At an emergency staff meeting Wednesday, teachers at Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo were surprised with cake, sparkling cider and a toast to their hard work.

They had done it, Principal Marci Imes told them. Once the state’s lowest performing middle school, students at Roncalli had shown enough improvement on math and English tests to jump off the state’s academic watch list and escape state sanctions.

“It’s validating to know that the work we’re doing is the right work,” Imes said in an interview. “We’ve been working so hard for years.”

Similar celebrations are likely to take place at schools throughout the southern Colorado town.

Pueblo City Schools officials announced this week that the 18,000-student district and nine of its schools had improved enough on state tests to drop off the watch list and avoid state intervention. The district was the largest of any facing that likelihood this year under Colorado’s accountability law.

Still, three Pueblo schools — Bessemer Elementary, Risley International Academy and Heroes middle schools — did not make enough progress in time and are likely to face repercussions from the State Board of Education next year.

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from standardized tests and other factors such as graduation rates. Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face state sanctions that may include school closures, charter school takeovers or other steps.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in math and English tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

As an initial step, state officials released preliminary quality ratings to schools and districts earlier this week. Schools and districts that received disappointing news may appeal their ratings before they are finalized later this winter.

“We are encouraged to see that all the hard work from Pueblo educators and students is beginning to pay off with an improved rating this year,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s interim education commissioner, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to partner with the district and community to build on this momentum and ensure that all students have access to a high quality education.”

Pueblo school officials announced their ratings in a statement to the Pueblo Chieftain.

“Clearly, this is an accomplishment that did not happen overnight,” interim Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a statement. “Our teachers and school leaders are to be commended for their diligence and the very hard work they have been engaged in over the course of the past six years.”

Macaluso was named the district’s interim leader this summer after the school board parted ways with Superintendent Constance Jones. Much of the district’s momentum that led to the increased ratings happened under Jones’s two-year tenure.

“We had worked so hard and spent so many long hours,” Jones said in an interview. “It felt all the time spent was worthwhile. I could not be more proud of the students, teachers and administrators.”

During that time, the district updated its math and reading curriculum, provided new teacher and principal training and used new local tests to track student learning.

“There’s a lot to be said for putting the focus on strong teaching of reading and math,” Jones said.

Back at Roncalli, the challenge now is to not backslide like so many schools have, said Imes, the principal.

“It’s even more crucial that we continue to push harder,” she said.“I’ll take a deep breath after a few more good years.”