corrective action

How Adams 14 plans to give an outside company authority over some school management

Two teachers high-five during an activity as part of their Beyond Textbooks training at Rose Hill Elementary on April 28, 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The struggling Adams 14 School District had been talking about seeking innovation status for almost two years, drafting plans to give some schools freedom from district or state rules so school leaders could work on what they saw needed to change.

But Superintendent Javier Abrego, on the job for less than a year, says that state officials have steered him in another direction that might show results faster.

State officials and district leaders will recommend at a hearing this month that the district partner with an outside company to help take on some of the duties the district hasn’t successfully handled itself.

State documents say the change was in part because of “the district leadership transition, little progress on the innovation plan, and further decline on the accountability clock.” That is the term for the system that allows the state to intervene after persistent low school performance.

The state Board of Education must direct action for the district because it is one of several this year that has recorded more than five years of low performance. The board must also approve corrective action for one of the district’s schools, Adams City High School.

The recommendation to allow the district to work with a company, Beyond Textbooks, to improve performance states the district has to show improvement in two years or the state will reconsider other options. That could include asking the district to turn schools over to charters, closing schools or merging the district with with another, higher-performing district.

Beyond Textbooks, a nonprofit program created by a school district in Arizona, partners with school districts in seven states, including Arizona, to provide curriculum development, teacher trainings, student tests that guide teaching, and a system for catching students up when they have trouble learning something the first time it’s taught.

The Commerce City district is planning to use the program at three schools for the 2017-18 school year. But if things go well, the district will roll out the program in other schools in the following years.

“This is the first time we’re bringing it to Colorado,” Abrego said. “We want to try it out first. If there’s any bumps in the road we want to figure it out before we bring it to more schools.”

Abrego used Beyond Textbooks to turnaround two other districts in Arizona before he came to Adams 14. The suggestion for introducing Beyond Textbooks to Adams 14 was written into his application for the superintendent job.

Regardless of the state’s final decision on the recommendation, Adams 14 already has started Beyond Textbook training for teachers at the three schools.

District leaders say the program from Beyond Textbooks is in part a response to a common complaint by teachers that they don’t have enough resources to teach the state’s academic standards.

Beyond Textbooks officials condense the state’s academic standards and create a school calendar that helps teachers figure out how long they should focus on each standard. If teachers across the district are teaching the same standard at about the same time, it increases the chances they’ll be able to collaborate and plan together, said Teresa Hernandez, the district’s director of assessment and technology.

Teachers also would get access to a website where teachers from all over the country upload suggested lesson plans that correlate to the standards. Adams 14 teachers also would get the chance to upload their own lessons if they create one they want to share.

Teachers at Rose Hill Elementary learned on Friday about the resources available through Beyond Textbooks. While the website is easy to use, Justin Chesebrough, the director of Beyond Textbooks, warned teachers they are likely to spend hours looking through lesson plans and resources uploaded by other educators.

“We’re doing that already,” one teacher said. “We’re searching for stuff already, so I feel like we’re getting the gift of time.”

The company will also train school leaders to coach teachers and train district administrators to spot problems in schools using the program.

Abrego said Beyond Textbooks officials will be given authority to make recommendations to the superintendent about letting go of teachers or other employees who are not showing improvement after using the program. (Officials later added to clarify, Beyond Textbooks recommendations will ensure educators are faithfully using the program.)

The state’s documents note a concern that Beyond Textbooks is not expected to be enough to raise the district’s quality rating.

District officials are planning to move forward with other changes they will oversee at all schools such as creating a mentoring program for new teachers, training teachers to help students learn English and adding time during the school day for students to work on learning something they’re behind on or get advancement when they’re ahead.

Abrego also said that Adams City High School will still follow plan they’ve worked on. They will present it to their school board, perhaps next month, and would still make those proposed changes — like creating a governing board and developing more community partnerships to offer internships, mentorship or work study.

The district has almost 7,500 students enrolled in 11 schools. Almost half of the students are English learners, and about 85 percent qualify for free or discounted lunch. This year, none of the district’s schools earned the state’s top quality rating.

new faces

State Sen. Dominick Moreno among candidates for Adams 14 board vacancy

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

A state senator is one of five candidates seeking to fill a vacancy on the school board for the troubled Adams 14 school district.

Dominick Moreno, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of Adams 14, will be among the candidates the board will interview for the position on July 9.

Moreno said he got a legal opinion from legislative services that states he can serve on a local school board while maintaining his seat as a state senator.

The other candidates include:

The vacancy was created two weeks ago when then-board president Timio Archuleta abruptly resigned, citing the need for new voices and opinions on the board.

Many parents and advocates celebrated the resignation, saying it brought hope that the district, which has had made several unpopular decisions in the last year, would listen to the community and change. Adams 14 is facing state intervention after years of low performance and has experienced significant staff turnover in the last year.

The board, by law, has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The board is currently scheduled to vote on July 9 after the candidate interviews. The selected candidate will serve out Archuleta’s term until the next election in November 2019.

Moreno, who graduated from Adams City High School, has been a vocal supporter of the district throughout their turnaround process.

“Obviously the district is at a critical juncture on the accountability clock, and there’s been some unrest in the community,” Moreno said Thursday. “I believed we needed candidates who could come on to the school board and have the relationships and the experience needed to pull everybody together with a common vision.”

Moreno said he didn’t have any strong opinions on the controversial decisions the district has made this past year, including the pause of a biliteracy program, saying only that he would have a lot of homework to do if appointed and that every decision would be reviewed.

In the legislature, Moreno served on the influential Joint Budget Committee and sponsored legislation that required schools to serve breakfast to students from low-income families. He also supported a bill last year that created the opportunity for school districts to offer the seal of biliteracy, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas for students who could demonstrate fluency in two languages. Adams 14 was one of the first three districts to offer the seal, and it is still one of the components of its bilingual education program.

The school district posted the list of candidates Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last week, the remaining four members of the district’s board voted to name Connie Quintana as the board’s president in a long process that included two failed attempts to reach a decision. Board member Bill Hyde criticized the process as a “circus.”

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.