Mapleton: Why a school district wants to manage its troubled neighbor

As Colorado headed toward forcing the troubled Adams 14 school district to hire an outside manager, officials next door in Mapleton Public Schools say they felt a call to help their neighbor.

“We are all a community,” said Tom Moe, a school board member for Mapleton. “We don’t look at it as them and us, it’s just like you have neighbors down the street. We all feel like we need to help.”

Mapleton is one of the four organizations chosen as finalists to serve as external manager for the adjacent Adams 14. Colorado’s State Board of Education in November ordered the district to hire outside management to help accomplish what for years it has failed to accomplish on its own — improve achievement.

Mapleton is the only public school district in the running, and it may be the first district in the country to attempt to manage a neighboring district in need.

But Mapleton officials say they are the best suited to help because they know the Adams 14 community, its history and culture, and they understand Colorado’s laws, funding, and state ratings. Officials also say they’ve managed to get their own district off of the state’s watchlist for low performance, and they think they can help Adams 14 do it too.

“We can hit the ground running,” said Steve Donnell, another Mapleton school board member. “And we’re going to be here to give them guidance in the future. It’s basically a two-way street forever.”

Mapleton’s proposal focuses on sharing systems to monitor school progress on a monthly basis, to improve community engagement, training of teachers, principals, administrators and the school board, and building partnerships with groups that can help provide more services for students. Mapleton would help Adams 14 consider a small schools model like theirs, but would help roll out any other educational model that makes the most sense for the district.

Chris Fiedler, superintendent of 27J Schools, another Adams 14 neighbor, submitted a letter of support for Mapleton.

“As districts from rural roots that emerged in the 1950s to address the growing Denver area population, Mapleton, 27J and Adams 14 have a shared history and culture that connects our communities at a deeper level,” Fiedler wrote. “We need to make every attempt to preserve and honor our heritage while embracing the diversity of the changing landscape as new developments and neighborhoods reinvigorate Adams County.”

Mapleton’s proposal was gaining support in Adams 14 even before the district was taking applications, especially among teachers and their union leaders who oppose some other state options such as ordering a charter to take over parts of the district.

“It’s better than being privatized,” said Barb McDowell, a teacher and president of the district’s teachers union. “Some people are just in it for the money.”

The proposals don’t come with price tags, so the district will have to choose without knowing how much a manager will cost. That negotiation will come after the district, and state, approve the best manager.

One question some have raised is whether Mapleton’s position as a neighboring district could be a conflict of interest. If Adams 14 fails to improve and has to be dissolved by the state, it’s likely Mapleton would absorb at least some of Adams 14’s schools — and the funding that comes with those students.

Mapleton officials said they considered that question, but don’t believe it is a conflict, because they say they have no interest in expanding their district. State officials had no answer as to whether there is a conflict. Because the State Board of Education has to approve Adams 14’s selection of an external manager, state education officials are running a “parallel process” to look into the ability of each applicant to follow state orders.

State officials are allowing Adams 14 to select its manager, with the required community input, but Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the Colorado Department of Education, said, “We will speak up if based on new information we feel like one of the candidates cannot fulfill the order.”

McDowell and other teachers say Mapleton’s model and the fact that many Adams 14 students already enroll in Mapleton schools prove that the model would be a good fit for them.

According to the state, more than 3,000 students who live in Adams 14 attend school elsewhere. Mapleton is the third top destination district, receiving 451 students from the Adams 14 community.

In Mapleton, a district of about 8,900 students, or 6,500 without counting students in an online school, district officials created a new model more than 10 years ago where students aren’t assigned to a neighborhood school. Instead, students choose from among multiple small schools with a unique focus such as science and technology, college readiness, or career programs. The district provides transportation.

When it was created, the district’s model received national attention and large grants including from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of the national interest has faded, but the district has continued with the work and credits it for improvements in academics.

In the application to run Adams 14, Mapleton officials said they would support Adams 14 in searching for their own solution for their community.

“It would not be our intent to impose Mapleton’s solution, but we would help them use a process by which they can determine their solution,” said Charlotte Ciancio, the Mapleton superintendent who would run the Adams 14 management.

Mapleton’s similarities with Adams 14, which officials tout as an advantage, also extend to its challenges. Although Mapleton has improved academic performance, it is not a high performing district. In fact, in the last two years, state ratings for Mapleton have shown a decrease in scores.

Mapleton officials said they considered whether taking on the challenge of fixing another district presented a risk to their own student performance. Ultimately they decided it did not.

“When you’re achieving you do become more comfortable,” Ciancio said. “That’s not what we need to be doing. Our discomfort in our work with Adams 14 will allow us, and force us, to use that urgency to improve all schools. This is going to cause us to double down and pay attention to everything.”

One challenge the districts have had in common is federal compliance issues with meeting the needs of English learners.

Adams 14 still struggles to meet federal requirements to improve the education of English learners, and also its treatment of Hispanic families and staff.

Mapleton’s application touts its experience in resolving those federal requirements, and working with the federal Office for Civil Rights. Mapleton was under a federal order to improve the education of its English learners, but is no longer under supervision after resolving its issues. English learners make up about 30 percent of Mapleton students, or 44 percent when excluding students from an online school.

Ciancio said one of the program options for students in Mapleton is a Spanish-literacy model that teaches students to read in their native language from preschool through second grade before transitioning students into an English model. She said she knows biliteracy has been an important focus for many Adams 14 parents.

McDowell also pointed at biliteracy as something that might be revived and improved under a model offering small schools of choice that Mapleton may bring.

“I think we could have biliteracy but have a strong model in a couple of schools rather than try to have it everywhere,” McDowell said. “Parents want different things for their children and choices would be good.”

Read Mapleton’s application below.