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State panel sees signs of promise at Adams 14’s Central Elementary

The brick front of Central Elementary School building on a snowy day.

A state review panel is recommending that Adams 14’s Central Elementary become an innovation school.

Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

In contrast to drastic recommendations to reorganize the Adams 14 school district as a whole, a state review panel is suggesting a less disruptive approach at the district’s long-struggling Central Elementary School, where reviewers heard promises of improvement.

The panelists are recommending Central Elementary become an innovation school, which would give it more autonomy over its budget, calendar, teacher training, and more. The panelists are also suggesting Central work with a “partial management partner” that could help the school carry out its vision and train its staff but not assume total control.

The Adams 14 school district serves Commerce City, a working-class suburb of Denver. On state orders, the district turned over day-to-day operations to a private management company, MGT Consulting. Then the district hired its own superintendent, Karla Loria, and recently terminated its two-year relationship with MGT.

The entire district, as well as Central Elementary and Adams City High schools, are still under state orders to boost student achievement. The State Board of Education is set to meet April 14 to decide next steps for the district as a whole and also for Central.

Adams 14 leaders support the innovation idea and have already begun developing a plan that would include extending Central’s school day, hiring more reading and math tutors, and providing wraparound services for families, including before- and after-school child care. 

Conversion to a district-run innovation school is less drastic than the State Board’s other options, which include closing Central or converting it to an independently run charter school.

The state review panel — which was composed of a retired superintendent from the St. Vrain Valley School District and an administrator from Aurora Public Schools — ruled out converting Central to a charter school or closing it altogether. The panel’s recommendations are important because the State Board will consider them when making its decision. 

“There is a clear commitment from the school community to Central Elementary School,” the review panel’s report said. “This was especially true of parents and community members, who indicated a strong desire to keep Central Elementary open.”

The state review panel report noted that Central’s new principal who was hired in November has created “more consistency and stability” at the school and has begun to identify strategies that will likely lead to academic gains for students — but it’s too early to be sure.

Adams 14 leaders on Tuesday laid out their vision for Central. As an innovation school, Central could waive certain district policies, state laws, and portions of the teachers union contract. 

Those waivers would allow Central to operate differently from other Adams 14 schools with the goal of improving learning for Central’s 432 students. Ninety percent of students at Central are students of color, 79% come from low-income families, 57% are learning English as a second language, and 15% qualify for special education services.

Robert Lundin, the district’s executive director of communications and special projects, told the Adams 14 school board that becoming an innovation school would allow Central to do several things, including:

  • Extend its school day to offer students more reading and math instruction, as well as provide teachers more time to plan lessons and analyze student achievement data.
  • Expand a math and reading tutoring program.
  • Hire an agency to find special education staff.
  • Provide each teacher with a customized plan for training and professional learning.
  • Offer financial incentives to staff members in hard-to-fill positions.
  • Host forums to gather feedback from families, teachers, and others.
  • Expand social and emotional learning to all students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • Create a “student success coordinator” position to oversee improving school culture, social and emotional learning, and restorative practices, which is a discipline approach that focuses on repairing harm rather than punishing students.
  • Establish a community schools model that would provide non-academic services to both students and families, including before- and after-school child care.

The Adams 14 school board supports the community schools model, which aims to provide services to families so that circumstances at home don’t become barriers to student learning. Lundin said the goal is so “no parent ever feels hesitant to walk through the schoolhouse doors because they know it’s really part of their community and it’s their home too.”

The community schools model has been gaining traction with Colorado lawmakers, who are considering a bill that would establish community schools as a state-approved strategy for improving schools with persistently low test scores. But one of the bill’s main sponsors has said the proposal is not meant for schools already facing state intervention, such as Adams 14.

The bill isn’t law yet. Proposing to provide services such as child care and food pantries is allowed as part of an innovation plan. It’s unclear how the State Board will view Adams 14’s plan for Central, though Loria said Colorado Department of Education officials had reviewed a draft and provided feedback that the district would incorporate.

Read the state review panel’s report below.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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