collaboration not confrontation

Colorado shied from taking aggressive action to fix its lowest performing schools. Will it be enough?

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

At historic Aurora Central High School, the last few years have been a trial.

Students have described widespread fights, high truancy rates and a heavy police presence. Academic performance has suffered, with fewer than half of all students graduating on time.

The clock finally ran out on the city’s oldest school this year. After six years of academic struggles, it was time for state education officials to intervene with a plan of action.

State officials could have closed Aurora Central or handed it over to a charter school.

But instead, they chose a far more lenient path — allowing the 2,100-student high school to continue a plan that began a year ago that gives the school more flexibility from the district’s school schedule, curriculum and hiring practices. The school was required to hire a consultant to help execute the plan.

This kind of approach — relatively cautious, devised in close collaboration with local school districts and reliant on outside consultants — sums up Colorado’s strategy this year for trying to turn around five districts and a dozen schools that have persistently struggled since 2010.

This was the first year under Colorado’s current school accountability system that required the state to take such action. The strategy of working collaboratively with school leaders reflects both the power of local control in Colorado and the philosophy of a department that has evolved in recent years from one that is less strong-armed regulatory enforcer and more partner.

Colorado’s approach is part of a growing trend away from aggressive state takeovers that produced mixed results in states such as Tennessee, New Jersey and Michigan.

“States have increasingly recognized that the work of school improvement is hard,” said Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

State takeover of districts and schools was not on the table in Colorado. That’s because Colorado’s constitution puts ultimate control of schools in the hands of local school boards.

State and district officials explained in some cases why more aggressive steps — such as school closure or charter school takeover — weren’t feasible given the circumstances.

But concerns have arisen — including from some members of the State Board of Education, which had the final say on the plans — that Colorado’s efforts may not be drastic enough.

“Will this program work?” Republican board member Steve Durham asked while discussing the plan to improve Westminster Public Schools, a district with more than 9,000 students northwest of Denver. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, said the state gave the schools and districts a pass.

“Nobody is losing their job, no one is forced to hand over a building,” he said. “I just think it’s outrageous and systemic. There were a lot of options — and the state board and CDE decided not to take them.”

No ‘silver bullet’

The 2009 law that created Colorado’s current accountability system gave the state board four options. It could direct schools be closed; turned over to a charter operator; redesigned under the state’s innovation law, which would give the school some flexibility from state law and district policies; or be managed in part or completely by an education management company.

The state also had the option to order a school district with too many low-performing schools to merge with a nearby district with higher test scores — a step officials did not take.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes acknowledged the challenges of choosing a course.

“What kept me up at night was that these are high-stakes decisions that affect real students and teachers and educators in these systems,” she said. “The toughest decision was making a decision, because you know there isn’t one silver bullet and there isn’t one right answer.”

As the state prepared to intervene, it appeared the favored course would be to allow districts and schools to radically redesign under the innovation law. The law allows for freedom in curriculum decisions, different school calendars, and makes it easier to hire and fire teachers.

But state board members and department officials grew worried the struggling schools were in no position to manage those responsibilities on their own.

In three cases, the state board approved a school’s innovation plan on the condition it also contract with a management partner to help put it in place. The state also directed six schools and districts not seeking innovation waivers to contract with an outside group for assistance.

“The state board found (innovation) as a strong option, as there would be some dramatic change,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, a state education department official who helped shepherd this year’s accountability hearings. “But we also want to make sure” the schools had strong leadership and necessary help putting the plans in place, she said.

While state officials may believe the combination of innovation status and external help could prove fruitful, one observer cautioned that the strategy poses risks.

“Schools often adopt a million different strategies, not recognizing that some of those are incompatible with each other,” said Lorrie Shepard, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “New leaders sometimes want a million of those things. Incoherence is bad, and only adds to the churn and the chaos in schools.”

The amount of authority each management partner will have varies from school to school. The Aguilar School District turned over considerable decision-making power to its partner, Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that works in Denver and New York.

Westminster’s partnership with AdvancED will involve a more traditional consultant role, in which the outside officials will review and make recommendations to the district on how to better see through its unique approach to learning. AdvancEd has accredited the district, and officials told the state they will pull that accreditation if the district doesn’t meet their standards.

In some cases, like with Pueblo City Schools and the Adams 14 School District, the state board pushed for management companies to have more authority than the districts had envisioned.

During the process, department officials said that some options were just not viable.

State documents outlining recommendations for changes to schools and districts said that closing schools was not a good idea, in many cases because a better alternative was not available nearby. Other schools could not absorb such a large number of displaced students.

Turning over schools to charter operators was a nonstarter for many school districts, according to district officials.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley school district, told the state board during a hearing that high-performing charter networks were not interested in taking over her schools.

Pilch said the former superintendent approached at least one high-performing charter network and was told Greeley’s low student funding wouldn’t support its model. Greeley voters have never approved local property tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, for school funding.

“They are not coming,” said Pilch, whose district does have seven existing charter schools. “So you know what? The work is on us. It is our job to take care of our kids.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, challenged that contention.

“We’ve got charter schools operating all across the state in different districts and they make it work,” Schaller said. He added that “the real question” is whether school districts are willing to share available money with all schools or hold some back from charters.

Board member Durham, at one hearing, cited a lack of time as a barrier to charter schools playing a greater role. He said that by the time the board reviewed options, it was too late to suggest a charter school take over a school program in just a matter of months.

Schaller agreed, and added that charter school operators in Colorado are interested in playing a larger role in the turnaround of low-performing schools.

“It just has to be a much longer-term conversation,” he said.

The education department is considering options to make charter schools part of the mix moving forward. Charters receive tax dollars but are run independently of school districts.

One possibility is the state requesting proposals months in advance from charter groups that would volunteer to take over one or more schools in a certain region.

Working together — and the trouble that brings

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Education began a philosophical shift under the direction of then-commissioner Robert Hammond. The department would be less focused on making sure schools and districts are complying with state law and more focused on supporting their efforts.

That’s a philosophical approach Anthes, the current commissioner, continues to embrace.

“This is a human relationship-driven, complex endeavor,” Anthes said. “I find interacting positively, working toward a common goal, will bring us to a higher quality outcome faster. And that’s my North Star: higher quality outcomes the fastest way possible.”

In an effort to support schools — and avoid the political and emotional conflict typical of school improvement efforts — the department created a grant program for schools and districts to develop their own plan that the state board could endorse.

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14, called the state’s approach a wise decision that his community appreciated.

“Allowing us to choose our own pathway, I thought that was a very important strategy,” Abrego said. “It gave us ownership. They didn’t mandate anything.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are experimenting with similar approaches, hoping that better involving communities into the school improvement process will yield better results than more heavy-handed takeovers. In both states, however, the education department has considerably more sway over how schools are run compared to Colorado.

The dual role Colorado plays in holding schools accountable and supporting school improvement efforts brings a host of problems, said Jochim, the Washington state-based researcher.

“When you’re charged with holding people accountable, can you also take responsibility for guiding the improvement process?” she said. “It’s tough to tell schools what to do, and when (they) fail you sanction them.”

Anthes said she sees the roles as complementary. She said the education department’s role is to provide guidance and expertise to help school districts complete the work.

“I do have confidence in the process and the plans that were put forward,” she said. “I’m not going to say they’re perfect. But I don’t think any intervention is the perfect solution.”

top down

Board president of troubled Adams 14 school district abruptly resigns

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

In a surprise announcement Tuesday night, the president of the Adams 14 school board abruptly resigned — a departure that could reshape the leadership of the split board.

In a statement Wednesday Timio Archuleta noted the need for “new energy” in the troubled district.

“As the board president, I have worked hard to represent the community and make decisions that put students first,” Archuleta wrote. “After reflecting on all the work that needs to be done in Adams 14, I believe at this time, that we need new energy that will help the district and our students succeed.”

Timio Archuleta. (Photo courtesy of Adams 14)

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18. But Adams 14 appears to be struggling to meet required benchmarks. If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.

Archuleta, whose first term would have ended in November 2019, is part of a majority on the five-member board who has supported Superintendent Javier Abrego’s efforts to improve school performance, despite criticism from some parents.

Archuleta’s vocal opponents welcomed his departure.

“It’s actually going to be a step forward in the right direction,” said Joanna Rosa-Saenz, who organized a meeting earlier this year calling on the board majority to fire the superintendent or step down themselves. The group specifically targeted Archuleta and two other board members and threatened a recall.

She said the resignation could provide hope to parents who felt the board was not listening to them.

Archuleta, 65, said he will miss his time on the board, but will continue to advocate for the district. Reached briefly by phone, he said that he still believes in the district, but said he has been frustrated by the lack of parent involvement in district improvement efforts.

“It’s not just the board. It’s not just the district. It’s the parents also that have a role,” Archuleta said. “That’s a message that people refuse to hear. It’s hard to make decisions that are best for kids that way.”

Board member Bill Hyde, part of the board minority, said in a statement Wednesday that while he disagreed with Archuleta on several issues, he appreciated his service.

“I see his resignation as a sad commentary on the state of affairs within the district,” Hyde said.

In a written statement, Abrego praised Archuleta for improving the district.

“Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mr. Archuleta to push the district forward as we make improvements and changes for the betterment of the district,” the statement read. “I have admired his passion for the students of Adams 14 and the community. As a long-time Commerce City resident, we cannot thank him enough for his service and he will be truly missed.”

District officials promised to post online information about the board’s process to appoint a new member to finish Archuleta’s term, but did not say when.

According to state law school boards have 60 days to appoint a new member to fill a vacancy. The law does not specify how a board should seek out candidates for appointment.

Hyde said the board is likely going to meet Thursday to elect a new president and start the search for a new member.

Janet Estrada, a Denver educator and Adams 14 resident and parent, said she had already been considering running for Archuleta’s seat next year.

“One of the issues with the board members is a lot of them don’t have an education background,” Estrada said. “They haven’t really been in the classroom and I think that really helps a board in their decision-making. I want to run because I think this district for a very long time has been in need of change.”

Estrada said she would consult with her family about applying for the seat a year earlier than she had anticipated.

The surprise resignation came at a meeting that included a public hearing on next school year’s budget and a report about Beyond Textbooks, the external partner that is helping with the district’s state-approved improvement plan.

catalyst

Adams 14 could get a grant to replace Commerce City elementary school with safety problems

File photo of fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Adams 14.

Facing serious hazards including sewer backups, vehicle crashes and security concerns, Alsup Elementary is among a select group of schools to win a state grant for school buildings.

The State Board of Education this week is expected to approve a $19.6 million grant for the school’s replacement. Then the district, Adams 14, will have to provide $14.2 million, likely from a combination of savings and new debt, to cover the rest of the reconstruction cost.

“We’re really excited about getting a new school,” said Melinda Rios, a parent of two students, including one who will be a fifth grader at Alsup this fall and a middle-schooler. Her children will not get to enjoy the new school, but her niece will. “The principal had done a good job from the beginning of asking the parents what we felt we could change and what we wanted. We were kind of on the same page.”

Alsup Elementary School:

  • 7101 Birch Street, Commerce City
  • About 519 students
  • 88 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch
  • Building was constructed in 1959

Construction of the new building is expected to start later this year for a possible opening in 2020. The district’s challenge will be to prevent the district’s internal turmoil and constant turnover of top officials from stalling the project.

Gionni Thompson, who led the work on the grant request and the projects, suddenly left the position last week. Although he has not been replaced, district officials said they have handed off the project to another staff member.

District officials were excited about the grant, not just for the serious problems it would help address at Alsup, but because the project is expected to become a catalyst for more school renovations in coming years.

The idea is that Alsup’s replacement would be built on the former site of Adams City High School less than a mile south. Alsup’s current site, just blocks away from a new RTD commuter rail line and Park-N-Ride station, is expected to rise in value, meaning its sale will help Adams 14 pay for its next project: moving Adams City Middle School to share the new campus with Alsup. The freed-up space from the middle school could then also be sold to finance a future project.

Thompson, formerly the district’s chief operating officer, said last week that the impact of the grant for Adams 14 was unique.

“This really changes the forecast for Adams 14,” Thompson said. “Without this grant we wouldn’t have been able to build this momentum. And to do it without passing a bond, this really shows the community we are making every effort possible to make sure we are building facilities that our kids and their kids deserve.”

Just before Thompson was scheduled to meet with state officials to help plan financing for the new Alsup, he was removed from his position. The reasons are unclear, as the district refused to comment.

State funding for Alsup will come from its BEST grants, which funnel a portion of lottery and marijuana revenues to struggling school districts to help address facilities problems. The grant requires school districts to pay for a portion of the project.

About half of Adams 14’s share will come from the district’s savings. Thompson had said the district is planning to get the remaining $7 million by issuing certificates of participation, or COPs, which are a government financing mechanism used by school districts and other government bodies to pay for construction.

More commonly, school districts fund capital improvements with voter-approved bonds. But three times in the past eight years Adams 14 voters have rejected bond measures, so the largely low-income community will instead rely on COPs, whose debt will be paid through the general fund.

District officials said Tuesday the project remains on track despite Thompson’s departure.

Although several schools in Adams 14 need replacement, safety concerns lifted Alsup to the top of the list. The sewage backups have forced the school to close several times. Recently, an Amber Alert intensified campus concerns.

Principal Mike Abdale explained that a sibling and a parent of a third-grader at Alsup were kidnapped from their home in Commerce City in August. After an Amber Alert was issued, Alsup employees realized that they had seen the suspect walking on campus days earlier.

“We do not know his intent for being in the building, but we believe he was there for the child,” Abdale said. “The video showed that he walked in, took a drink of water, and walked out of the building. Nothing occurred on that day, and he had no contact with the child or any other students at any point.”

The kidnapped mother and child were later found safe.

But the incident was a reminder that the school’s design makes security a challenge, because the main office is far from the main entrance. Although staff try to keep an eye on the doors, it is not enough, the principal said.

“A person could enter the building without being seen because of the crowds, and that is what happened in this case,” Abdale said. “We have no way of seeing if a person walks down the main hall instead of heading to the office.”

Outside, the grant application describes other safety issues caused by the placement of the building and the lack of a clear, designated place to drop off students. It mentions students hit by vehicles, dangerous street crossings, auto crashes, “near misses of students,” and an increase in traffic from commercial trucks.

Officials said it takes nearly all school staff to stand outside before and after school to try to keep kids safe. The application also states the principal has at times had to call the police department to help patrol and to handle road rage.

Parent Rios said that is one of the big concerns she has observed at Alsup.

“The drop-off is kind of hectic,” Rios said. “Some parents just let their kids jump out of the car, which I’m not a fan of. That is definitely an issue.”

Thompson has said that he worried problems will get worse as RTD completes the new N Line commuter rail, which will have tracks just a few blocks from Alsup. Along with that project, Commerce City is planning to widen 72nd Avenue, where Alsup sits, from two lanes to four lanes later this year.

Thompson said some students regularly cross 72nd Avenue, especially to help siblings, from Alsup to Adams City Middle School, and that as the street widens, the danger will increase. In a letter, the city manager for Commerce City agreed with those safety concerns.

RTD officials said last week they were not aware of the district’s safety concerns, but said that as a regular part of their projects, they are scheduled to start a safety campaign this fall for schools along the N Line to teach students how to be safe near buses and tracks.

“Our safety demonstrations include using a mock railroad crossing with bells, flashing lights, and arms that go down when a train is approaching,” said Lisa Trujillo, RTD’s manager of project outreach.

Thompson said a parent committee was being considered to help guide the next parts of the project and the transition of the school.