Adams 14 parents and community organizers want the school board to replace the superintendent or face consequences

A first grade student reading in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A group of parents and community members have called on the school board for Adams 14 to remove the superintendent or face recalls, walkouts, and test boycotts.

“It’s really important for the board members to hear what the community is saying,” said Janet Estrada, an Adams 14 mom who attended a recent community meeting. “I haven’t been involved in the district in the past, but I think at this point it really is a community effort. What do we need to do to ensure that we have equity in the district?”

The Commerce City-based district has faced criticism this year, in part over changes the district has implemented as it tries to improve student performance under a tight deadline. The parent concerns raised at a community meeting Friday night touched on some of those changes, but also broader concerns about school climate.

All five board members were invited and attended the meeting, organized by a group called ACABE. About 50 parents attended the meeting, though not everyone stayed the entire time. Parents shared concerns about a lack of counselors at Adams City High School, about high teacher turnover, and about desires to have the district continue the biliteracy programs past third grade. Some also said the superintendent had created a “culture of fear” in the district.

Parents repeated a call for board members to “step up or step down,” and at the end of the meeting organizers told the board they would wait a week for the board to meet their demands — which also included a request to replace the principal at Monaco Elementary and the external management company the district is working with, said Joanna Rosa-Saenz, one of the organizers of the meeting. If the demands aren’t met, she said the community is prepared to file petitions for a recall, specifically for Connie Quintana, David Rolla, and Timio Archuleta.

The targeted board members did not respond to a request for comment. Rolla said only that the meeting represented “the same people and the same complaints” the board has heard before.

Bill Hyde, a board member who has been more supportive of the some of the district’s critics, said the superintendent has a hard job, but turning the schools around also requires community support.

“I don’t think it’s an easy task at all, but if you want it to be successful, you have to have buy-in,” Hyde said. “If they’re starting to turn against you, it becomes problematic.”

Superintendent Javier Abrego said in a statement Tuesday that he could not respond to the demands made at the meeting because he was not there.

Adams 14 is under a short timeline to show improvement or the state may “take further action.” Their 2018 ratings will be based in large part on results of state tests students will take this spring.

Districts and schools must have a 95 percent participation rate on state tests. It’s one of the factors considered in the state’s ratings of schools and districts so organizers said they may be able to hurt the district and push the state closer to taking over Adams 14 by opting out. But according to state officials, if students don’t take state tests because parents excuse them, those students would not count against the district’s participation rates.

The superintendent did include in his statement that he is encouraging all students to do their best on tests.

“We’re letting them know we have strong confidence in their ability to do well,” Abrego said. “I know teachers are conveying that message as well as administrators around the district.”

Among the criticized changes intended to raise academic achievement this year was a decision to cancel parent-teacher conference days, to shorten recess times, and to stop the district’s rollout of a biliteracy program at third grade.

Estrada, who is also a teacher in Denver, said she sought out her son’s school in Adams 14 for its biliteracy program and would like it to be there past third grade.

“English-only programs show fast growth now, but in the long run it’s detrimental to our students,” Estrada said. “The superintendent wants to see growth now, but then you’re running the students into a wall instead of preparing them to leverage their first language. We want our students to succeed in the long-run, not just on one assessment.”

The superintendent and district officials have said they support bilingual education, but also said it is only the district’s responsibility to teach students English.

The school board has faced criticism before. Community members attempted to recall Adams 14 board members in 2016. The county clerk’s office approved the petitions that were to be circulated, but signatures were never turned in, said Jami Gaultney, a manager in the county clerk’s elections office.

This year, to get a recall election on the ballot, Gaultney said the clerk’s office would need to receive and verify 1,634 signatures to recall board president, Archuleta; 1,634 signatures to recall Harvest Thomas; and 426 signatures to recall Rolla. Board members Quintana and Bill Hyde, who were elected in November, cannot be recalled until at least six months after their elections. The number of signatures is based on a percentage of votes cast in the last election.

Hyde said the board has not discussed taking any action as a result of Friday’s meeting. It’s the board that ultimately should be held accountable, he said.

“I think the finger should be pointed at the board,” Hyde said. “The superintendent is the symptom, not the cause.”

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.

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.