When Pat Sanchez took over in July 2012 as superintendent of Adams County School District 14, it was fair to say the district was failing.
"There was a big system breakdown," he said. "Things were in a horrible situation, with how kids were performing."
The district in the northern Denver suburb of Commerce City has 7,500 students and was the largest of the bottom five in the state.
Tenth-grade TCAP scores in math were in the 9th percentile.
"It was atrocious - you probably could get better scores with kids guessing," Sanchez said.
The state had placed D-14 on "turnaround" status, meaning it needed to come up with a heavy-duty improvement plan for the 2012-2013 school year or face dire consequences that include state takeover and closure.
Sanchez, a veteran of working with struggling schools, and a team he assembled were recruited to lead the reform. More than half of the district's administrators and nearly half of the teachers quit.
"So we had an opportunity to bring in fresh blood," he said. "We've brought in leaders that have been highly effective and have proven track records."
In selecting principals, Sanchez said he looked for leaders who can engage teachers but not be dictators, collaborate with staff and build trust.
During spring TCAP testing, a higher percentage of students scored proficient or above than at any time in the past eight years, and the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced increased across all four testing areas. Kearney Middle School was the star, with a 10 percent jump in students scoring proficient or above in writing.
"Not only did scores move in all secondary schools significantly," Sanchez said, "but we've moved to priority improvement - up one level - in just one year."
Academic achievement at D-14's elementary schools is this year's focus, Sanchez said. Two schools, including one elementary, remain on "turnaround" status.
What did his team do?
"One thing we know in turning around any school, it's about turning around the hearts and minds of kids," Sanchez said. "That was our starting point."
The district's demographics are admittedly tough - 90 percent of the students are impoverished, 80 percent are Latino, 60 percent are English language learners, 23 percent are special education students and 12 percent are gifted and talented.
But Sanchez and his team let the kids know that they can succeed.
"Getting out of this idea of the student achievement gap and turning it into a student expectation gap is the shift we need to make," he said. "If all people believe kids can achieve at high levels, behavior follows. Instead of adding a bunch of remedial classes, how about we give kids advanced classes and enrichment classes."
D-14 is using several proven instructional models, Sanchez said, and is providing educators with specific tools to address race, to understand people are "different, not better, like I'm left-handed and you're right-handed," Sanchez said. "It matters to kids how they're treated. We have to not be afraid to talk about race in a constructive manner.
"It's so ironic, schools that are the lowest performing are the most poor and diverse. Until we address that, we'll play games and dance around it."