(Photo: Flickr/Ajari)

In an unprecedented move, Colorado’s state Board of Education has ordered a struggling district north of Denver to turn over supervision to an external manager.

Adams 14 in Commerce City is the first district in Colorado to face such dramatic action after failing to meet achievement goals.  The 13-school district has been on the state’s watch list for eight years.

“I don't think that anyone can defend the present circumstance where a district has lost 30 percent of its students to other alternatives and those students that remain clearly are not performing to standards,” board member Steve Durham said.

Thirty percent of the district’s students left the district last year to go to school elsewhere. That’s three times the state average. And 80 percent of Adams 14’s 7,500 students can’t do work at grade level.

The state board has asked the attorney general’s office to define the reaches of the external management organization’s authority, such as hiring and firing of district leadership. It will then be up to the Adams 14 school board to choose an entity that specializes in school turnaround.

The order states that if the district doesn’t do that within 90 days, Adams 14 will lose its accreditation from state officials. 

State board members reiterated that they want an organization with a track record of improving schools, and that they want to maintain the ability to monitor progress, such as unannounced visits at schools.

It’s unclear what an outside manager will mean for students, teachers and parents, because this has never happened in Colorado before. A meeting is scheduled with parents at Adams City High School Thursday at 5:30 p.m..

District officials are wary about the prospect of losing hiring and firing authority, but appeared satisfied with the board’s decision.

“We’re very pleased with the decision of the state board for honoring our request to contract with an external management organization,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Abrego noted that the order could have been to dissolve the district entirely and to fold it into a neighboring district. 

This week’s hearing was the first time school district leaders have had to appear before the state school board for failing to make enough progress a year into an improvement plan.

The state board acted on recommendations to organize a state review panel in September. The panel concluded that while district staff was working hard on a plan to improve progress was still too inconsistent, and staff didn’t have the skills, capacity or sense of urgency to bring about rapid change.  

Tension between the district and the community has led to a lack of shared vision about how to move forward, the state board also said.

The new manager is expected to set a strategic path to improve student outcomes by attracting and retaining strong teachers, implementing clear instruction, using data to adjust practices, training strong leadership and slowing staff turnover. State officials said any glimmer of progress in the district over the past year evaporated every time someone left.

Community groups and Colorado’s main teacher union were also pleased with the board’s actions.

“I think that that gives them the authority to make difficult decisions that I think that this [Adams 14] school board and Superintendent have been unwilling to make so far,” said Ariel Taylor Smith of the education advocacy group Transform Education Now. 

Teachers now need training, support and feedback, Smith added.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Teachers Association, said a lot of emotion, time and energy went into the board’s decision.

“Our hope going forward is that they continue to listen to the voices of the community, the parents and the educators who serve those students on a daily basis,” she said.

Tensions have been high in the beleaguered district. Some parents pushed for a new preschool-12th grade KIPP school. KIPP is the largest charter school network in the nation. This week the Adams 14 board of education rejected the KIPP application.

Others argued for making neighborhood schools stronger. 

At Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting, board members considered an amendment to separate Adams City High School, the district’s only comprehensive high school, from the board’s external manager order. That would have opened up the possibility of a charter school taking over Adams City High. That amendment failed.

“It would really kill the district if we took away the high school from this district,” board member Val Flores said. “To make it a separate entity charter would drive a horrible stake into the heart of this district.”

Smith said Thursday’s state board action is significant for students in struggling districts around the state.

“I think that this really set a precedent around district accountability,” she said. “I think that the state board has finally found their cadence and how they hold districts accountable for not serving students.