long time has been in need of change.”

Estrada said she would consult with her family about applying for the seat a year earlier than she had anticipated.

The surprise resignation came at a meeting that included a public hearing on next school year’s budget and a report about Beyond Textbooks, the external partner that is helping with the district’s state-approved improvement plan.

catalyst

Adams 14 could get a grant to replace Commerce City elementary school with safety problems

File photo of fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Adams 14.

Facing serious hazards including sewer backups, vehicle crashes and security concerns, Alsup Elementary is among a select group of schools to win a state grant for school buildings.

The State Board of Education this week is expected to approve a $19.6 million grant for the school’s replacement. Then the district, Adams 14, will have to provide $14.2 million, likely from a combination of savings and new debt, to cover the rest of the reconstruction cost.

“We’re really excited about getting a new school,” said Melinda Rios, a parent of two students, including one who will be a fifth grader at Alsup this fall and a middle-schooler. Her children will not get to enjoy the new school, but her niece will. “The principal had done a good job from the beginning of asking the parents what we felt we could change and what we wanted. We were kind of on the same page.”

Alsup Elementary School:

  • 7101 Birch Street, Commerce City
  • About 519 students
  • 88 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch
  • Building was constructed in 1959

Construction of the new building is expected to start later this year for a possible opening in 2020. The district’s challenge will be to prevent the district’s internal turmoil and constant turnover of top officials from stalling the project.

Gionni Thompson, who led the work on the grant request and the projects, suddenly left the position last week. Although he has not been replaced, district officials said they have handed off the project to another staff member.

District officials were excited about the grant, not just for the serious problems it would help address at Alsup, but because the project is expected to become a catalyst for more school renovations in coming years.

The idea is that Alsup’s replacement would be built on the former site of Adams City High School less than a mile south. Alsup’s current site, just blocks away from a new RTD commuter rail line and Park-N-Ride station, is expected to rise in value, meaning its sale will help Adams 14 pay for its next project: moving Adams City Middle School to share the new campus with Alsup. The freed-up space from the middle school could then also be sold to finance a future project.

Thompson, formerly the district’s chief operating officer, said last week that the impact of the grant for Adams 14 was unique.

“This really changes the forecast for Adams 14,” Thompson said. “Without this grant we wouldn’t have been able to build this momentum. And to do it without passing a bond, this really shows the community we are making every effort possible to make sure we are building facilities that our kids and their kids deserve.”

Just before Thompson was scheduled to meet with state officials to help plan financing for the new Alsup, he was removed from his position. The reasons are unclear, as the district refused to comment.

State funding for Alsup will come from its BEST grants, which funnel a portion of lottery and marijuana revenues to struggling school districts to help address facilities problems. The grant requires school districts to pay for a portion of the project.

About half of Adams 14’s share will come from the district’s savings. Thompson had said the district is planning to get the remaining $7 million by issuing certificates of participation, or COPs, which are a government financing mechanism used by school districts and other government bodies to pay for construction.

More commonly, school districts fund capital improvements with voter-approved bonds. But three times in the past eight years Adams 14 voters have rejected bond measures, so the largely low-income community will instead rely on COPs, whose debt will be paid through the general fund.

District officials said Tuesday the project remains on track despite Thompson’s departure.

Although several schools in Adams 14 need replacement, safety concerns lifted Alsup to the top of the list. The sewage backups have forced the school to close several times. Recently, an Amber Alert intensified campus concerns.

Principal Mike Abdale explained that a sibling and a parent of a third-grader at Alsup were kidnapped from their home in Commerce City in August. After an Amber Alert was issued, Alsup employees realized that they had seen the suspect walking on campus days earlier.

“We do not know his intent for being in the building, but we believe he was there for the child,” Abdale said. “The video showed that he walked in, took a drink of water, and walked out of the building. Nothing occurred on that day, and he had no contact with the child or any other students at any point.”

The kidnapped mother and child were later found safe.

But the incident was a reminder that the school’s design makes security a challenge, because the main office is far from the main entrance. Although staff try to keep an eye on the doors, it is not enough, the principal said.

“A person could enter the building without being seen because of the crowds, and that is what happened in this case,” Abdale said. “We have no way of seeing if a person walks down the main hall instead of heading to the office.”

Outside, the grant application describes other safety issues caused by the placement of the building and the lack of a clear, designated place to drop off students. It mentions students hit by vehicles, dangerous street crossings, auto crashes, “near misses of students,” and an increase in traffic from commercial trucks.

Officials said it takes nearly all school staff to stand outside before and after school to try to keep kids safe. The application also states the principal has at times had to call the police department to help patrol and to handle road rage.

Parent Rios said that is one of the big concerns she has observed at Alsup.

“The drop-off is kind of hectic,” Rios said. “Some parents just let their kids jump out of the car, which I’m not a fan of. That is definitely an issue.”

Thompson has said that he worried problems will get worse as RTD completes the new N Line commuter rail, which will have tracks just a few blocks from Alsup. Along with that project, Commerce City is planning to widen 72nd Avenue, where Alsup sits, from two lanes to four lanes later this year.

Thompson said some students regularly cross 72nd Avenue, especially to help siblings, from Alsup to Adams City Middle School, and that as the street widens, the danger will increase. In a letter, the city manager for Commerce City agreed with those safety concerns.

RTD officials said last week they were not aware of the district’s safety concerns, but said that as a regular part of their projects, they are scheduled to start a safety campaign this fall for schools along the N Line to teach students how to be safe near buses and tracks.

“Our safety demonstrations include using a mock railroad crossing with bells, flashing lights, and arms that go down when a train is approaching,” said Lisa Trujillo, RTD’s manager of project outreach.

Thompson said a parent committee was being considered to help guide the next parts of the project and the transition of the school.