In meeting after meeting in recent weeks, Adams 14 district leaders repeated the sad statistics about their district’s shortcomings, from poor attendance to low state test scores.
Acknowledging those problems and talking about the district’s failures is taking a toll on staff and on the community. But district leaders hope that by being open they can keep some control over a situation in which they might ultimately end up with none.
Adams 14, a district of about 7,500 students north of Denver, has a hearing before the Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday at which state officials must decide what steps to order Adams 14 to take to try to finally improve the struggling district.
The state board already approved an improvement plan last year, but it hasn’t shown enough results. Now district officials must answer why — and prove they can do better given more time.
Among the board’s most extreme options, they could choose to dissolve the local district and start a process to combine it with neighboring districts. A review panel has recommended a different, but potentially also drastic option: to turn over management of the district and its schools to an outside group.
Such a takeover has never happened in Colorado, and it’s not clear exactly what that would look like. Colorado law does not allow for the complete state takeover that has happened in other states, but whatever comes next will represent a new chapter for Adams 14, its control over its schools, and its relationship with the community.
There are varying degrees of authority that the district could be forced to give up. The local Adams 14 school board has pushed district staff to write a proposal that leans towards the more extreme end of the scale, giving up more control than has happened before. The proposal was finalized this week, but given how quickly the district had to create it, there are still missing details that might answer questions about what the plan would mean for Adams 14 staff and students.
There is not much concrete evidence that outside groups can make a difference for low-performing schools or districts, and in some cases, there is evidence they can strip a community of their voice and local power.
For now, what is known is that Adams 14 is proposing to hire two external managers. One would oversee district systems and would have authority over the superintendent, but would still answer to the existing, locally elected Adams 14 board. The second external manager would be hired specifically for Adams City High School, the district’s lowest performing school, which is facing state intervention itself. That manager would have authority over the principal and staff and would answer directly to the Adams 14 board, not the superintendent.
“The district does need help,” Barb McDowell, the district’s union president acknowledges. “We just hope whoever is chosen to be the external manager allows us to remain local and public.”
If the state board allows the district to try its proposed plan, a lot of what comes next could depend on who the district hires as that outside manager.
The groups under consideration include the University of Virginia program known as Partnership for Leaders in Education, the University of Denver, and Mass Insight. Local school board members also asked staff to look into working with KIPP, the national charter network that is proposing to open a school in Adams 14.
The district would go through a bidding process that could start as soon as next week to vet outside groups.
But at least some people, including Bill Hyde, one of the Adams 14 board members, question whether the district should make that selection.
“If the conclusions of the state review panel and the results of the community survey … are accurate and valid regarding Adams 14’s insufficient leadership, vision, and sense of urgency, it seems incredible (that is, not credible) or at least misguided, to ask that same leadership to provide a plan for the district’s future,” Hyde wrote. “I encourage the [State Board of Education] to reserve for itself the decision of selecting an external manager.”
Another option Hyde and teachers union members are supporting would be to select the neighboring district of Mapleton Public Schools as the external manager. Mapleton serves about 9,000 students in a model that requires all students to choose their school and has a state rating of “improvement,” which is one rating above Adams 14’s. This option cedes control but not to a charter organization.
“I have not heard or seen any other proposal that comes close to this one in terms of efficacy, likelihood of success, and simplicity of operation and management,” Hyde wrote. “Choice is something that our community wants, and a portfolio management model would fit our needs in that regard.”
And, Hyde pointed out, it is supported by the teachers union and the community. Yvonne Bradford, director of Central Adams Uniserv, a collection of teachers unions, sent Hyde an outline of Mapleton’s interest. District officials confirmed their interest.
Bradford wrote that Mapleton’s superintendent “wants to help Adams 14 get systems and structures in place. She wants to collaborate with parents and staff at each school to see what kind of school they want and then help make that happen.”
She added: “She does not want a precedent set that outside private money comes into Colorado, takes the money, and the district is no better off when they leave.”
Evidence on the effectiveness of outside groups, especially for turning around an entire district, is limited.
When Adams 14 officials asked experts from the state education department for examples of what external management could look like, one example they pointed to was the turnaround of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
The 33-school district in the suburbs of Boston became the first in that state to face state control. In 2012, the state appointed a “receiver” who took over the duties of the district’s superintendent and local governing board.
That appointed leader answered directly to the state commissioner of education and was given authority to bypass the district’s union contract, including to expand the school day and year, change teacher pay, and fire some district staff.
With that oversight, the district partnered with five groups to run six of the lowest performing schools in the district. The partners included the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union group, and some charter schools. The district also contracted with several additional groups that provided more specific resources such as after-school programs or teacher training. The district slowly gave all schools more autonomy and flexibility.
Research on the effects of that turnaround are mixed, although some say it is one of the better examples of a successful district turnaround. Test scores did rise soon after the changes and graduation rates have improved, but some challenges remain. The state is now in the process of transitioning control back to a local board.
Brett Alessi, who helped lead that work and is co-founder of Empower Schools, says that the work outside groups do isn’t special, but can help change the discussions — and the urgency — around change.
“Everything we did in Lawrence, a superintendent and school board can do, the question is why aren’t they doing these things,” Alessi said. “It’s just hard for them. That threat of real action can be a motivator to think about new changes as opposed to just bringing in a new superintendent or a new curriculum.”
Domingo Morel, a political scientist who criticizes state takeovers of school districts from his research on the political impact for local communities, says the key is for state officials to work with communities to empower them instead of taking away their voice.
“Usually when you have a third-party organization, you’re just shielding them from democratic pressure,” Morel said. “When you have communities that want to have a say, those avenues are not there for them, then it becomes highly problematic.”
And, he said, local communities must work together.
“Looking at the state for a solution is probably not going to work,” Morel said. “Based on history, it’s not likely.”
In Adams 14, rising tensions around the state’s possible actions and the upcoming vote on the proposed KIPP school have divided the community.
Many parents who are supportive of KIPP — and drastic state actions — have shied away from the public process after, they say, teachers have confronted them about their views. But other community members, including Timio Archuleta, who stepped away from the school board president role this summer, have criticized parents who “only want to complain” but don’t get involved in their schools.
This year, state officials have sought more public feedback for the State Board’s decision. The district has also held several meetings with different community members and groups to gather feedback.
A group of education advocates this week signed a report that includes a list of recommendations for the district and state to consider as they decide on the fate of Adams 14. Among those recommendations, they ask that the district be pushed to continue to engage the community throughout the process, and to develop systems to better communicate to families their students’ expectations.
Morel said all voices are important in the process for improving schools, but he said the idea that some people don’t care is a myth.
“As parents, we are concerned for our child that particular year,” Morel said. “That voice is more likely to be in favor of a short-term fix. Community organizations that are concerned not just about this year, but 10 years from now, that voice is also important in the conversation.”
Check out the district’s prepared presentation to the state, below, and the full concept paper, here.