Another try

Adams 14 school improvement plan is back — with revisions — for key State Board of Education vote

File photo of sixth-grade students at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Officials with the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City will return to the State Board of Education on Thursday with a revised school improvement plan meant to address concerns that the initial proposal wouldn’t do enough.

The board is expected to make a final decision on the plan, which calls for an out-of-state nonprofit group to help improve teaching and make recommendations about possible management changes.

The nearly 8,000-student district is one of several facing state sanctions this year for consistent low performance. For the past several months, the state board has been considering improvement plans drafted by the districts and state officials working collaboratively.

At its meeting last month, the state board asked Commerce City district officials for more clarity around the plan and the role of the nonprofit group, Arizona-based Beyond Textbooks.

State board members encouraged the district to give the nonprofit more management authority, although Beyond Textbooks said that wasn’t how it typically works with districts.

The nonprofit will work with the district at three of Adams 14’s 11 schools the first year, 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.

Beyond Textbooks will work with 9th and 10th grade teachers at Adams City High School, which is facing state sanctions of its own for chronic low performance. The school has had six principals in the last six years. Earlier this year, students walked out asking for better leadership and for a voice in the improvement process.

In one new addition to the plan, the district will hire a Beyond Textbooks district liaison and ask the company to provide management recommendations.

The three schools that Beyond Textbooks will work with will have autonomy from some district policies around school day schedules, annual calendars as well as curriculum and district assessments. The company will be asked to make recommendations for those areas and the district liaison, which the district hopes to hire in August, will be in charge of monitoring the work.

District officials report some progress at Adams City High School: After a lengthy process, the district hired a new principal and four of five assistant principals. The new principal, Gabriella Maldonado, has no experience as a principal but has been an assistant principal for several years at Abraham Lincoln High School and most recently at the West Leadership Academy school, both in Denver.

Neither school scores well on Denver’s school rating system. Lincoln’s rate of students who graduate and need remedial education in college is nearly as high as Adams City High School’s.

West Leadership Academy, one of the schools that replaced the now closed West High School, graduated its first class of students in 2016. The school can cite progress: it says 95 percent of students in the graduating class of 2017 were accepted to a post-secondary school.

Maldonado was one of the original applicants for the principal position, but had not been named a finalist among earlier pools of finalists that had been considered.

While the leadership positions are filled at Adams City High School — which was a concern from state officials considering the district’s improvement plan — the district is also experiencing staff turnover including two key district leaders who have resigned this month.

Teresa Hernandez, who worked on the improvement plan as the district’s director of assessment and technology, is leaving the district for a position with the Gilcrest-based Weld County School District RE-1.

Daniel Archuleta, ‎manager of strategy and accountability, is leaving the district at the end of the month to work with the Adams County Youth Initiative and his own consultant company. In a statement he made to the board, Archuleta said he was leaving the district because the district’s priorities have not lined up with his “expertise and skills.”

He left the board with three recommendations: that it create a flexible strategic plan that outlines the district’s goals and how to achieve them,  continue using a system Archuleta created for reviewing schools and tracking their improvement, and create an internal performance evaluation for schools and programs that considers more data than the state.

The system Archuleta referenced for expansion of reviewing schools was created in 2015, when Archuleta started, but has not been widely used recently, Archuleta said.

“A lot of it is just because of the change in administration,” Archuleta said. “There’s a lot to get done. A lot to be done. With the change in priorities, that system just wasn’t as high a priority. But all it requires is a renewed focus. The foundation is there. Everything is there for the district to continue to use and to advance that system.”

An internal performance evaluation of schools and programs, Archuleta said, could easily use existing data from attendance, student behavior, teacher performance or parent surveys to look at schools more broadly than the state does.

“We have all this data,” Archuleta said. “We’re just not using it currently in a holistic, triangulated way.”

Adams 14 superintendent Javier Abrego dismissed many of Achuleta’s concerns, saying that systems for evaluating schools already exist, and that the district’s practice is to map out plans year by year. He said the board will gather at a retreat in July for strategic planning.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.