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CO: Small groups produce big changes


The owner of piñata business in Westminster, Colorado, made this cheerful one for a potluck fiesta that celebrated the success parents had had in gaining English language skills in Adams County School District 50. (Courtesy Adams County School District 50)

Summary: Families in Adams County School District 50 were sending their children to other districts and the school board wanted to know why. (In Colorado, families can choose to attend any public school they wish as long as space is available.) With help from the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), the board found out.

Beginning in 2002, board members started having conversations with small groups in people’s homes to ask why people were leaving. The resulting engagement energized the school system and led to effective new programs.

The outreach helped the school board get more in sync with its increasingly diverse community. Hundreds of Hmong and Vietnamese families had settled in the area, later joined by many Hispanic families. As the percentage of minority students grew, the percentage of non-Hispanic white students dropped.

The district serves Westminster, Colorado, an older, established community that is home to construction workers as well as the county district attorney and a local TV anchor. Just eleven miles square, Westminster is "more like a small town," said Matt Duran, school board vice-chair and a resident for all but two years of his life.

Parents wanted stronger focus on higher education

Parents were most concerned about increasing the number of students who went on to higher education. One resident, Bill Wilson, recalled the atmosphere that had concerned some parents in his neighborhood. "The emphasis didn’t seem to be on driving students to further their education past high school," says Wilson, the owner of a party supplies store. Six years ago he gave his own teenagers the option of where they wanted to attend high school. They chose to leave Adams County School District 50.

District characteristics
Name: Adams County SD 50
State: CO
Type: Urban/Suburban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 10,467
Students per teacher: 15.6

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 57.7%
English language learners: 31.3%
Students with disabilities: 9.3%
White: 34.1 %
Black: 2.2%
Hispanic: 54.4%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 8.2 %
American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.7%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

The school board listened and the district introduced several new programs to prepare and encourage students to attend college. "The fact that the district didn’t get defensive helped,"said Wilson. Since then, he notes, the board and administrators have addressed many issues raised in those sessions.

New programs introduced

At one high school, the district added the challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Any student in the district who meets the academic qualifications may enroll.

In another high school, the district implemented a national model designed for students from populations that traditionally have lower rates of college enrollment. AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), teachers and counselors ensure that students take rigorous courses and provide other supports to prepare them for higher-education. Also, access to enrichment activities through the district’s gifted and talented program has been expanded at all elementary schools.

Conversations move into schools; childcare offered during gatherings

Conversations continue and bring citizens into the schools. After a year of meeting in homes, the community conversations moved into schools. "Now we provide childcare, we feed them,”"says Duran, adding "I have never had so many chili bowls in all my life."At the last gathering of the school year in 2005, attendance was so high they ran out of chili.

The school board has found personal outreach to families makes a difference. Such turnouts are due partly to personalized invitations. The board sends each family a big postcard, and the child’s teacher personalizes and signs it, often hand-delivering it at parent-teacher conferences. So far about two-thirds of the schools have been covered. At each gathering, school board members ask parents, "What can the school do to make you feel more comfortable? How can we get you involved?"

School and community concerns get addressed

Other concerns that have surfaced and been addressed over the years include math and (specific to one site) school safety. "From these discussions, we come up with a plan to address the issue...the superintendent helps carry it out," said Duran. Math nights at schools and parent programs on the local TV channel are just a few examples.

The board also heard requests for community services. Thus was born the Voices program in 2004, offering help with everything from banking to home-buying and referrals for social services. "If [parents] are worried about survival, kids aren’t going to be learning," said Duran.

To make time for the monthly community meetings, the school board dropped one of its two formal monthly meetings. To get public engagement down to a habit, board members noted it helps to make time for it.

More involvement spurs more interest in school board service

Recent elections brought in virtually a whole new cast of board members, but the community engagement effort continues strong. The 2003 election was notable in that six people ran for three open seats, whereas in neighboring districts, several school board races almost didn’t have any candidates at all.

"I was so impressed with the public engagement, that the school board would make these efforts, I wanted to run myself," said Vicky Marshall, a former PTA president. She was elected in 2003. Longtime school activist Kevin Massey, also elected in 2003, said that after his years of volunteer work on various committees, "I saw a void and thought, 'I can help.'"

Visit the Adams County School District 50 web site for more information about the district's programs.

Lessons learned
  • Personal relations matter. To encourage people to come and talk about school issues, use the existing teacher-parent relationship to personalize invitations.
  • Effective outreach to the community need not be expensive. Childcare, simple food, and hand-delivered invitations can boost attendance.
  • Facilitators and trainers who understand other cultures can help engage some parents.
  • When board members and school officials can be non-defensive about hearing concerns, participants are more likely to speak their minds.
  • When the board adds significantly to its workload, such as time spent on community engagement, "something else needs to be subtracted from the plate."


Deb Haviland

Director, Communications and Community Relations

Adams County School District 50

4476 W. 68th Ave.

Westminster, CO 80030

Phone: (303) 657-3853

Email: dhaviland@adams50.k12.co.us

More information

Posted: September 27, 2005

© Center for Public Education

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