In a darkened room one Monday afternoon, first-grade teacher Nicole Houghton sat in a rocking chair facing about a dozen of her students sitting on the floor.

“Choppers ready,” Houghton told her class at Rose Hill Elementary in Commerce City. They all clasped their hands together.

As she slowly pronounced a list of words, students used their hand choppers to “chop” down as they sounded out the word and broke it into different syllables. Then she asked them to identify, and yell out the final syllable in each word.

It’s a first-grade class, but it was an intervention period where students were catching up on a kindergarten-level skill.

At Rose Hill, the daily intervention time every student gets for at least 30 minutes is one new part of the daily routine. But lots more has changed in the school recently. Teachers are working with new curriculum and regularly meeting to talk about data and how their students are performing. And they’re being led by a new principal.

“My teachers have been put down and gone through so much. I think they’ve been traumatized,” said Luis Camas, the Rose Hill principal. “Until now. Now we’re focusing on our students and moving forward.”

Across the district, Adams 14 is working to improve literacy instruction with the help of a local consultant, Schools Cubed, which focuses on turnaround work through literacy. They started working in Adams 14 last school year. Now they’ve continued their work as partners of MGT Consulting, the company that the state ordered to take over daily operations of Adams 14 to try to improve academic outcomes.

Making sure kids learn to read is a huge part of the improvement work for the district.

Last year 21% of third-graders in Adams 14 met reading standards. It’s a low number, far behind the state average of 41.3%, but it represented a big jump from 2018 when 14.7% of third-graders were on grade level in reading. Of district schools with data, all made significant gains in getting more third-graders to test at grade level in reading, although the results are still far below the state average.

Overall, district officials told the Adams 14 board board this week that all data points suggest students are improving, although not at a fast-enough pace to meet this year’s goals.

Rose Hill is a small school of 379 students, where about 88% qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty, and half of all students are learning English as a second language. Rose Hill students have an even lower performance than the district average. In 2019, just 13% of all students met or exceeded expectations for reading, up from 12% the year before.

Camas, in his first year as principal of Rose Hill, said improving the culture of the school so that there can be a focus on improvement has been a big lift.

Just like the district’s external managers are finding as they try to improve the district, Camas found a lot of systems missing. Teachers weren’t in the habit of tracking their student data and talking about it. They didn’t have a lot of time to collaborate.

But making sure the changes his teachers are experiencing aren’t overwhelming has meant he needs to be vulnerable too, he said, and ask for help.

One day recently, Camas was discussing a strategy for literacy instruction with one of his teachers, when she asked him more about the “why.”

Not knowing the best answer himself, Camas immediately called Alan Dillon, the Schools Cubed consultant assigned to his school.

Dillon was able to give Camas more information, so he could walk through it with the teacher, and help her put it in practice in her classroom.

Whether the example shows the teacher questioning the new way she is learning to teach reading, or whether it just shows a deeper level of discussion about the practice, either way it’s a good thing, officials said.

“It’s huge,” said Pati Montgomery, the founder and CEO of Schools Cubed. “As long as they’re reflecting on their practice.”

That’s how Schools Cubed works with schools. Instead of working one-on-one with teachers, they work most with principals, instructional coaches, and district leaders to train them to observe for good teaching and to coach teachers to improve.

This approach builds capacity, so that Adams 14 leaders like Camas and other district leaders can take on the work themselves in the future.

“They’ve been key in building capacity,” Camas siad. “In helping us understand essential elements of literacy, phonics, fluency, and how does that look in a classroom.”

Schools Cubed also worked with the district in suggesting a new literacy curriculum, Superkids for kindergarten through second grades and Wonders, for third through fifth grades. That was rolled out just in the last year.

Then Schools Cubed gave Adams 14 elementary teachers some training at the beginning of the school year about the science behind learning to read. They’ve also helped train instructional coaches, paraprofessionals, and volunteers to help work on skills with young students during intervention time.

Schools Cubed consultants spend about three days per month at Adams 14 elementary schools.

When Schools Cubed visits Rose Hill, Camas and the consultants walk into classrooms to observe teaching together then they debrief and look for the most important things that need to be changed.

“If we did 100 things we would just overwhelm everyone,” Montgomery said. “What are those next steps that will make a big difference? What is that one thing that will move us far? And we sit down to talk about it together.”

At Rose Hill, Camas has advocated for the improvement strategies that revolve around his school’s theme of developing oral language. Some examples of suggestions from Schools Cubed have been to develop more explicit instruction for students during small group time, and a suggestion for more training on strategies teachers can use to help students develop their oral language.

Because so many students are English learners, and all students need to improve literacy, the school is focusing on giving students opportunities to talk as a way to develop their vocabulary and practice language.

In a fifth-grade classroom, toward the end of one unit, teacher Haley Stratton encouraged her students, who sat in groups of about four per table, to talk to each other about the story “They Don’t Mean It,” which they had just finished reading.

Stratton said that as she tests student progress, her fifth-graders have also taken ownership of how they’re learning, and are excited to improve.

“ ‘I read five more words than last week,’ a student will tell me,” Stratton said. “They’re really wanting to do their best.”

Across the school, in a kindergarten classroom, teacher Karen Ernst gives her students a suggested sentence with a blank word, such as, “I can see a blank out the window.” Then she asks her kindergarteners to repeat the sentence, filling in the blank with a word of their choice as a way to encourage them to develop their language and to recognize the proper structure of a sentence.

Ernst has been at Rose Hill for 23 years. She said this year, she is excited about the new curriculum, which she said is “very thoughtfully designed” and helping her students show more growth than in the past. But she also believes the school culture has already improved this year.

“The thing I appreciate the most is the autonomy we have. I have been given the freedom that if one day reading takes an hour, it’s OK,” Ernst said. “It’s known you’re doing it for the greater good. Now it’s ‘please do what’s best for kids.’”

“How can I get them to do the things we need to do?” Camas said. “Because we trust each other.”