Culture shifts, districtwide cooperation, and new leadership are all necessary ingredients to improve student achievement, school leaders from three of the Colorado’s lowest performing school districts told the state school board Thursday.

Staff and elected representatives from the Adams 14, Pueblo City, and Karval school districts met with the board  as part of an ongoing conversation between the board and those districts that are nearing the end of the state’s so-called “accountability clock.”

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

Eleven districts, including the three that met with the board Thursday, have been dubbed low-performing for either four or five years. The aim of the conversations between the state and local districts is to foster an understanding between them, as the state board may soon have to strip the local districts of their accreditation and make a series of recommendations on how the districts regain their standing.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. In October, staff from the Colorado Department of Education outlined what might happen if a district ran out the clock before making the necessary changes to improve student achievement.

“Our goal is to improve from ‘priority improvement’ to ‘distinction,'” said Kandy Steel, assistant superintendent for Adams 14, referencing the state’s accreditation rating. “People are talking about going from worst to first. Our people are determined.”

Steel, like Superintendent Pat Sanchez, joined the district 18 months ago. Since then, the district has entered a 20-month program run by the University of Virginia that works with struggling school districts to transform them through data-driven decisions, developed a series of standard-based interim assessments and aligned their school’s courses to provide multiple pathways for students.

The district’s results from 2013 state standardized tests were the best anyone had seen since 2007, district officials said.

But none of the gains would have been possible, Sanchez said, if the culture of the district, which is northeast of Denver, hadn’t changed.

“We’ve been embracing the conversation — not just about high expectations and rigorous expectations — but also equity,” he said. “The goal is to end the predictability of low income kids and kids of color.”

Members of the state board applauded the district’s efforts but wondered if the district, which self-admittedly has much more room to improve, would beat the clock.

“We’ll be sliding in sideways,” said Sanchez, who has been a vocal critic of state’s accountability clock.

He asked the board if they were confident the department of education would be able to rank schools because so much of the annual review depends upon student growth, or how students improve year over year on standardized tests, data.

Next year, the state will be using a new assessment known as the PARCC, short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.

Department staff said they were confident they’ll be able to determine student growth and will rely on districts to provide supplemental data if necessary.

Meanwhile, the state board was curious whether a leadership transition would postpone Pueblo City Schools from beating the clock.

Pueblo’s superintendent, Maggie Lopez, is retiring at the end of the school year, but that won’t cost Pueblo it’s accreditation rating, said Kathy DeNiro, the district’s board president.

“Maggie has been great,” DeNiro said. “She’s led us, however, we’re insistent on moving forward. … We can’t miss a beat, for our children’s sake.”

Lopez — and 10 district staff that joined — her spoke of the district’s commitment to building districtwide structure that was not dependent on one program.

“What we know is we’re going to have to build infrastructure,” she said. “[We can] not be program or people dependent.”

Pueblo, about 100 miles south of Denver, was once the darling of the Colorado education community. In the mid-2000s low-income students there posted some of the best literacy rates in the state. The district’s success also garnered national attention. But after the district’s superintendent moved on and the district could no longer afford its literacy program those trends began to reverse.

“We have to be very serious about [sustainability and consistency] to move forward,” DeNiro said. “If we are 3.1 percent points away from improvement [accreditation], going backward is not an option.”

While Pueblo is losing its superintendent, the Karval school district has just gained a new one: Todd Werner. And with his new leadership has come a renewed partnership with the department of education.

The small rural district, which has just 28 students in its brick and mortar schools, has also developed its own interim-assessments and for the first time using them online.

CDE Commissioner Robert Hammond pointed out if Karval was to close it’s online school the achievement at its physical school was enough to beat clock. But that would spell financial doom for the district’s spreadsheets, state officials recogonize.

“In the past, CDE was not a welcome partner in turnaround practices,” said Cari Micala a member of the district’s online school. “Under new leadership, CDE has not only been an active partner but a welcome one.”

The board, president Kenny Yoder said, is 100 percent behind Werner and his collaboration with CDE.

— Kate Schimel contributed to this report. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed comments to Karval school leaders. It was state officials who recognized the school district could see financial troubles if the district’s online school closed.