looking inside

Adams 14 district to keep closer eye on each school as part of state improvement plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

As part of an improvement plan negotiated with the state, the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City has developed a new system for monitoring progress at schools meant to more quickly arm leaders with information about what’s working and what isn’t.

The system, developed with guidance from the state, includes regular walkthroughs at schools by district leaders, data tracking, and new staff and student surveys.

Such diligent tracking of school performance is more common at larger districts, and could be seen as a burden for districts with fewer resources. But Adams 14 officials say they are welcoming the opportunity and are optimistic about the benefits.

“What doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic officer for the 7,500-student district. “…. We know we need to be data-driven.”

The process will kick into gear starting next month, when district leaders begin weekly walkthroughs of all 11 schools and an early learning center. Different leaders are assigned different schools, and those in the mix include Superintendent Javier Abrego, the chief academic officer, director of English language development and director of educator effectiveness.

Three of the visits will be brief — checking on whether the school feels welcoming, safe and whether students are engaged.

Then, once a month, the school visit will be more formal. District leaders will follow a sort of rubric that is being finalized with the state to determine if teachers are doing good work and if students seem to be learning.

Several other districts on state improvement plans are in the process of creating similar plans. Adams 14 was among the schools and districts that faced state intervention because of more than five years of low performance, based in part on an increasing drop-out rate and low growth scores on state tests.

Without a system of its own, Adams 14 would be reliant on school ratings provided by the state, which are based mostly on state test scores and are not as timely.

Among larger districts that track their own schools’ performance, Denver Public Schools has a more elaborate system that includes giving each school a rating that takes more factors into account than the state ratings.

The same system wouldn’t necessarily be feasible for a district the size of Adams 14, district officials have said.

The point of any system, however, is for district officials to be engaged with what’s happening in schools, and knowing how they’re performing early on, rather than waiting for a state rating.

Eventually, the monitoring plan should improve school performance if district leaders are able to detect problems early on and respond quickly to fix them. It should also create a record of what has been tried and what has worked that could help if district officials want to contest a state rating of their schools or district in the future.

“The first bar is really, ‘Did you design something?’ and second is, ‘Are you implementing it?’” said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the state. Medler has worked with Adams 14 officials to design their school monitoring process.

The Colorado Department of Education is thinking about how to create a template for district-level school monitoring, Medler said. But the benefit of each district working on its own plan is that it’s tailored to the district’s own goals and resources, especially since the requirement to create the plan doesn’t come with funding for it. (Adams 14 officials said its new school monitoring system does not carry any additional costs).

“It’s really built on their context,” Medler said. “It’s taking advantage of whatever assessment tools, like interim or benchmark tools they have already.”

To make tracking data easier, all seven elementary schools are now using the same district-level periodic tests to measure growth rather than getting to pick their own. And to make sure the information is used, teachers now have built-in common planning time for about an hour a week.

Once a month, when district leaders visit schools for the longer walkthrough, they’ll also sit down with school leadership to look at test and attendance data. The monitoring plan has target goals for how many students are on reading plans, for attendance rates and growth scores on interim tests.

If the district leaders see a school isn’t meeting those targets throughout the year, they could order teachers to do an online training course or they could ask a coach to work with them.

When district leaders find a teacher doing great work, the district will record that teacher in action and make it available online for the other district teachers to learn from.

“We want to be supportive,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the director of educator effectiveness and director of secondary education. She started some school observations last year working with a consultant and more narrowly looking at work in classrooms.

From that experience, Trinidad-Sheahan said she knows the classroom and school monitoring needs to create ongoing conversations to be successful.

The new process already has made the district’s leadership team more effective at working together, officials say.

“It’s a lot of energy for us because we’re such a small community,” Burgos said. “Now that we’ve come together as a cohesive group, that’s important and we’re feeling very confident.”

apology

Criticism mounts for Adams 14 school board for asking police to escort critic out of meeting

File photo of the Adams 14 school board, including Connie Quintana, right, the board's current president. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Two organizations are demanding the Adams 14 school board apologize for removing a vocal critic from a public meeting, after he insisted on calling out school officials by name in criticism officials characterized as “not constructive.”

Jorge Garcia, the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, has been a frequent critic of the district and Superintendent Javier Abrego ever since the district stopped the expansion of biliteracy programming. At the last meeting, top district officials interrupted Garcia and ordered police to escort him out.

Tuesday the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent the school board a letter, signed by their attorney, asking for an apology to Garcia, “for violating his First Amendment rights,” and attacking the board’s unwritten policy against criticizing district officials and staff by name. It asked for a response by Oct. 1.

“The board’s silencing of Mr. Garcia represents viewpoint discrimination that the First Amendment forbids,” the ACLU’s letter states. “Mr. Garcia has every right to mention Superintendent Abrego by name when providing public criticism of a public official who is the highest-ranking executive officer of the Adams 14 School District.”

Tuesday afternoon, officials from the school district did not return a request for comment.

Earlier, the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, where Garcia is executive director, also issued a statement, asking for an apology from the school board. In its statement, the association wrote that Garcia offered to resign “in order to spare the organization any possible retaliatory litigation targeting him,” but the association’s board unanimously rejected the offer and instead supported Garcia’s attempts to speak to the board.

“CABE is the foremost advocate for educational equity for emergent bilinguals in the state​,” the association wrote. “Jorge’s initial actions at the Adams 14 board meeting were perfectly consistent with this role.”

The board has its next regular meeting Tuesday evening.

Read the full letters below:





out of order

Frequent critic of Adams 14 school district, and advocate for bilingual education, removed from public meeting

Jorge Garcia addressing the Adams 14 board just before he was escorted out. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Martinez, founder of Transform Education Now.)

Adams 14 district leaders ordered police to kick out the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education from a school board meeting this week, as he stood at the podium midway through his comments criticizing district staff.

In removing Jorge Garcia, a frequent critical voice at district board meetings, officials cited a policy that bars “personal attacks” during public comment. The board’s attempts to regulate public participation in its meetings have prompted discussion among board members and others and raised questions about how the district engages with the community.

Garcia was the first speaker at the board’s public comment session Tuesday, as he has been for most meetings in the last year. He started by criticizing the district’s performance on state tests.

“Despite [Superintendent Javier] Abrego’s attempts to make it seem like this district is doing so much better this year than in years past, the truth is that the district is still not off the clock,” Garcia said, referring to the district being on a state watch list. “He promised that he would have the district out of turnaround in two years or he would resign. That was the first of many false promises to this community.”

“Turnaround” is a state label indicating the district needs to improve.

Connie Quintana, the board president, first interrupted Garcia’s comments to tell him he could not use people’s names — as frequently requested of speakers in the past year, despite the lack of a written policy stating that names can’t be used.

Garcia responded that he could use names, and continued reading his remarks prepared for the three-minute allotted time. A little later, Quintana interrupted again as he was criticizing a meeting Superintendent Abrego and his staff held with CU Boulder’s School of Education.

“This is not constructive,” Quintana said to Garcia ordering him to stop as the officer came to stand by Garcia. Garcia raised his voice, visibly upset. Superintendent Abrego said, “get him off,” and the officer then escorted out Garcia, who was still shouting.

A video below shows the exchange starting at about minute 23:10.

The district’s policy about public comments prohibits personal attacks but states that it welcomes constructive criticism if it is “motivated by a sincere desire to improve the quality of the educational program.”

“The school district also has confidence in its professional staff, and desires to support their actions in order that they be free from unnecessary, spiteful, or destructive criticism and complaint,” the policy states.

Adams 14 spokesman Alex Sanchez said the district permits speakers to express criticism.

Other speakers Tuesday, including the one directly after Garcia, also criticized the district, but were not called out of order.

Sanchez also said that Quintana didn’t really mean that Garcia shouldn’t use names, but that she was asking Garcia to stop making personal attacks.

“We don’t discriminate based on whether it’s negative or positive,” Sanchez said. “He violated policy. He was called out of order. The board president had the right to revoke that privilege.”

He later described a personal attack as comments naming people. “If he had said a person’s position or title, it would have been different.”

Quintana, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment about why she called Garcia out of order.

Garcia said he was not trying to attack anyone.

“I was giving them facts to ask the question, how will you be addressing the district’s image,” Garcia said. “You should know what your employee is doing and how he is representing the district. It is absolutely relevant.”

School board member Bill Hyde, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, has questioned the board policy before. He once blogged that Abrego emailed board members “advising them to bar non-residents from speaking during the public comments,” citing the policy as justification. Garcia is one of several advocates for biliteracy education who do not live in the district and regularly speak at board meetings.

Hyde has also pointed out in meetings that board policy does not restrict the board or speakers from using people’s names.

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU, would not comment specifically but said in general, school districts should not have too much room to interpret what is allowed or not.

“Any rule or regulation that restricts or controls when or what can be said in a public forum needs to be clear …. so that officials interpreting the policy do not have free reign as they enter into their evaluations.”

At a meeting in April, when the board had a staff member from the Colorado Association of School Boards give them a presentation on how to govern as a school board, Hyde asked about the policy.

Randy Black, a director of member relations for the association, told the board that controlling comments during a public forum is a challenge.

He urged the board instead to consider that people making personal attacks might signal that the public does not feel engaged.

“How do people feel involved or valued or listened to or heard?” Black asked the board.

District spokesman Sanchez also acknowledged that Tuesday’s incident signals a lack of community engagement.

“We recognize you eliminate a lot of this by having authentic community engagement outside the board room,” Sanchez said.

Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez, the leaders of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on parent advocacy, said the problem was on display just a day later at a meeting Wednesday when they heard from parents who said they felt “intimidated out of participation.”

The district only recently has had police present at board meetings.

“School districts must take safety and security seriously,” Sanchez said. “We provide security to protect both the public, our students and staff. This is normal and a best practice for school board meetings.”

Garcia called the tactic unnecessary and intimidating.

“It seems like they want to instill fear in the community and in a community with so many immigrants who have good reason to fear a police presence, it seems like they are the ones being targeted,” Garcia said.

Garcia had started addressing the board last year when the district stopped the rollout of a biliteracy program. He often criticizes the district and superintendent over policies affecting bilingual families and students.

The superintendent has responded to Garcia’s comments in the past, disputing much of his criticism.

Garcia was not cited. As he left the meeting he shouted that the board would be hearing from his attorney. Later he said he wants to give the board the opportunity to “right their wrong” but said that if they don’t, he may consider “other options.”