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State Board will change its order for one year, placing more trust in Pueblo district

Books on a library bookshelf.
Pueblo’s District 60 will contract with a partial manager to help improve a low performing school.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The Pueblo 60 school district will regain some control over its lowest-performing school — at least for one more year.

After hearing district officials on Wednesday present their case, the Colorado State Board of Education members said they felt just enough confidence to roll back part of the order to hand control of Risley International Academy of Innovation to a private company.

The private company that had taken over full management, MGT Consulting, left Pueblo earlier this school year after the State Board scaled back its order, to allow for temporary partial management of Risley given multiple challenges.

The State Board will vote next month on the formal language of the order to allow the district to contract with an outside group for only partial management of the school, rather than full management. The external manager must be in control of the instructional programming and teacher training.

The district had asked for a two-year relaxed order, but State Board officials were nervous about allowing two years of partial management given the school’s nine years of low performance ratings.

“A two-year extension was going to cause a leap of faith for me,” said Angelika Schroeder, State Board president.

In 2018, the State Board had asked the Pueblo district to hand over management of Risley International Academy of Innovation to an external group, in an attempt to improve student achievement after years of lagging ratings.

It was the same year that the State Board ordered the Adams 14 school district to do the same for its entire district. The orders were a last resort meant to ensure improvement in districts that the State Board had lost confidence in.

But as a first-time tactic in the state, the rollout of the orders faced problems, including Pueblo 60 not getting a qualified applicant the first time it looked for an external manager and the State Board rejecting Adams 14’s first choice. The State Board has not issued similar orders again.

Some lawmakers and educators are questioning the state’s accountability system as a whole and wondering if the state has done enough to help schools and districts before ordering such extreme measures. A bill expected to be introduced this session would audit the system.

Wednesday’s State Board vote means the state will draft a new one-year order that will allow for Risley to have partial management from an outside group.

In September, Pueblo 60 officials told the state that MGT Consulting, the external manager that had been hired for Risley, was having trouble managing the school, a challenge worsened by school closures as a result of the pandemic.

Wednesday, Pueblo 60 leaders told the state that under the modified improvement plan, it has worked with Relay Graduate School of Education as a partial manager and produced positive changes. Moving back to a full outside management would disrupt that momentum, Pueblo officials argued.

A state review panel also concluded in its report that the partial management was working. The panel found evidence of the school developing leadership capacity, something a similar review panel in 2018 had found lacking.

Pueblo 60 also presented local metrics that show the school heading in the right direction with improved teacher attendance, local test scores, and positive feedback from parents and teachers. Average student attendance has also improved in the second semester of this school year, though it is lower than in 2019-20 before the pandemic.

Board members said they were heartened to see signs of improvement, but board member Steve Durham also cautioned that the changes weren’t overwhelming.

The slow start to improvement came even before the pandemic. After having to ask the state for an extension in its search for a manager, the district eventually hired MGT Consulting, a for-profit group that also won the contract to manage the Adams 14 school district, and later to partially manage an Aurora school.

MGT’s model to hire local experienced educators to do much of the work on the ground faced challenges in Pueblo in southwestern Colorado. MGT’s positions had high turnover, which caused delays in creating a plan for improvement and its rollout. After some of those challenges appeared to have been resolved, COVID-19 shut schools down, and stirred up new problems for MGT.

The company helped hire a new principal for Risley, but was expecting to rely heavily on subcontractors for its second year of work. Instead, Pueblo officials asked the state to work with a partial manager, and terminated the MGT contract.

Now the district is working with Relay, based in New York. District leaders say they already had a collaborative working relationship with Relay because of previous work with the group.

“My hope is that the positive indications of forward momentum, however modest, are cause for some confidence here,” said Rebecca McClellan, a State Board member.

But she and other board members said they want to be able to look at more data next year as they continue monitoring the progress of the school.

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