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New Adams 14 superintendent: We need to bring along our English language learners — quickly

Javier Abrego, Adams 14 superintendent, center, speaks with parents after a forum in September 2016.
Javier Abrego, Adams 14 superintendent, center, speaks with parents after a forum in September 2016.
Yesenia Robles

New Adams 14 schools superintendent Javier Abrego is a Texas-born, Chicago-raised son of farmworkers who failed first grade because he didn’t know English.

This is how Abrego described himself to about 50 parents Thursday at the district’s first-ever superintendent forum — a first step in his and the troubled district’s attempts to better connect with the community.

He also challenged the community to hold him accountable. If the district doesn’t improve in two years, “Please, get rid of me,” he said.

Abrego is taking over the roughly 8,000-student district at a tumultuous time.

Adams 14 has been ranked in the two lowest categories under state evaluations since at least 2010. Growth scores released by the state last week, the latest measure of performance, don’t bode well for the district moving up: Adams 14 had the lowest numbers of all metro area districts. In math, students posted the 12th lowest growth on state tests in the state.

By law, state officials are required to take action against districts or schools that can’t move out of those categories after five years. This is the first year districts and schools could reach the five-year mark. Under state accountability, the state could turn over management to a third party including a charter school, close low-performing schools, merge districts or accept district plans requesting innovation status to grant schools more autonomy as a way to attempt to raise student’s academic performance first.

Adams 14 officials are working on an plan to request innovation status for three district schools.

At Thursday’s forum, parents didn’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns. Some say they’ve heard promises of improvement in the past and it hasn’t come, some lamented that their English-speaking children aren’t given the opportunity to learn Spanish, and others asked about the state’s evaluations wondering why they didn’t know more about it sooner.

Abrego came to Colorado after spending 10 years as an administrator in Arizona schools and at the Arizona Department of Education. Most recently he was dean of students and athletic director for the Grand Canyon Unified School District. Abrego left that position, taking a leave of absence after a year and a half of work and then retiring in December. Before becoming an administrator, Abrego served as principal in Indiana schools for 16 years.

Chalkbeat met with Abrego this week to talk about his plans and ideas for the district. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, what brought you to come out of retirement to apply for this position?
Two things. Number one is my passion for school improvement. I read about the district. It was the kind of district that I love to go into. They need help. The main thing was just the large percentage of Hispanic students in the district because that’s what I did my doctoral work on — English language learners. There was a need here in this district for someone to come in and really understand English language learners.

Also the fact that I had family members that were moving to (Colorado). I have family members that are south of Denver and also north of Denver.

What do you think are the biggest problems this district is facing right now?
Number one is the importance of everyone understanding that we are all in this together. We’re one team. So bringing everyone together — the staff, the teachers, the administration, the parents, the school board. We have a vision of excellence, and that is here so I’m pleased with that.

Then the biggest challenge, as I said, the reason I’m here, is because of approximately 8,000 students (in the district), half of those students, 45 percent, are English language learners. So that right there tells you that is going to be the biggest challenge in the district. If students do not understand English or have not mastered English, that means they’re also going to be having difficulty in their academics, (like) science and social studies. It’s very important that we help them master English as quickly as possible.

What is your take on what works better for English language learners and what is the best way to get them to English proficiency?
I really don’t have the best way. The plan is to (expand) biliteracy classrooms. We started the process with eight classrooms in the first year and then the next year we went to 24 and we’re going to keep adding and that’s a very important component because, again, we want to help our students learn English as quickly as possible. I think with the method that we’re using now we’re going to accelerate that process. Our goal is to have students learn English well enough to master some of their disciplines in the classroom within a two-year period. In two years we expect them to know enough English that they could go and do good work in all the other classrooms.

That sounds pretty fast.
We’re at a disadvantage, so we’ve got to do it quickly.

Is there an emphasis on keeping students bilingual? Is there a value to letting them foster their first language too?
Bilingual means you learn one language. I’m a bilingual student. I spoke Spanish first. And then in the schools I picked up English. Our concept is biliteracy where our kids are picking up both languages at one time. That may be a change, but that’s what we’re doing in our district and we’re having success.

We’re also trying to use their first language as a strength. We’re trying to say that the skills that you have in your first language will transfer to your second language. If you’re a good reader in Spanish, we can do that also in English. I think it’s important. Make it an asset instead of a hinderance.

Most of the other districts you’ve worked at have been pretty small. I believe Adams 14 serves twice as many students as the largest district on your resume. So how does that make this job different and how are you prepared to lead this district?
There are advantages and disadvantages to working in a large and small district. The disadvantages of it in a small district is as a superintendent you have to have expertise in many areas. So you’re the superintendent. You’re also sometimes the principal. You’re also a professional development coordinator. You just do it all. In a large district, it’s nice to have the support I have. At my right hand, I have my chief academic and innovation officer. In a larger district I can have an English language development coordinator, a data and assessment person. So we have a lot of support here. It’s just about bringing everyone together and understanding our roles to improve student achievement.

The community here in Adams 14 has become vocal in the past several years. There’s a history of a Department of Justice ruling that found racism and civil rights issues in the schools. How do you mend those wounds to get the community to trust you and work with you again?
The community is very important. The most important way to get trust is you have to be out in the community. You have to be visible. You have to be talking to people and fortunately in this district, I’ve had the opportunity to be out at many events and do that. To gain their trust and their respect we have to listen to them. When I talk to them they say, ‘We just want our students to receive an excellent education,’ which is what every parent wants. We have to show them proof by improving schools and we’re going to do that.

We have superintendent forums where we’re going to be talking to community and asking them, ‘What do you want our schools to look like?’ Then it’s our job to come back and do that. We also are trying to get more parents involved in our schools by having them join their building accountability committees. It’s just taking pride in the education of your child. Get involved in your schools. Support your schools and have a voice in your school.

Adams 14 has had some tense relationships with charter schools and currently has no innovation schools. Both are options for the state under accountability laws. What are your thoughts on giving district schools more autonomy or turning schools over to charter schools?
My only concern with the charter schools is that all of their teachers do not have to be certified in classrooms. So I guess what I’m saying is we’re playing by different rules. I do feel that all parents have a right to choice and what I tell our staff is if we have great schools our parents will not opt out of Adams 14. So that’s our job right now is to have outstanding schools, excellent schools, and I guarantee you if we have that, people will be coming into our district for that reason.

Test scores at Adams 14 are low and in some cases getting lower. And the growth scores are the lowest in the entire metro area. What do you think needs to change to make some improvements there?
As I said earlier, it’s difficult. Number one, the PARCC test — I’m not going to make excuses. It’s probably a more rigorous exam, so that’s OK. You’re right, we’re not satisfied with the number of students passing, but again those students are not going to pass unless we can address the point that I spoke about earlier and that was helping our students master English. All students. The faster you master English and begin to understand it the better you can do in all your classrooms. If you’re a good reader that’s going to translate to social studies, science, math problems so I would probably say that’s our number one component here.

The state’s accountability clock has you on a limited time frame and has some restrictions. How much have you been able to familiarize yourself with that accountability system and the options for the district?
I’m new to Colorado. I’ve been here approximately eight weeks, so it’s having the people around me. The person I lean on or that will assist me with that is our data and assessment (director), Teresa Hernandez. She gives me a lot of information and I know we’re not doing well. The thing that they’ve informed me was that we had an option. We had a visit. We’re going to be doing innovation. So our goal this year is to write an innovation plan. It’s really just convincing them that we’re going to do what’s best for our kids. We have to address some of the needs of our English language learners — all our students — but especially this group right here is going to have the greatest impact on student achievement.

Have you been in touch with state officials? And how familiar are you with innovation status in Colorado?
Yes, we have a representative from the Colorado Department of Education that comes and meets with us every Friday. We work together. Also I’ve had the opportunity to attend a couple of conferences with superintendents throughout the state and network with other districts that are in the same position we are. It’s all about support, networking with other people and helping each other out and understanding what is working in your district that we may be able to bring to ours.

Can you talk about what the innovation plan you’re putting together is going to look like?
We’re just at the beginning of the process. The key thing is we have to address the needs of our high school. That’s the key school we have to help. So with our innovation plan we’re going to meet the needs of the high school, of the district, and we also want to bring on board two elementary schools. Really, everyone talks about innovation but innovation is just what we should be doing for kids. What are you going to be doing different that’s going to help your kids grow? That’s something that everyone should look at whether you’re doing innovation or not.

So will the innovation plan in Adams 14 give the principals at those three schools more autonomy to do what they think needs to be done at their schools?
It’s not necessarily whatever they think, but it’s having a vision at their school that coincides with the vision of the district. For example, the school board hired me. They’ve only given me one goal. We want to have excelling schools. How you get there is up to you, but we’re going to support you. So that’s the same message I give to our principals. We want excelling schools. We want you to be innovative, to try different things. We’re going to support you here from the district, but remember that we’re one team.

Do you feel you have the right people in place at those schools or are you still evaluating that?
I think we have an outstanding leadership team. We are looking for a high school principal (at Adams City High School). It’s a very tough decision and it’s a process because that’s a very important role in our district because you’re overseeing approximately 1,800 students. Once we have that one in place, I think we’re going to be off and running.

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