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State panel recommends Adams 14 turn over management to outside group

Adams 14's school board and district leaders review state panel recommendations this week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)
Adams 14's school board and district leaders review state panel recommendations this week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district could become the first in Colorado to hire an outside manager for its district and schools.

In their latest review of the district, state officials acknowledged some progress under the existing improvement plan but said that it has been insufficient, inconsistent, and has faced barriers from the teachers union. Now a state panel is suggesting the district contract with a private manager for the 13-school district, according to a recommendation made public this week.

Adams 14 officials are preparing a “request for qualifications,” the first step toward making such a hire. But just what that agreement would mean for the district’s students, employees, or the school board — should the State Board of Education approve the panel’s recommendation — remains unknown. It has never happened in Colorado.

The panel has zeroed in on the district’s lack of leadership as the reason for suggesting an external manager. The recommendation states: “District leadership continues to have high turnover, and there is limited evidence to indicate that the current leadership team has created a sense of urgency or that they have developed a strategic plan to lead change that will result in improved student outcomes.”

The new manager should, among other things, “[e]stablish and develop a district leadership team that can implement and monitor effectiveness of the turnaround strategies,” the panel said.

Adams 14, which has spent eight years on the state’s watch list of low-performing schools, will be the first district in Colorado to return to the State Board of Education after failing to meet the goals set with state officials in an improvement plan last year. The district’s high school, Adams City High School, falling short of state achievement goals, faces state sanctions of its own.

The state board, which could make a decision at a Nov. 14 hearing or the following day, may act on the recommendation to require an external manager. Alternately, the board could order a mix of changes, including turning over one or more district schools to a charter. The state board could also revoke the district’s accreditation, forcing it to dissolve or merge with other districts.

Questions state board members sent state and district officials in preparation for their decision suggest they may be weighing the charter school option. One question asks officials to determine charter school network KIPP’s willingness to “serve Adams 14 should the [State Board of Education] direct.”
The school board for Adams 14 is scheduled to vote on a charter school application from KIPP the evening before their hearing with the state. Board members are unlikely to support the application, although one of them, state Sen. Dominick Moreno, on Thursday urged his colleagues that they “be mindful” about how their decision may impact their state hearing. He also suggested that, regardless of their vote, they should explore other ways to work with and learn from KIPP.

Union leaders, who oppose KIPP’s entrance into the district, have said they fear the state would “charterize” Adams 14. They have floated the idea of a community-school model where schools work with various organizations to provide resources for the well-being of families.

“No one has asked the community what we want. We want to remain a public, open-to-all, neighborhood school district,” Barb McDowell, the union’s president told the state board early this month. “Together, we demand that you support the model that people who live and work in our community are ready to implement.”

By contrast, parents associated with a nonprofit advocacy group that supports KIPP, want the state board to take more drastic action.

Margarita Cardoza, who has two children in the district, aged 7 and 13, said she fears they aren’t learning what they need to know.

“My oldest son wants to be a scientist and I wonder if the school provides enough support for that,” Cardoza said. “I know the answer is no.”

The panel’s recommendation also states the lack of district leadership hinders Adams 14’s ability to effectively roll out other state options, such as giving a school autonomy through what’s known as innovation status, undergoing a district-wide reorganization, or turning individual schools over to charters.

“District representatives have clearly expressed that they are not interested in a charter status,” according to the state panel’s recommendation. “Although a charter would provide options for students, which parents and community members have expressed they would like, the lack of consistency in leadership would make it challenging to adequately plan, implement, and support a charter with fidelity.”

In suggesting a manager, they note that whatever organization is selected must have authority over district decisions. State officials have told the district there is a range of options as far as how to structure that.

In the past, the state took a collaborative approach with districts and schools that faced state sanctions. But state board members felt they were unable to order bigger changes as they were making decisions in late spring or summer for the following fall.

Last year, state board members also voiced concerns about how much authority was really being given to school and district partners. They pushed Adams 14 to give more oversight to their partner. Now, Adams 14 officials acknowledge that their partner, Beyond Textbooks, which primarily helps schools with curriculum and teacher training, was not fit for a management role.

This time, the hearing is happening in the fall to allow more time for the district to prepare to roll out the state’s orders.

Two district board members this week told a state official helping them think about their improvement strategies that they believe the district now needs to make the most drastic changes possible.

The state hearing came up in two meetings of the district’s school board this week.

Adams 14 board members also asked staff to be more upfront about the district’s challenges when they talk to the state board. One board member, Harvest Thomas, challenged the superintendent’s narrative that schools working with Beyond Textbooks had improved — noting that their improvement was not significant enough to bring those schools off of the state’s watch list.

Superintendent Javier Abrego and his staff told their board that they want to take their time to get their plan right this time, but board members urged the district to be quicker.

“If I was on that state board, I’d say, ‘Well hell, how much more time do they need to get going?’” David Rolla, a board member, said. “We gotta be a little more proactive. We have to sell ourselves to that board. If we can’t, well, we won’t even be up here anymore.”

Read the full State Review Panel’s reports for Adams 14 and for Adams City High School, below:

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