defining roles

State board gives initial support to plan for struggling Adams 14 district and high school

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

The State Board of Education directed the struggling Adams County School District 14 Thursday to finalize an improvement plan but also asked for more details about the role of an outside company it plans to work with.

The board unanimously supported the direction of the plan. It will vote on a finalized version next month.

Adams 14, which enrolls almost 8,000 students, and state officials presented a proposal for the district to partner with an Arizona-based nonprofit, Beyond Textbooks, to help take on some of the duties the district hasn’t successfully handled itself.

The nonprofit will work with Adams 14 at three schools, including with half of the teachers at Adams City High School, providing teachers a guide to teaching the state standards, helping them track whether students learned the material and training them to help students who don’t get it the first time. The company will also train leaders to coach teachers.

District officials talked to the state board about how they’ve also introduced a biliteracy program at the elementary level. The district already offers a biliteracy seal for graduating students meeting requirements to prove proficiency in two languages. Adams 14 has the highest percentage of students identified as English learners in the state.

State education department staff members told the board they still have concerns with the district’s plan. They said they wanted more details about the role Beyond Textbooks will play, and more details about other proposed changes the district is planning on their own.

State board members questioned the district on how it is engaging parents, communicating with its staff and how it will give authority to Beyond Textbooks.

Kevin Carney, the executive officer for Beyond Textbooks, told the state board the company has had more success working in partnership with school districts and making recommendations, not taking full authority.

District superintendent Javier Abrego told the board that he will take recommendations from the company under serious consideration.

Carney added that it is the school district’s board of education that should be responsible for holding the superintendent accountable.

The state board has increasingly struggled with approving management plans where the districts don’t give much authority to the outside companies. Commissioner Katy Anthes told the board the department has clarified that the law requires companies take more authority in the case of struggling schools but is more flexible with districts.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On the Agenda

Adams 14 school board votes to give superintendent a raise with no prior notice

Adams 14 Superintendent Javier Abrego celebrates with teachers at Kearney Middle School during an event highlighting the school's rating in August 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The school board for Adams 14 approved a raise for Superintendent Javier Abrego Tuesday after amending their agenda during their meeting. The surprise vote came in a year when the district’s progress has been tested.

Abrego took over the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district in 2016 and has a contract running through June 2019. The addendum, approved on a 3-2 vote, raised his salary to $169,125, up from $165,000, and will be retroactive to the start of this school year. The board also gave Abrego a $25,000 contribution for his retirement account.

The board’s decision comes while the district is in the middle of a state-ordered improvement plan. While the district began the year celebrating that it had earned a higher rating, bringing it one step closer to coming off the state’s plan, the board recently also heard from state officials that the district is struggling to comply with data requirements and is not meeting goals.

The district this year has also been attacked by community members upset with many changes, including cuts to recess, elimination of scheduled parent-teacher conference days, and changes to a biliteracy program.

Colorado’s open meeting laws generally require that the public have 24-hour notice before elected officials discuss something. There are certain exceptions that give school boards some flexibility to add items to their agenda.

But experts say that in this case, Adams 14’s board should have given the public notice — before the meeting — that they were going to vote on the superintendent’s contract.

“That’s not the intention of the sunshine law,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Essentially if they know they’re going to do this, it should be on the agenda. The public should have a good idea of what’s coming up. There are emergency things that come up, but this doesn’t sound like an emergency.”

In describing the contract addendum the board was about to vote on, Adams 14’s board president, Timio Archuleta, said that all administrative staff in the district had received a 2.5 percent step increase, and that the superintendent should have also received that.

“It was thought that this was taken care of last fall, but the addendum had not been finalized for approval, so I’m asking the board for approval tonight,” Archuleta said.

The signed document describes the $25,000 payout as a “one-time compensation for services rendered to the district under this contract during the 2016-17 school year.”

The board members did not discuss the salary increase in the open meeting before voting.

Board member Bill Hyde attempted to abstain from the vote, but the board’s attorney said that would require the board president’s approval. Archuleta did not allow Hyde to abstain. Hyde and board member Harvest Thomas voted against the salary increase.

Hyde did not say why he wanted to abstain from the vote.

Before the meeting started, the school board also had a study session where, in part, they discussed with a consultant whether and how they should evaluate the superintendent.

Although Abrego’s contract states that the board shall evaluate the superintendent every year, officials say it hasn’t happened.

According to the contract, the board “shall evaluate and assess in writing” the superintendent’s progress toward meeting goals each year. But the contract also states, “at a minimum, this evaluation shall include a meeting between superintendent and the board.”

Hyde pushed the board to commit to scheduling a discussion to pick between three superintendent evaluation tools that Adams 14 can begin to use.

The consultant pushed the board not to focus on the “tool” for evaluation so much as the practice of doing so.