School districts across the United States are trying to improve student performance. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50 in Colorado. For starters, when the elementary and middle school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels or traditional grades, for that matter. And the organizational transformation to a pattern popular in the era of the little red schoolhouse, but with a modern twist is only the most visible change in a district facing significant challenges. Adams 50 is striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate by opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, departing from the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.
The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new standards-based educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district. 'There was a sense of urgency to attend to what wasn't happening for kids here,' says Roberta Selleck, district superintendent, explaining why she decided to go with a drastic approach. 'When [we saw] the stats for the whole school district over time, we realized we are disconnecting [from] our kids.' The change that's getting the most attention by far is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels. At first, the new approach will affect only kids traditionally in grades lower than eighth. The district plans to phase the reform in through high school, one year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They'll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material. Selleck and her colleagues are quick to emphasize this is only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning–and it's not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability.