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To counteract years of instability at Adams City HS, local and state officials are planning big changes

Art students at Adams City High School admire student artwork earlier this year ahead of the annual art show.  (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)
Art students at Adams City High School admire student artwork earlier this year ahead of the annual art show. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Principals have come and gone at Adams City High School.

With them so do the efforts each has made to improve the school. With six principals in six years, Adams City has seen changes to schedules, class offerings and staff composition.

Junior Genavee Gonzales, 17, has experienced the flux for three years. Though she wishes the school had more consistency, so far she says she has been able to figure it out on her own. She’s taking honors and Advanced Placement courses and says she’s on track for college — even though she says she has sat down with a counselor only once.

“Our environment at Adams City is what you make it,” Gonzales said. “You’re kind of on your own.”

But more changes are in store for the Commerce City school.

Under pressure from the state, the district had a plan to turn Adams City into an “innovation” school, so that it could make big changes while being exempt from some state rules. But state officials suggested that wouldn’t work without proper leadership, and instead pushed the district to outsource some of the school’s operations to a nonprofit group. Now, the state board is poised to vote Thursday on that partnership — and the district is planning to go ahead with some of the changes it would have made under innovation status as well. Together, that all means more uncertainty — but perhaps some hope — for a community that has weathered a great deal so far.

For students and staff in the school, the most important thing is to have a steady principal. Right now, there isn’t a permanent one at all.

Last year’s principal was moved into a district position at the beginning of the current school year. The district has since taken applications twice and selected finalists, but the superintendent rejected the first picks and on the second try, the school board rejected the finalist. The district appointed an interim principal this spring.

Hundreds of students walked out of the school last month to demand an end to the cycle.

“We’ve made jokes about like, ‘oh, maybe it’s us,’ but really we don’t know what’s going on; that’s part of the problem,” said Gonzales, who was part of the protest. “Our district doesn’t give them enough time.”

Superintendent Javier Abrego said he talked to the school board about their reasoning after they rejected his finalists. Now he’s looking for a principal with experience at a school in turnaround. Preferably at a large school, and it would help it if were someone who speaks Spanish.

The principal will have a tough job. The school of more than 2,000 students has struggled for a long time. It has a high number of chronically absent students. Few are meeting standards on state tests. The graduation rate increased in 2016 to about 79 percent, but the dropout rate increased, too. Fewer than 40 percent of graduates enroll in college or other post-secondary education the following year. And of the 77 students that did go to college from the 2015 graduating class, 53 needed remedial education, according to the latest state report.

All of that has contributed to more than five years of low performance ratings from the state. Those ratings now mean the State Board of Education has to vote on a plan for improvement.

To tackle student achievement, the management company Beyond Textbooks will help train teachers and give them more materials. The Arizona-based company has already started training some teachers at Adams City in using the company’s software to find lesson plans and follow the pacing guide to teaching the standards.

But while Beyond Textbooks will be used school-wide at two other Adams 14 School District schools, at the high school the company will only work with ninth-and 10th-grade teachers.

Teachers of juniors and seniors will have access to the online materials and lessons Beyond Textbooks provides, but they won’t get the training, classroom support, or curriculum calendars that the company provides.

District officials said the narrow rollout is designed so the district and school leaders don’t take on more than they can handle.

“We had to focus on balancing our capacity,” said Teresa Hernandez, director of assessment and technology. “It’s about quality versus quantity. When we complete our evaluations, if we want to roll it up, we certainly can do that.”

Plus, focusing Beyond Textbooks’ role on first- and second-year students makes sense, Hernandez said, because ninth graders at the school are dropping out at the highest rate. In some cases, she says, students come from higher-performing middle schools and get bored as they start high school.

“We’ve seen some engagement issues when kids begin their high school careers, so we want to focus on that,” Hernandez said.

But even as they are presenting the Beyond Textbooks plan to the state board, state education officials have documented concern that it doesn’t go far enough to turn around the school.

A state panel that evaluated every district and school that was nearing the limit of low quality state ratings suggested last year that Adams City request innovation status. Through an innovation plan, the school could ask the state for flexibility from local or state rules to make changes the school community saw as necessary.

But the recommendation panel made that suggestion in 2016 while the school was under principal Gionni Thompson.

Thompson had experience with turnaround, making some improvements at the district’s alternative high school before starting at Adams City. Small changes he was making seemed promising, the review panel noted.

Then in late 2016, Abrego joined the district as the new superintendent. Abrego said that Thompson, as a good leader, could make more of an impact in a district-level position.

A replacement for Thompson hasn’t been found, so staff from the Colorado Department of Education steered the district in another direction. Without strong school leadership, they said, a plan that grants more school-level autonomy wouldn’t work.

Abrego said he hopes the Adams 14 board will confirm the appointments of four assistant principals this week to start securing next year’s school leaders.

District leaders said they still want to roll out the plan that had been created for the school when leaders thought they would seek innovation status.

They are no longer asking for official waivers from any state or local rules, but they do want to make changes to make the school more stable. Chief among the changes: creating a safety net for the next time a principal leaves. The district would convene a governing board made up of teachers, staff, students and parents to propose schedules, programs and review the school’s budget so that if principals continue to come and go, some of the duties of a principal won’t fall to the wayside. This year, in the absence of a principal, Abrego took on some of that role.

“The belief is that consistency itself will help retain and grow teacher talent, resulting in increased achievement and building capacity for more leadership roles,” the innovation plan states.

For now, students and staff are worried about important questions facing the school — and whose job it is to answer them.

When students raised questions for the district about specific programs they heard might be cut next year, Abrego explained that he didn’t know exactly what the school’s budget said. He had allowed the school’s leaders, temporary as they may be, to draft it.

Freshman Miah McKinney, 15, is most concerned with the arts, especially after a recent student production of “Grease” won acclaim.

“That’s something I feel we deserve and need,” she said. “They’re doing something well with the program so they shouldn’t defund it now.”

The school for years has talked about building its many elective career classes into pathways, where students could pick a clear sequence of classes to lead them to graduation. It’s also part of the school’s innovation plan.

McKinney said she hasn’t been told about a pathway, but various teachers have steered her toward or away from classes she should take so she can one day go to college.

McKinney points out that the school isn’t bad for everyone. She knows five students from the school this year earned the prestigious Daniels Scholarship, a competitive scholarship that selects students based on character, leadership, academic history and financial need. Others agree.

“People think that our school is the way it is because of the students and teachers,” Gonzales said. “But really, we’re the ones trying to do the work to save the school.”

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