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.

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.