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.”

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.