Q&A

New Adams 14 superintendent: We need to bring along our English language learners — quickly

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Javier Abrego, Adams 14 superintendent, center, speaks with parents after a forum in September 2016.

New Adams 14 schools superintendent Javier Abrego is a Texas-born, Chicago-raised son of farmworkers who failed first grade because he didn’t know English.

This is how Abrego described himself to about 50 parents Thursday at the district’s first-ever superintendent forum — a first step in his and the troubled district’s attempts to better connect with the community.

He also challenged the community to hold him accountable. If the district doesn’t improve in two years, “Please, get rid of me,” he said.

Abrego is taking over the roughly 8,000-student district at a tumultuous time.

Adams 14 has been ranked in the two lowest categories under state evaluations since at least 2010. Growth scores released by the state last week, the latest measure of performance, don’t bode well for the district moving up: Adams 14 had the lowest numbers of all metro area districts. In math, students posted the 12th lowest growth on state tests in the state.

By law, state officials are required to take action against districts or schools that can’t move out of those categories after five years. This is the first year districts and schools could reach the five-year mark. Under state accountability, the state could turn over management to a third party including a charter school, close low-performing schools, merge districts or accept district plans requesting innovation status to grant schools more autonomy as a way to attempt to raise student’s academic performance first.

Adams 14 officials are working on an plan to request innovation status for three district schools.

At Thursday’s forum, parents didn’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns. Some say they’ve heard promises of improvement in the past and it hasn’t come, some lamented that their English-speaking children aren’t given the opportunity to learn Spanish, and others asked about the state’s evaluations wondering why they didn’t know more about it sooner.

Abrego came to Colorado after spending 10 years as an administrator in Arizona schools and at the Arizona Department of Education. Most recently he was dean of students and athletic director for the Grand Canyon Unified School District. Abrego left that position, taking a leave of absence after a year and a half of work and then retiring in December. Before becoming an administrator, Abrego served as principal in Indiana schools for 16 years.

Chalkbeat met with Abrego this week to talk about his plans and ideas for the district. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, what brought you to come out of retirement to apply for this position?
Two things. Number one is my passion for school improvement. I read about the district. It was the kind of district that I love to go into. They need help. The main thing was just the large percentage of Hispanic students in the district because that’s what I did my doctoral work on — English language learners. There was a need here in this district for someone to come in and really understand English language learners.

Also the fact that I had family members that were moving to (Colorado). I have family members that are south of Denver and also north of Denver.

What do you think are the biggest problems this district is facing right now?
Number one is the importance of everyone understanding that we are all in this together. We’re one team. So bringing everyone together — the staff, the teachers, the administration, the parents, the school board. We have a vision of excellence, and that is here so I’m pleased with that.

Then the biggest challenge, as I said, the reason I’m here, is because of approximately 8,000 students (in the district), half of those students, 45 percent, are English language learners. So that right there tells you that is going to be the biggest challenge in the district. If students do not understand English or have not mastered English, that means they’re also going to be having difficulty in their academics, (like) science and social studies. It’s very important that we help them master English as quickly as possible.

What is your take on what works better for English language learners and what is the best way to get them to English proficiency?
I really don’t have the best way. The plan is to (expand) biliteracy classrooms. We started the process with eight classrooms in the first year and then the next year we went to 24 and we’re going to keep adding and that’s a very important component because, again, we want to help our students learn English as quickly as possible. I think with the method that we’re using now we’re going to accelerate that process. Our goal is to have students learn English well enough to master some of their disciplines in the classroom within a two-year period. In two years we expect them to know enough English that they could go and do good work in all the other classrooms.

That sounds pretty fast.
We’re at a disadvantage, so we’ve got to do it quickly.

Is there an emphasis on keeping students bilingual? Is there a value to letting them foster their first language too?
Bilingual means you learn one language. I’m a bilingual student. I spoke Spanish first. And then in the schools I picked up English. Our concept is biliteracy where our kids are picking up both languages at one time. That may be a change, but that’s what we’re doing in our district and we’re having success.

We’re also trying to use their first language as a strength. We’re trying to say that the skills that you have in your first language will transfer to your second language. If you’re a good reader in Spanish, we can do that also in English. I think it’s important. Make it an asset instead of a hinderance.

Most of the other districts you’ve worked at have been pretty small. I believe Adams 14 serves twice as many students as the largest district on your resume. So how does that make this job different and how are you prepared to lead this district?
There are advantages and disadvantages to working in a large and small district. The disadvantages of it in a small district is as a superintendent you have to have expertise in many areas. So you’re the superintendent. You’re also sometimes the principal. You’re also a professional development coordinator. You just do it all. In a large district, it’s nice to have the support I have. At my right hand, I have my chief academic and innovation officer. In a larger district I can have an English language development coordinator, a data and assessment person. So we have a lot of support here. It’s just about bringing everyone together and understanding our roles to improve student achievement.

The community here in Adams 14 has become vocal in the past several years. There’s a history of a Department of Justice ruling that found racism and civil rights issues in the schools. How do you mend those wounds to get the community to trust you and work with you again?
The community is very important. The most important way to get trust is you have to be out in the community. You have to be visible. You have to be talking to people and fortunately in this district, I’ve had the opportunity to be out at many events and do that. To gain their trust and their respect we have to listen to them. When I talk to them they say, ‘We just want our students to receive an excellent education,’ which is what every parent wants. We have to show them proof by improving schools and we’re going to do that.

We have superintendent forums where we’re going to be talking to community and asking them, ‘What do you want our schools to look like?’ Then it’s our job to come back and do that. We also are trying to get more parents involved in our schools by having them join their building accountability committees. It’s just taking pride in the education of your child. Get involved in your schools. Support your schools and have a voice in your school.

Adams 14 has had some tense relationships with charter schools and currently has no innovation schools. Both are options for the state under accountability laws. What are your thoughts on giving district schools more autonomy or turning schools over to charter schools?
My only concern with the charter schools is that all of their teachers do not have to be certified in classrooms. So I guess what I’m saying is we’re playing by different rules. I do feel that all parents have a right to choice and what I tell our staff is if we have great schools our parents will not opt out of Adams 14. So that’s our job right now is to have outstanding schools, excellent schools, and I guarantee you if we have that, people will be coming into our district for that reason.

Test scores at Adams 14 are low and in some cases getting lower. And the growth scores are the lowest in the entire metro area. What do you think needs to change to make some improvements there?
As I said earlier, it’s difficult. Number one, the PARCC test — I’m not going to make excuses. It’s probably a more rigorous exam, so that’s OK. You’re right, we’re not satisfied with the number of students passing, but again those students are not going to pass unless we can address the point that I spoke about earlier and that was helping our students master English. All students. The faster you master English and begin to understand it the better you can do in all your classrooms. If you’re a good reader that’s going to translate to social studies, science, math problems so I would probably say that’s our number one component here.

The state’s accountability clock has you on a limited time frame and has some restrictions. How much have you been able to familiarize yourself with that accountability system and the options for the district?
I’m new to Colorado. I’ve been here approximately eight weeks, so it’s having the people around me. The person I lean on or that will assist me with that is our data and assessment (director), Teresa Hernandez. She gives me a lot of information and I know we’re not doing well. The thing that they’ve informed me was that we had an option. We had a visit. We’re going to be doing innovation. So our goal this year is to write an innovation plan. It’s really just convincing them that we’re going to do what’s best for our kids. We have to address some of the needs of our English language learners — all our students — but especially this group right here is going to have the greatest impact on student achievement.

Have you been in touch with state officials? And how familiar are you with innovation status in Colorado?
Yes, we have a representative from the Colorado Department of Education that comes and meets with us every Friday. We work together. Also I’ve had the opportunity to attend a couple of conferences with superintendents throughout the state and network with other districts that are in the same position we are. It’s all about support, networking with other people and helping each other out and understanding what is working in your district that we may be able to bring to ours.

Can you talk about what the innovation plan you’re putting together is going to look like?
We’re just at the beginning of the process. The key thing is we have to address the needs of our high school. That’s the key school we have to help. So with our innovation plan we’re going to meet the needs of the high school, of the district, and we also want to bring on board two elementary schools. Really, everyone talks about innovation but innovation is just what we should be doing for kids. What are you going to be doing different that’s going to help your kids grow? That’s something that everyone should look at whether you’re doing innovation or not.

So will the innovation plan in Adams 14 give the principals at those three schools more autonomy to do what they think needs to be done at their schools?
It’s not necessarily whatever they think, but it’s having a vision at their school that coincides with the vision of the district. For example, the school board hired me. They’ve only given me one goal. We want to have excelling schools. How you get there is up to you, but we’re going to support you. So that’s the same message I give to our principals. We want excelling schools. We want you to be innovative, to try different things. We’re going to support you here from the district, but remember that we’re one team.

Do you feel you have the right people in place at those schools or are you still evaluating that?
I think we have an outstanding leadership team. We are looking for a high school principal (at Adams City High School). It’s a very tough decision and it’s a process because that’s a very important role in our district because you’re overseeing approximately 1,800 students. Once we have that one in place, I think we’re going to be off and running.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.

options

Adams 14 board rejects new KIPP charter school in district

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

KIPP, the national charter school network, will not open a new school in the Adams 14 school district — at least for now — after board members voted against the network’s application Tuesday night.

It was a unanimous decision in which two board members who explained their thinking said the district’s situation with the state weighed heavily on their votes.

“Adams 14 is not in a position right now to be a proper authorizer,” said board member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator. “We have our own struggles. To add another school into the mix of responsibilities is tough.”

Board member Bill Hyde said he believes the district’s problems can be solved without resorting to using charter schools.

“It’s not just about this particular charter school application,” Hyde said. “It goes to a bigger issue as to what we as a community want in terms of a school system.”

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management of the district or more drastic improvement efforts. The district has spent eight years on a watchlist for low-performing schools, and the board’s reluctance to offer a new high-performing charter option for students will likely be part of the discussion with state regulators.

KIPP officials said they are planning to appeal the decision to the state.

“Families in the community have been advocating for a new public school option for their students, and tonight’s vote is a setback for the families and community members who are fighting to provide an education that is responsive and accountable to their students,” said Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools. “We plan to appeal this decision, and we will continue our efforts to open a new public school option for Adams 14 families.”

KIPP officials have wanted to expand outside of Denver, following some of their students, a majority of whom come from low-income families. As housing prices rise in Denver, many working class families have moved to more affordable suburbs like Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district is based. This summer, KIPP submitted an application to open a preschool through 12th-grade campus in the district.

The district had to hire a consultant to quickly put together a review process for the application and to educate the board about how charter schools operate in Colorado. Superintendent Javier Abrego then ignored staff advice based on their review, and instead asked the school board to reject the school, citing philosophical concerns with charter schools.

KIPP leaders had the backing of several parents who live in the district and send their children to KIPP schools in Denver, and of other district parents who wanted a new school option nearby. Tensions rose between parents who were in favor and teachers who were opposed.

KIPP’s charter school application had been a frequent topic for public comment at board meetings for months. Tuesday, there were fewer people in the room and only two people spoke about KIPP, both asking the board to reject the application. Teachers who are union leaders sat near the front of the room and nodded in approval as the board members made their decision.

Community advocates in the room criticized the decision. Transforming Education Now, a parent advocacy nonprofit that supports school choice, had been working with parents who support KIPP.

“Kids in Adams 14 will suffer yet again because this district has chosen to put adult needs and politics before their learning,” the organization said in a tweet.