The Adams 14 School District has lost a measure of its ability to determine its own destiny. The state has forced the struggling district to hire an outside manager to resolve the chronic issues. That’s left teachers, parents and students confused about the future.
All Adams City High student Paul Guzman wants to know is, “How all of this is going to help our education?”
Guzman’s frustration lies with the current state of measuring student performance. He said he’s in the top 10 of his class, but when he takes the standardized test, that doesn't translate.
“I always perform really poorly,” he said.
In a community meeting that discussed the shift in the district’s control, leaders told a student audience that the external manager’s job will be to get systems in place to accelerate student achievement and academic growth. The district has planned a series of community meetings to distribute information as the process unfolds.
The crystaline details that the district’s community desperately crave will have to wait until the outside manager is in place and making decisions — an unnerving prospect for many.
Senior Jenny Hernandez has a worry that goes above and beyond a normal graduating high school student. The Adams 14 school board has until Feb. 25, 2019 to hire the external manager. What happens if the district misses the deadline? Will the district lose accreditation?
“What is worrying the seniors is that the college is not going to acknowledge us anymore because of what's happening to our district,” Hernandez said.
Leaders say diplomas will still satisfy college requirements, but there’s still a lot of questions about what the loss of immediate local control in Adams 14 means. The district’s performance has been a long-term challenge that has festered.
Only 35 percent of Adams 14 graduates go on to some kind of post-secondary education and of those, 64 percent need a remedial class once they’re in college. The dropout is four times the state rate. Thirty percent of students left the district in 2017 to go to school elsewhere.
Adams City High junior Lauren Martinez said years of staff turnover, inconsistency and a lack of resources have left many kids unprepared for life post-graduation.
She gave an example of a class where students were learning about racism and stereotypes. Most of the class didn’t understand the lesson, which prompted the teacher to say, “‘I feel like I'm really failing you guys,’” Martinez said “And we're like, ‘You're not failing us, you just don't have the resources that we need.’”
“They've lost just as much hope as we have," she said.
Adams City High has had six principals in the last seven years. In 2017, students walked out of class after a year without a principal. That instability has helped fuel teacher turnover. Kearney Middle School teacher Barb McDowell, a rare 21-year veteran and a union leader, said that puts a strain on the teachers who stay.
Just recently a colleague told her that he is tired of training a brand new team every year.
“So, when you are overwhelmed, you're having to teach your job, plus you're having to support all these new people,” McDowell said. “It takes a toll.”
McDowell hopes the new external manager – who will oversee the district for at least four years – will bring consistency and tap teachers for insights. As she recalled, each time there was a new superintendent or district leader, there were new policies, curriculum and programs implemented without asking teachers first what’s worked and what hasn’t.
The state order says the external manager will make recommendations on curriculum, testing, teacher training, and scheduling. The local school board will retain the power to hire and fire employees, including the superintendent. However, the outside manager will be able to place, transfer and evaluate teachers. They will also have the power to recommend changes to district policy and the teachers’ bargaining contract.
State education officials say the new external manager must have a research-based approach and proven track record. Adams 14 school board member Dominick Moreno wants an external manager with expertise creating a supportive culture.
“It’s a challenging district to teach in and to work in and we're going to have to create a unique employment environment in order to keep talented folks in our community,” he said.
Some parents wonder what will happen the district’s settlement to resolve alleged violations with the federal Office of Civil Rights for not adequately addressing the needs of English language learners.
Adams 14 Superintendent Javier Abrego said the State Board of Education, the Colorado Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights are, “going to assure that everything we are doing as far as English Language Learners, that we’re providing the best services for them, that the programs and models that we use are researched based.”
Teacher Barb McDowell is relieved the district will be getting help but worries about the effect the uncertainty is having on students. She has had 7th- and 8th-graders ask if their school will close. As she starts to cry, McDowell said when kids hear about a failing district, they think they’re failures — and they’re not.
“We've got some amazing kids and we have some amazing kids that are filled with trauma and then we're putting more trauma on them,” she said. “And that is a crime.”
McDowell wants students to know they’re worth fighting for. And she has a hopeful message for teachers who are uncertain about staying or leaving.
“This is an opportunity,” she said. “Yes, it's scary. But we have an opportunity to maybe do some good things for this district and our kids and our community deserve that.”
Parents, teachers and students will push for a seat on the selection committee that will choose the external manager. The district expects to form a team of 7 to 9 people to make a final recommendation to the local school board. Board member Moreno wants the process to be open, transparent and inclusive.
The state board of education will be notified of the external manager contract by Feb. 15, 2019. The district estimates the external manager’s contract will begin by early March. District officials estimate the cost for the external manager at $600,000 per year. They say they’ll first pursue state, federal grants and private gifts to cover the cost.