COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — After years of low academic performance, the Colorado Board of Education is set to vote on the future of the Adams 14 School District Thursday.
The board could ultimately decide to completely restructure the district, or even close Adams City High School — two proposals put forth by a state review panel in March.
The proposal followed the firing of outside management group MGT Consulting in February. The district has been crafting an improvement plan to propose to the state since then after a request for a deadline extension was rejected.
Denver7 takes a 360 look to learn of the struggles in the classrooms, the fights in the halls and some success stories at the district that haven’t gotten as much attention.
Problems for the Pacheco family
Studying hardly ever stops in the Pacheco household.
Grandmother Leona Pacheco feels she must take many matters into her own hands with the education of her three grandchildren whom attend schools within Adams 14. She pulled her grandkids out temporarily to homeschool them and also joined the local school board to, as she put it, try to help turn things around.
“I was concerned about the level of education that my children were receiving,” Leona Pacheco said. “I wanted to ensure that I was a participant so that I could have a say.”
Leona Pacheco's grandson, Lionel Pacheco, a junior at Adams City High School, is failing multiple courses. He is working with a tutor from the state to try to get a grasp of the material but says disruptions at school have hindered his improvement.
“Definitely the fights that happen,” Lionel Pacheco said when asked about the sources of his struggles at school. “I definitely know that within one day, there were two fights not even an hour apart that happened in the same day at school.”
“He’s failing because we’re in a bad district and there’s not a lot of support,” Leona Pacheco added. “It’s been a battle, and it has been a very frustrating, long journey.”
Adams 14 is a majority minority school district, with a more than 85% Hispanic/Latino population and more than half of students speaking English as a second language. More than 84% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“I feel that this community has been left behind, [that] it’s not really an important factor,” Leona Pacheco said. “I’m frustrated, and I’m angry, and I want to understand why.”
How did we get here?
The Pacheco family is hardly alone in sounding the alarm on the Adams 14 School District.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, which keeps tabs of academic performance at every district in the street, roughly two out of 10 students in grades third through eighth at Adams 14 could read at their grade level as of 2019, the most recent year for which data is currently available. About one in 10 students were at their grade level in math.
Graduation rates for the district were 15 percentage points below the statewide average, and the dropout rates were more than double.
Every year since 2010, Adams 14 has only received the two lowest ratings on the Department of Education's accountability scale.
“Adams 14 has been needing some support and needing some help for at least 10 years,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said. “We know that Adams 14 students are brilliant, and we want to see them achieve at the same levels because we know they can do it. So, we just need to make sure they have the supports to reach that potential.”
The State Board of Education can choose to respond in any number of ways, but the options mostly fall into three basic categories. If current administration at the district presents an improvement plan the board feels is satisfactory, the board can approve it and leave control entirely in local hands. If the board is not convinced, it could vote to close Adams City High School — one of the recommendations put forward by a state review panel in March.
“We know that school closures are a really difficult and scary option,” Anthes said. “That is where those kids go to school, those families. Often it’s the center of the community… that’s just one option that the state review panel noted. If that were to be a decision the state board made, we would really work hard to implement it with a long timeline, with a lot of discussion with families, with a lot of options for students.”
The board could also vote to reorganize the district — changing administration, dissolving the district and placing each school under the control of neighboring district — or bring in another outside management firm.
That would be a controversial choice, since current leadership at the district had such a contentious relationship with its previous management company, MGT Consulting. The relationship was so contentious it ended in a lawsuit against the company after the district stopped working with the Florida-based education consultant company in August 2021 without seeking state board approval.
“We know it can work,” Anthes said when asked about outside management firms. “You know, it didn’t work in this last situation, and we certainly reflect on that. But it doesn’t mean it can’t work in the future.”
Seven superintendents in 14 years
The Adams 14 School District has had seven different superintendents, including interim and acting superintendents, since 2008. None have stayed longer than four years, and none have overseen lasting improvement in academic performance.
Current superintendent Dr. Karla Loria stepped in just last year, and says she is confident this time will be different if the district gets another chance. Loria has more than 30 years of educational experience, specifically working in other turnaround districts.
“I know what the work looks like,” Loria said. “I know it’s hard work, and I feel a strong commitment to come and support the community with the abilities and the skills I have developed over 30 years."
“I am confident that we can make it happen," Loria continued. "I would not have signed my name to the district if I thought it was a lost cause. I would not have signed my name to come next year, again, if I thought it was a lost cause. But I truly believe that we have the capacity, the local board has the vision, the right vision, and we have the staff to turn around the district.”
When asked if she plans to stay longer than her predecessors, Loria said she will “stay here as long as the board wants me here.”
There is success in Adams 14
Every single person who spoke to Denver7 — from the district, to the state, to the families impacted — agreed Adams 14 has many problems to fix. However, the district contends that important successes have been ignored by the state, and missed by the broader public debate.
At Adams City High School, graduation rates have gone up since principal Chris Garcia stepped in two years ago. Equally important, he says, is that the community has leaned in.
“We’re all on the same page that we need to be better for our students in general,” Garcia said. “But also, what I think is important is that we will hold ourselves accountable. We welcome that accountability, and we welcome the relationship when it’s about getting better and serving our kids better. When it’s like that at all, it works.”
Individual students have worked hard to buck the district trends, too. Carolina Loa, a senior at Adams City High School, was introduced as an example of what’s possible. She plays three sports, has kept a 4.2 GPA and is receiving impressive scholarships for college. She credits her teachers and peers at the school, despite going in with some reservations given its lackluster reputation.
“I’ve never seen a community like this before,” Loa said. “We’re all so close. I was raised by a single mother, and my father is incarcerated. And I see other students around here who have similar backgrounds, and I feel like they know me as a person and they want to invest in my future. And that’s something I’m so thankful for.”
“I know that it will be a really tough fight if they really do want to close it,” she added of Adams City High School. “Because it’s just been around for so long and it’s such a landmark here in Commerce City. It’s the heart of Commerce City… I feel like everybody would be so broken.”
What comes next?
What comes next for the Adams 14 School District is in the hands of the State Board of Education, as it prepares to meet and vote on proposed outcomes.
While all options remain on the table, each educator, student and family member Denver7 talked to were united in their hope that Adams 14 stays open but also stays accountable. The message that came from every single angle as Denver7 went 360 on is that the success of the Adams 14 students should be the ultimate and only goal.
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.