The first night after learning that Adams 14 schools were at risk of closing, Cristina Ruiz, a mother of two whose older child is heading to high school in the fall, tossed and turned all night.
Where would her children go to school? How would they enroll in other districts without a local address? How crowded would those schools become? Could she make the drive?
Many of those same concerns are weighing on parents, students, and community members as the State Board of Education nears an April hearing to decide the fate of the district, which has struggled for years with instability and low test scores.
An outside panel of experts recommended closing at least the district’s main high school and reorganizing the district, possibly closing other schools. District leaders instead want to create community schools with extensive support services to engage families and address poverty.
The State Board will consider both recommendations, as well as ideas from the public and the education department staff, before making a decision at an April hearing.
Many parents and students feel left out of the state’s process and confused about the recommendation which they see as a drastic measure that will displace students.
“Closing the schools is not a solution,” Ruiz said. “They’re hurting us instead of helping.”
Students and parents who have had both good and bad experiences in the district want the state to give their schools another chance.
JoJo Lopez, 19, a senior at Adams City High School, fears most students have lost hope and think state leaders have made up their mind.
Lopez, who walks to school every morning — “only a good 30 minutes” she said — worries how students like her would get to a school outside their neighborhood. Many families don’t have cars or don’t drive, she said.
But she does think the high school needs to change. Diagnosed with anxiety and Tourette Syndrome, Lopez has been waiting for an evaluation to receive specialized services, but the school has been busy, she said. And when she asks teachers for extra help, they decline because she doesn’t have a special needs plan, she said.
“I feel like I need more time and help one-on-one with teachers. It’s really hard for me to learn the way everyone else learns,” Lopez said. “For me, like, if I take notes, my brain gets completely puzzled.”
When she starts to worry about passing a class and looks for academic counselors, they’re also always busy, she said. Still, she thinks she is on track now to graduate in May.
For other students, she believes problems revolve around safety. A few years ago, her older sister dropped out of school after getting in trouble when she had to defend herself in a fight. Other friends she knows have left the high school more recently because of similar concerns with fighting.
“I want the kids that are younger than me to be able to graduate and get a better education,” Lopez said. “They need to feel safe enough.”
Other factors affect student learning
Some parents and many teachers believe that too much of the blame is placed on the district while poverty, trauma, and varying levels of parent involvement also affect students’ ability to learn.
Among Colorado school districts, Adams 14 has the highest percentage of English learners, the second highest percentage of students of color, and the 15th highest percentage of students who qualify for subsidized meals, a measure of poverty.
The community and the district have criticized the state for relying heavily on state test scores in measuring the educational quality of the district. But other measures also paint a grim picture.
Last year, the district had a 6% dropout rate, the sixth highest in the state. The district also has a high number of parents who have enrolled their children out of the district, and many say they don’t plan on coming back to Adams 14 no matter what.
Studies have found that school closures have a mixed track record and many downsides. Displaced students who moved to another low-performing school didn’t improve their academics, and schools that accepted large numbers of displaced students struggled more themselves. Students reported their friendships and self-esteem suffered. Fewer students graduated, and more dropped out entirely.
Many in the Adams 14 community defend their schools.
At a recent city council meeting, several people spoke during public comment to highlight the stories of Adams 14 graduates who have gone to college and started successful careers.
The opportunities are there, one mother told the council, “if kids just take advantage of it.”
Elizabeth Rivas has a preschooler and a first grader in the district, and feels they are learning. She wonders about the cause of negative comments that don’t match what she experiences.
“I don’t see that,” Rivas said. “My daughter is brilliant. I know she’s learning because she can do her homework by herself. Another way I know is because she loves school.”
Rivas said that if the state wants to help the district, it should help schools to roll out more dual language programming.
“I want my daughter to learn both languages,” Rivas said. “The state shouldn’t deny the children of Commerce City the opportunity to take all of their classes in two languages. It’s something that is very beneficial for them and can open a lot of opportunities.”
Adams 14 is starting to roll out a new language plan that includes dual language programming at some schools and grade levels. The program Rivas is most interested in is only offered at one Adams 14 school so far. Students whose first language is English and those whose first language is Spanish both receive half of their academic classes in English and half in Spanish, so they all can benefit from becoming bilingual. It’s a model that parents have long asked for in Adams 14 and that doesn’t exist in most districts.
Adams 14 itself has struggled in the past to stick with developing a full K-12 bilingual program.
Rivas thinks that’s one area where the state could provide more resources — perhaps money or staffing, she said.
She and other parents also are excited about the district’s plans to create a community school that includes services such as a health clinic, food pantry, or adult education, depending on the needs of the families. Parents want the district to have time to try that out.
“We are united now,” Rivas said. “I think there’s so much support now that the district can be successful.”
Leadership turnover has been a challenge
Bill and Lorraine Maddock have lived in the community for almost 50 years and still are involved in organizing parents. The couple says that after witnessing many leaders make promises and then leave, the current leadership now inspires trust.
In the one year since she started, Superintendent Karla Loria has met with the Maddocks’ parent group more times than they were ever able to meet with MGT, the private company that ran the district for about two years.
“We had a lot of problems getting questions answered with MGT, but with our superintendent now she meets with us quite often and tells us what’s going on,” Lorraine Maddock said. “She just kind of helps us along with what we want to see in our community. Most of the time it’s us who tell her what we want to see. She listens.”
April Saucedo, 20, who graduated from Adams City in 2019, participated in a student walkout last time the school was threatened with closure. She remembers feeling put down by the administration, and she doesn’t want her younger brother, who is supposed to start high school in the fall, to feel the same.
She said she is hopeful that district and state officials will listen to the community.
“I want kids to know they are cared for,” Saucedo said. “I don’t want them to think that they’re not worth the time anymore.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at email@example.com.