Say You'll Be There

On an upward trajectory, Adams 14 reaches out to community to earn back trust

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams 14 is on an upward trajectory, Superintendent Pat Sanchez told an audience of about 100 Thursday at Adams City High School. But the district needs the help of the community.

After years of struggling, Adams 14 officials celebrated pulling itself out of the red zone on state accountability measures and turned to the task of re-establishing trust with parents and civic leaders Thursday night.

But more work still needs to be done, they said, to avert drastic intervention from the state.

The first step in that plan: holding a community-wide meeting of stakeholders for the first time in anyone’s memory that aimed to foster stronger relationships with members of those groups.

Commerce City school officials hope by proving they’ve put in the initial work to boost academic achievement, the community will follow. They want the community’s help in creating the necessary political and social environment to push the district over the finish line as it races to beat the Colorado “accountability clock.”

“There are so many wonderful groups doing great things in the community, but it feels fragmented,” said Deputy Superintendent Kandy Steel. “We wanted to bring everyone together to talk about how we can work together to help out children.”

Specifically, the district hopes to pass a bond override issue in order to build a new “super” middle school and finance other academic programs and support services it believes will be essential to complete the turnaround work. The district’s last middle school was built in 1953. While the district did pass a construction bond in 2006 for a new high school, the last override, or general tax increase on the Commerce City community was 1996.

In attendance at the meeting were about 100 teachers, parents and representatives from various nonprofits such as the Rotary Club, Community Health Services, Boys and Girls Club and the alumni committee.

The last year it posted any sort of academic growth worthy of praise was in 2007, before the state began rating schools.

Two years ago Adams 14, which serves mostly poor minority students and a large English language learning population, was among the five lowest performing school districts. Among districts of similar size and demographics, it was the lowest, said Superintendent Pat Sanchez.

But that all changed this year, when Adams 14 posted enough academic growth to climb out of “turnaround” status and be accredited by the state as a “priority improvement” district. Districts that are accredited as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” have five years to improve their students’ test scores or face the loss of accreditation from the state. Adams 14 is one of about a dozen districts nearing the end of that timeline.

“We’ll know in about 18 months whether we’ve beat the clock,” Sanchez said after the community forum. “I’m betting we’re going to be sliding sideways across the finish line.”

Both Sanchez and Steel were hired 18 months ago. Their vision is for the district to be accredited with distinction, the state’s highest recognition for school districts, by 2020.

“We’re no longer going to aim for the middle,” Sanchez said.

Since being hired, Sanchez’s work has been focused mostly on data-driven instruction and equity work. He’s also been an outspoken critic of the state’s accountability framework, but said he agrees with the state’s premise students deserve a quality education.

He told the audience the district rating mechanism is meant to hold adults accountable, but the loss of accreditation would only punish children.

“Why is this work critical? Because it doesn’t hurt the adults or the organization, it hurts our kids,” he said.

No school district has lost its accreditation, but at an October meeting of the State Board of Education, Colorado Department of Education officials said they believe students who graduate from an unaccredited district may face hurdles in applying for colleges and scholarships. Districts may also lose out in federal grants and aid.

Teachers union president and Dupont Elementary School teacher Barb McDowell said after the forum teachers are invested in the district’s future.

“The fact is, the teachers who have stayed here are committed to the children, to the community,” she said. “These are the kids we want to teach.”

A 17-year veteran of Adams 14, McDowell said the district of today is drastically different then when she started.

“You could get away with stuff [back then],” she said. “But expectations have grown. It’s night and day.”

Nearly every Commerce City elected official attended Thursday’s meeting including Mayor Sean Ford, an Adams City High School alum.

“How we support our schools, districts, our teachers and our students is critical to the long-term success of our community,” he said.

He vowed the city would “do what we can do,” to help Adams 14 meet its goals.

The meeting was just one of many the district plans to host through the next year, said Deputy Superintendent Steele. One parent, Renee Lovato, hopes future meetings will have more detail about the work the district is doing at individual schools. She considered most of the information surface details.

“It’s scary,” she said being a parent in a turnaround district. “You wonder if you should stick it out and hope things improve or send your child to a neighboring district. When it’s your kid, it’s takes things to a whole other level.”

Sanchez, whom Lovato praised for transparency and hardwork, said he’s excited to raise awareness of the district’s turnaround process and how it’s turned the tide and create an agreement with the community.

“At the end of the day, there is an urgency,” Sanchez said after the meeting. “We need to end the predictability [of low test scores] that comes with educating students of color. The education our kids have been getting is horrible.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.