Struggling Adams 14 School District In Commerce City Faces A Moment Of Reckoning

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Photo: Colorado Classroom

State education officials are set to decide Thursday whether, for the first time, a struggling school district will lose local control over its strategy and plans to raise performance and outcomes, or be given more time to improve.

The district in question, Adams 14 in Commerce City, “has been failing our students and community and we’re asking the state board to take action now. Hard action,” said Commerce City resident José Guardiola at a State Board of Education meeting.

Adams 14 did not respond for requests to comment for this story.

For seven years, the Adams 14 district in Commerce City north of Denver has been on the state’s state watch list after failing to improve student performance. When the state board of education ordered an improvement plan last year, it gave the district one more year to show progress.

Districts are rated on how much academic growth students show, how high school juniors fare on college entrance exams, and graduation and dropout rates. If districts earn one of the two lowest ratings for five consecutive years, Colorado law dictates that the state has to intervene.

Unlike other states, Colorado can’t take over control of districts because of the state’s constitutional provisions on local control. But the state can take away the district’s accreditation or seal of approval.

Right now, Adams 14 is on the second lowest tier on the state’s five-tier rating system.

Several districts and schools have come off what’s known as the “accountability clock” after showing improvement. Those include Westminster school district, an elementary school in Pueblo, and several schools in the Greeley-Evans school district.

Other schools in the state, such as Aurora Central High, and one other district, Aguilar, are also on state-mandated improvement plans. But they have until next fall to show progress.

Adams 14 partnered with an Arizona-based non-profit called Beyond Textbooks that has trained teachers on more effective approaches. It wasn’t enough. This year’s district report card showed some progress but overall was bleak.

“At Alsup Elementary, two out of 10 kids read on grade level, at Dupont Elementary, one out of 10 kids, at Kemp Elementary, one out of 10 kids,” said community organizer Joanna Rosa-Sáenz at last month’s state school board meeting. Not a single elementary school has more than one out of ten students on grade level in math.

Others describe a systems-level failure. They say parents and critics are ignored in a district where 55 percent of students are English Language Learners. Pressure to make large scale change has caused turmoil between the community and district. Teachers have left. In June, the school board president resigned.

On Wednesday, Adams 14 leaders will explain its ideas for what’s next. Documents show one idea is to hire external managers to oversee district operations and the city’s high school. Both would report directly to the local school board. But just who that external manger is could inflame tensions. A rift has erupted between teachers and some community organizers.

“We want to remain a public open-to-all neighborhood district,” said Barb McDowell, who’s taught in the district for 21 years and is a union leader. She testified before the state board of education in October.

That’s why some teachers like the idea of being overseen by the neighboring Mapleton school district. They’re wary of an outside charter school organization like KIPP taking control of the district. Some parents think that would be fine. They just want current leadership out and want change. It’s created a rift and tensions are high.

“Our parents are now scared of the teachers and it’s become a complete mess,” said Rosa-Sáenz.

At the same time, “We cannot allow our children to continue to be served by a system that has proved time and time again that it is not acting in the best interests of children,” said Nicholas Martinez, a co-founder of an advocacy group called Transform Education Now. “I think there’s a lot of folks who don’t want to change for whatever reason and I think parents and community in particular are demanding change happen and that we do better by our children by any means necessary.”

On Thursday, the state board will decide the district’s fate. Options range from small changes to the existing plan, to more aggressive action including closing schools, asking a charter management organization take over all or parts of the district, or being folded into a neighboring district.

If the board chooses an outside group takeover, community members and teachers say they want a seat at the table.

“The children deserve a lot better than we’ve been giving them for a number of years,” said Adams 14 school board member Bill Hyde, who supports a public external director to help the district. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to provide immediate relief in terms of better education opportunities, but we have to start somewhere."