CEA convenes educator ESSA Summit

ESSA room releaseThe Colorado Education Association led a gathering of more than 230 educators, June 17, exploring how to give our students the schools they deserve through state implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. They discussed the intersection of school accountability, standardized assessments, educator evaluations, professional learning and funding at the new crossroads provided by ESSA, the new federal education law signed in December.

“We are here today to envision what public education in Colorado might look like in the future, and to strategize on how to improve our state plan so we improve educational opportunities for our students,” said CEA Executive Director Brad Bartels in opening comments to a group filling the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center to max capacity.

The ‎ESSA Summit brought district teams together from across Colorado that included CEA-member teachers and school support staff, administrative members of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) and school board members of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). The Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and Colorado Rural Schools Alliance were crucial partners in successfully convening the summit.

“The people who should be close to the conversation, who should be at the center of the circle for ESSA, are those people doing the work in schools and districts. And those are the people who are here today,” said Bruce Caughey, CASE’s executive director.

The summit began with a detailed ESSA overview from Augustus Mays, the director of government relations for WestEd, a San Francisco nonpartisan, nonprofit agency focused on education research, development and service. “The Every Student Succeeds Act provides a tremendous opportunity for the State of Colorado to rethink and refine your education system. I see this meeting as a first step in envisioning what Colorado wants to do around standards, around funding, around your school improvement system that you have in place, map out what that is going to look like and design it in a way that is meaningful to Coloradans and the students you serve,” said Mays.

Discussion panels and group conversations then led participants to describe their goals for students under ESSA. Reimagining accountability in fresh ways was at the top of the priority list for many in the room. “I’ve heard a lot about moving away from a punitive system and more into a system of support that doesn’t punish districts, teachers and students,” said CEA Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert, part of a reporting group who talked through recommendations at the end of the day. “We need to use our collective voice to give feedback in the rule-making process, creating a system of supports versus remaining in this negative, punitive system of consequences.”

Kerrie releaseStandardized testing was another hot topic for discussion, both in looking for test reductions in ESSA and in dealing with the federal requirement for 95% student participation in state assessments, a carry-over in ESSA from the previous No Child Left Behind education law. “We can’t continue to penalize our schools, our districts and our teachers for an informed choice a parent is making to opt their children out,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman in a discussion panel.

Group consensus favored reviewing current assessments to better define their purpose in improving educational outcomes for students, perhaps using some formative and interim assessments to meet state requirements. The majority wanted to see more local control in the educator evaluation system, letting districts decide the extent to use test scores and other classroom data to determine the effectiveness of a teacher or principal (the state currently mandates ‘student growth’ as 50% of the evaluation criteria) and relaxing the annual evaluation requirement for educators with top ratings. Many participants also advocated against the current one-size-fits-all accountability system that doesn’t account for differences in educating children in small, rural districts, and that continues to label schools as ‘failing’ even when students are making significant progress.

Many recommendations appeared counter to state education reforms already passed, but Dallman cautioned her fellow education leaders against being discouraged by current laws, rules and regulations that would seemingly limit ESSA opportunities. “I want to encourage you to think outside that box as you meaningfully consult with others on ESSA. We are going to move forward and push on changes to state legislation and to state board rules and regulations. We’ve already lost if we can’t think outside those limitations to what we know will absolutely benefit our students and help school staff feel more supported.”

A distinguished group of summit guests listened in throughout the day to the dialogue, including Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and members of the Colorado Legislature and State Board of Education. The Colorado Department of Education had many staff members in attendance to hear the ESSA discussions. “CDE are listeners today,” said Interim Commissioner Dr. Katy Anthes during her remarks to the group. “We have a lot of different ways you can engage and give us feedback. We are staffing the writing of the (state’s ESSA) plan, but we are staffing you to help us.”

Brad releaseCEA’s Bartels concluded the summit served as the ‘vision day’ to help the CDE understand what school districts and students need under ESSA to succeed. “The power that we have to affect our state plan is basically built into the groups that you’re sitting in. We are all going to have an opportunity to have input on exactly what this state plan looks like.”

Ken Delay, CASB’s executive director, said summit input will be very helpful in developing joint positions with the other associations on ESSA rules and regulations to take up with the State Board and in the General Assembly when legislators take up ESSA implementation in January. “If you haven’t been there, you can’t appreciate how much power there is in the Colorado Legislature when CASE, CEA and CASB all show up and say the same thing. It’s a big deal.”

CASE’s Caughey agreed. “If we don’t say the same thing in deciding the direction we want to go, who decides? So let’s decide where we want to go. Let’s be clear and let’s be resolute in terms of the things that really matter. Let’s find those four or five things we want and make sure when the political machine gets rolling again, that we’re on the same page and we make the differences we need to make for Colorado.”

States must submit their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education between March and July, 2017, with the law going into effect for the 2017-18 school year. Public ESSA resources pages are available on the websites of the National Education Association and the Colorado Department of Education.

Education Support Professionals – the True MVPs in Bully Prevention

by Suzie Gannett (CEA-Retired member)

Recently, I had the honor to present to 400 Utah-ESP on Bully Prevention. These people truly are the eyes and ears of the school when it comes to bullying. Unfortunately, they are considered the Rodney Dangerfields of the school, “They Don’t Get No Respect”. It is clear from the 2010 NEA nationwide survey of education support professionals on bullying; we need to change this perception if we ever hope to win the war on bullying. Even though ESPs have played a crucial role in preventing school shootings, student suicides, and are on the front lines when it comes to witnessing bullying, they continue to play a minor role in whole school bully prevention. We need to change this NOW!

I believe we can accomplish this by:

First-Understand the Vital Role ESPs Play In Schools:

  • They deal with more bullying reports than other school staff, especially bus drivers
  • They primarily work in Prime Bullying Locations, that are mostly unstructured
  • They are usually first point of contact for students/parents, hence a valuable resource to extend home–school communication
  • Students tend to trust ESPs more and thus form better relationships with them
  • They are more likely than teachers to come from the same communities hence students tend to feel more connected to them
  • Students subjected to bullying reported feeling safer when paraprofessionals were nearby versus other school staff
  • ESPs primarily work with students that are more vulnerable to bullies ( LD; LGBTQ; Sped.)

Second-We Need to Address ESPs Specific Needs: 

  • Training materials that specifically address the different training needs and bullying-related experiences of ESPs
  • ESPs need additional training on Cyberbullying; LGBTQ students; Body Image Bullying
  • Need to be given more of a central role in prevention/intervention with bullying behaviors
  • ESPs need to be co-learners and co-leaders in an effective whole school bully prevention curriculum
  • ESPs perceived personal experiences with victimization- Their perceptions as lower status employees relative to teachers, because of their job position and salaries. Therefore, it may influence their willingness to intervene in bullying instances or prevention
  • ESPs Professional development trainings need to focus on school-wide prevention and intervention, instead of typical job specific trainings

Please join me in spreading the word on the ever increasing, valuable role ESPs play in our schools to keep all kids safe.

  • Share this blog with your colleagues
  • Make sure ESPs are actively involved in school wide programs & policies
  • Form a united school with administers, educators, ESPs and parents, working side-by-side
  • Get more information on NEA-Edcommunities Bully Prevention resources, Bully Free & ESP groups, and more at http://nea.org/home/edcommunities.html

Suzie GannettSuzie Gannett is a facilitator for the NEA- Bully Free Group on the NEA-Edcommunities website. She is a 32 year veteran educator from Fort Collins, with seven years in the classroom and 25 as a counselor. But it is her first-hand experiences with young people struggling with mental health issues that have prepared her the most to lead this group. From dealing with bullying issues as a teenager to seeing too many of her own students struggling with these same issues thru out the years, Suzie wants to ensure every young person’s voice is heard and never silenced.

References

  1. Bradshaw C, Figiel K. Prevention and intervention for workplace bullying in schools. National Education Association; Washington, DC: 2012
  2. Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, O’Brennan L. NEA members’ knowledge and experience with bullying questionnaire. Survey instrument prepared for the National Education Association; Washington, DC.: 2010.
  3. Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, O’Brennan L, Gulemetova M. Findings from the National Education Association’s nationwide study of bullying: Teachers’ and staff members’ perspectives on bullying and prevention. Report prepared for the National Education Association; Washington, DC.: 2011.

‘Student-centered’ class design leads to White House visit for Colorado Springs math teacher

School is a place where discovery happens for children. While assisting students on this journey, educators too can make their own discoveries. For one veteran teacher in Colorado Springs, a new teaching style has her students looking forward to math class, and put her face-to-face with President Obama.

Kirstin Oseth teaches math at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High in Colorado Springs

Kirstin Oseth teaches math at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High in Colorado Springs

For about 20 years, Kirstin Oseth did most of the talking in her math classes at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High. She gave the lecture notes, kids did the homework, and they reviewed the next day to see the progress. Several years ago, discussions with her principal and the move to the new Colorado Academic Standards led Oseth to rethink her approach to instruction. Now in teaching year 29, she runs what she calls a ‘student-centered classroom’.

“For me to know what my students are thinking, for them to know what they’re able to do, I had to change my classroom so I wasn’t doing all the talking,” said Oseth in an interview with the Colorado Education Association near the start of this school year. “I started changing things around so I could find out what my students were thinking. Instead of me being the one talking all the time, the kids are now the ones communicating, sharing ideas, growing in that way. When they walk out, I know what every student can do and that helps me adjust my teaching lessons.”

Oseth credits her success in student-centered teaching and great support from her administration and district for receiving a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this summer. PAEMST are the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teaching, recognizing “those teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning.” Established by Congress in 1983, the PAEMST program only authorizes the President to bestow 108 awards each year.

“The key word I can say for that is ‘surreal’, a whirlwind,” said Oseth about her trip to the White House to receive the award in late July. “Shaking the President’s hand was an amazing experience.”

Oseth joins other honored teachers applauding President Obama's remarks at the White House, July 31.

Kirstin joins other honored teachers applauding President Obama’s remarks at the White House, July 31

Oseth, a longtime member of Cheyenne Mountain Education Association, was equally impressed that she and the other awardees spent four hours in discussion with White House advisers of science, technology and mathematics.

“They were asking us what the roadblocks are to STEM education in our country and what solutions we could come up with,” Oseth recalled. “We were in pull-out groups, coming up with our solutions and presenting them to those advisers. That was the moment that got me, that I was invited to the White House because they wanted to hear what I had to say.”

Oseth said the talks with the advisers focused heavily on the need to improve teacher training, how to recruit STEM teachers who can make more money in the business world, and how to help students get through the struggles they need to go through to solve higher-level problems.

Teachers need time to take students through the process of solving hard problems, which is why Oseth has enjoyed the transition to the Colorado Academic Standards (which has adopted the national Common Core standards for math). She says the new standards have reduced the amount of overall lessons she used to teach, from 13 chapters down to eight, which has allowed for more instruction toward students building critical skills.

“I’ve been able to spend the time having students communicate their thinking, construct viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. I’ve had the time to add a ton of higher-level thinking types of problems and then have the students go more in-depth into solving them rather than just flying through a curriculum,” said Oseth.

Kirstin receives her award from Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. France Cordova, director, National Science Foundation.

Kirstin receives her award from Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. France Cordova, director, National Science Foundation

Student participation is now the key part in Oseth’s teaching style. It takes time at the beginning of the school year to train students how to communicate what they’re thinking and understand why they think in this way, but Oseth says after a couple of months go by, she gets to watch her kids take the learning and run with it. “All of a sudden, they’re coming up with things, running the classroom themselves. They’re deciding what they need to do in order to learn better. They walk out of the room excited because they were able to share their ideas, because somebody cared what they thought, because they were the ones to suggest what we do in class and how we do it.”

Oseth has also changed her approach to assigning homework. She used to send students home with 20 problems, only to find the next day some students have the majority of them incorrect.

“What was the educational value of that time spent doing that homework the night before?” Oseth asked. “A light bulb went off with me. If learning is the goal of the classroom, and there’s not learning going on with the homework at home, then the learning has to happen in the classroom.”

Oseth now assigns just a few homework problems to make sure students retain what they learned in class, or a single challenge problem where kids present their thinking the next day. She admits it took her a while to get on board with the idea of less homework, but it’s turning her classroom around.

“The kids are getting their practice and doing their work in class where I can see exactly what they’re learning and give them immediate feedback,” Oseth said.

Answering the age-old question How do you get kids to like math?, Oseth says it starts with a student’s desire to be successful, especially on something they’ve never been successful at before. “Students walk out of the classroom feeling good about what they can do and they come in excited the next day. This whole student-centered approach is the piece that has gotten kids excited. When they walk out the door feeling successful with smiles on their faces, nothing that can beat that.”

Jeffco labor leads community drive #‎BooksForAllStudents

The labor community in Jefferson County came together to transform the lives of Jeffco children and elevate the quality of their education. Promoting #BooksForAllStudents throughout the county and in social media, many local unions raised more than $15,000 to give students most in need a free book to take home for the summer. The money raised actually purchased $34,000 worth of materials through the national non-profit First Book, providing a brand new book to each third grader (more than 1,100 students) at all 23 Title 1 schools in the county.

Third grade is widely viewed as a tipping point for reading comprehension. Students who develop strong literacy skills by the end of third grade are generally in a better position to engage a wide variety of school subjects and enjoy success throughout their school careers.

JCEA members Tony Tochtrop, Kimberly Douglas and Mandy Hayes place stickers and bookmarks in donated books.

JCEA members Tony Tochtrop, Kimberly Douglas and Mandy Hayes place stickers and bookmarks in donated books.

The book drive also bought new books for the libraries at these schools. Tony Tochtrop was one of several teachers of the Jefferson County Education Association who volunteered to sort through about 4,000 new books at Union Hall of Sheet Metal Workers’ Local #9 in Lakewood, April 22. As the digital teacher/librarian in Lakewood’s Molholm Elementary, Tochtrop was very excited to see some of the books that would soon be coming to his school library.

“The kids love getting a brand new book,” said Tochtrop, who personally donated $50 to the cause. “I’m seeing a lot of great literature the kids are going to get excited about and look forward to reading.”

Members of the Jeffco Classified School Employees Association and leaders and staff from the Colorado Education Association also helped out with the book preparation in April. In each book, they placed a bookmark with friendly tips, printed in English and Spanish, that families could reference to better share in the reading experience with their children. They also fixed a sticker on the inside cover with a place for students to write in their names, showing that book now belonged to a student.

Mandy Hayes, a third grade dual-language teacher at Molholm, enjoyed getting the books ready for students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to own a book.

“When I was a little girl I had a vast collection of my own books and took a lot of joy in reading the same book over and over again, reading them to my baby brother,” said Hayes. “Having the ownership and knowing, ‘This book is mine and I want to take care of it and hold on to it,’ really helped me grow a love of reading.”

Like Tochtrop, Hayes was excited to look through the books that would be heading to her school. She found the selection encouraged authentic literature with relevant cultural themes. “A lot of these books are actually bilingual so the students can use their first language to help them with in their second language.”

Josh

Josh Downey (left) at the Lumberg Elementary book delivery, May 11

The delivery of the books to Jeffco schools followed in May. “Who likes to read?” Josh Downey asked to an enthusiastic response from a large group of third graders at Lumberg Elementary, May 11. Downey, the president of the Denver Area Labor Federation, led fellow union members to Lumberg to deliver the books kids received for their home libraries. State Rep. Jessie Danielson joined the event, which was covered by 9News.

“Thanks to teachers and paraprofessionals, thanks to nurses and and janitors, pipe fitters and plumbers, electricians and sheet metal workers, people all across Jefferson County pitched in for these books,” Downey told the students. “On behalf of all the people who helped raise the money, we are so glad to be here today and provide books to all of you guys. It’s really critical that you love reading and keep reading, because as an adult, you’re going to read every single day.”

“I’m thrilled that we were able to put together enough funding to give a book to every third grader, because that supports our Board of Education goal to increase reading ability and proficiency in the third grade,” said Hayes. “Giving an opportunity for third graders themselves to have a book, hold it, and take it home is going to promote that goal.”

JCEA's Nate Golich passes out the books students get to take home

JCEA’s Nate Golich passes out the books students get to take home

Educators push high standards amidst high poverty in the San Luis Valley

san-luis-valley6

San Luis, Colo. (photo by Coloradoguy.com)

The small town of San Luis near the Colorado border with New Mexico has already made a name for itself. San Luis has the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied town in the state. The town was celebrating another distinction when the Colorado Education Association visited Centennial K-12, honoring a student wrestler with a school assembly for a second-place finish in the state.

The school’s wrestling coach, Gilbert Apodaca, has ideas to further distinguish Centennial and San Luis beyond the mat. Apodaca, a member of Centennial Education Association, is the school’s lone high school math teacher, and his employer, Centennial School District R-1, is one of the state’s integration districts that first made the shift to teaching the Colorado Academic Standards for its students.

“I think it’s one of the best things we could have done,” said Apodaca. “We’re expecting kids to be able to describe the mathematics, understand the mathematics, and see how the mathematics are applied. It’s a big change, and we’re hearing feedback from our students and families about how rigorous it is. It’s a struggle, but we want our kids to have access to that struggle. It’s our job as teachers to make it meaningful and give them opportunity.”

‘Struggle’ is not a new concept for students growing up in the San Luis Valley. Costilla County is among the poorest in Colorado. Centennial K-12 serves a growing number of families setting in undeveloped areas, some going without electricity and running water. Valley educators explored poverty issues plaguing area families at a recent conference hosted by the Ethnic Minority Advisory Council of CEA’s San Luis UniServ Unit. Centennial Principal Curtis Garcia was a conference speaker and acknowledges extreme poverty has changed the nature of school work here.

Curtis Garcia and Gilbert Apodaca talk with CEA

Curtis Garcia and Gilbert Apodaca talk with CEA

“We’re not just focused on teaching, learning and academics, but really thinking about the whole child. So we’re concerned about access to health care, to mental health care, to other kinds of services that these kids need if they’re going to be able to function and succeed in school,” Garcia told CEA. “As a small rural district, we’ve taken on a lot of that initiative, a lot of that work, to identify families and help them get access to services.”

“In the classroom, you know who isn’t engaged and it’s a challenge to figure out why,” said Apodaca. “Is something going on at home? Have they had a good meal since yesterday at lunch?

“It’s not that the kid doesn’t want to try,” Apodaca added. “There’s something going on and we have to get to the root of it. So we have to dig deep, get to know these kids and see what’s going on, see where we can help them out.”

As Apodaca works to meet the needs of his students well beyond the classroom, he’s going through as much training and conditioning as his wrestlers to perfect his professional practice. With support from the Colorado Education Initiative and the Gates Foundation, Apodaca entered into a national math design collaborative to meet math instructors around the country. They share ideas on what’s working well and he introduces the latest cutting-edge strategies on math instruction into his small-town classroom.

Apodaca congratulates his wrestling team at a school assembly

Coach Apodaca congratulates his wrestling team at a school assembly

Born and raised in San Luis and himself a graduate of Centennial, Apodaca is unapologetic for pushing his students to reach high standards even when he knows many of them suffer in high poverty. “I firmly believe to give these kids an opportunity to actually succeed in their lifetime, we can’t lower the rigor. We cannot go down to their level. We need to give them an opportunity to succeed in life by raising the rigor… without it, our kids are going to fall behind and it’s going to continue the poverty cycle.”

Garcia enjoys empowering his teachers to push beyond what most would expect from a poor, rural district and create more authentic, relevant learning experiences for Centennial students.

“I see it as an opportunity for us in school to be able to own up to our responsibilities to think about the whole child,” said Garcia. “It’s that impetus that drives us to create change in our community and in our state to really get the resources in place to help these kids learn. The rigorous standards set the expectation.”

“It’s a rough area, but I wouldn’t be happier working in any other place in the state,” said Apodaca. “A lot of our kids come through some big challenges. I know for a fact they can do it, and if they come out of here, they’ll be some of the best out there.”

 

The real issues with standardized testing

The following article was written by Russ Brown, a high school teacher at Poudre High in Fort Collins and member of the Poudre Education Association, and submitted to CEA’s Pathways to Achievement blog by the author.

Russ Brown

Russ Brown

Standardized testing.  The words send shivers down the spines of numerous professional educators and create dread in the hearts of students across the United States.  Recently, there have been stories of teachers leaving the profession due to the heavy emphasis on standardized or out-and-out refusing to administer the tests to their students even if it means they will be fired.  Yet, the question of why the US has this obsession with standardized testing remains a largely unexplored topic.

Superficial answers

Many will point to the federal mandates of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” as the source of the standardized testing mania.  Yet, this still does not address why these policies heavily emphasized standard testing.  Others will declare that the need for standardized rests of the poor performance of US students on international examinations.  However, nations such as Finland have achieved high results without emphasizing standardized testing so the answer must be deeper.

A flawed philosophy

When someone really looks deeply into the standardized testing mania, a deeply flawed philosophy (or world view) emerges.  The foundation for the push for standardized testing, whether the proponents recognize it or not, comes from a view that students are products of the educational system.  In the students-as-products view, testing (just like with any assembly-line product) is necessary to ensure the quality of the product.  Teachers are semi-skilled workers whose job performance can be measured by their students’ performance on standardized testing.  The reason this is flawed is that students have no responsibility for or any ownership over their own education.  This explains why those teachers who care deeply are speaking out against the emphasis on standardized testing.

Alternatives

Some people will counter that students are not products of the education system by proclaiming that they are, instead, consumers.  In this philosophy, students (along with their parents) are catered to by the education system.  The market place will select those schools that are successful from those which fail the students.  In this marketing standardized testing plays a major role but, in the case of students-as-consumers, the use of standardized testing is to assist the consumers in finding the “best” schools (i.e. the ones with the highest test scores).  However, the consumer motif suffers from many of the same flaws as the student-as-product view.  In both views, students have no control over their education.  They also have no responsibility for their education; if something goes wrong it has to be the teacher’s fault.  After all, the customer is always right, which can be a dicey proposition especially if that consumer is a thirteen-year-old.

A better view

Rather than viewing students as products or consumers, a better way to look at them is to consider students-as-clients of the education system.  In the client view, students have control and responsibility for their education.  This view is consistent with other professional service occupations, such as physicians, attorneys, nurses, and mental health professionals.  For example, if a doctor tells his client (patient) to reduce the use of salt or risk having an unsafe blood pressure level then we cannot hold the doctor accountable if the patient willfully ignores the course of treatment.  Likewise, if students willfully ignore, or even sabotage, the attempts of a teacher then it is dubious policy to hold the teacher solely responsible for those students’ behavior.

The relationship of the student-as-client view to standardized testing is an interesting one.  There is an assumption that students are always trying to do their best on the standardized test.  Yet, having graded AP US Government exams for College Board, I came across dozens of answer booklets that were completely blank with no attempt at an answer given.  If these students, who had the possibility to earn college credit as an incentive, put forth less than their best effort it is reasonable to expect that on other lower stakes tests, such as the PISA, students are not trying to perform at their best levels.  Only the student-as-client view allows for the reality that students do not always try their best on standardized tests.

In addition, not only do students have responsibility for their education, but they should have ownership over it.  However, it is quite difficult for students to have any sense of ownership when the curriculum is being dictated by a standardized test (or series of tests) over which the students, along with their teachers and parents, have no control over.  Simply put, there is a severely limited role for standardized testing when accepting that students are clients.  This means that standardized testing cannot be a driver when seeking to make improvements to the education system.

Solution

The reliance on standardized testing as a driver of reform is akin to a contractor building a house without doing a soil test.  The house of reform will fail until policy makers, the media, and the public at large recognize that the soil around the house is the view that students are not products or consumers, but rather clients of the education system.  Only then, will the misguided mania of standardized testing be brought under control and we can move towards a system that will better meet our children’s needs in the 21st century.

Stability: School’s underrated X-factor makes Belmont Elementary a shining star in Pueblo

belmont1Kaelia and Sunny were called into Principal Stephanie Smith’s office to tell the truth. They weren’t called in to inform on another student’s bad behavior, but given the more unusual opportunity to tell on their teachers.

Sunny: “They work together as a team to find out what we’re going to do, and if we get stumped on something, like we don’t know something, they help us understand it.”

And tell on their parents.

Kaelia: “My mom gets along with the teachers, she talks with them, she wants to be their friend. They think it’s great that I’m learning a lot from this school.”

And talk about the big lessons they’re learning.

Sunny: “If you don’t strive for success, than you might not get to where you want to be, and you’ll just be lonely.”

Kaelia: “You can’t just say, ‘I can’t do this.’ You always have to say, ‘I can do this. I can get through this.’ You can’t just give up right away. You don’t do that.”

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

Sunny and Kaelia haven’t been inside every school in Pueblo, but these third graders have both attended another school in District 60. Even with that short sampling, they’re convinced Belmont Elementary is the best school in the city.

“I love school. I was sick for two days last week and I kept telling my mom that I was better,” Sunny confesses with a sly smile. Not to be out-complimented, Kaelia brags, “I wake up earlier than I should just to get ready to go to school.”

Many education watchers in the city and state don’t share this enthusiasm for Pueblo City Schools. District 60 is better known by the word ‘turnaround,’ a term for failing schools that are on the clock to bring up student performance. Belmont is not a turnaround school even though its staff faces the same Pueblo realities: high poverty and unemployment, low incomes, and great public reluctance to raise revenue for public education with its limited means.

Belmont's Principal Smith

Belmont’s Principal Smith

“In Pueblo we have some of the hardest working educators probably anywhere. We work our tails off, but we don’t always see the results of that in numbers, in test scores,” said Smith, Belmont’s principal of seven years. “I’m not sure that people outside of Pueblo, and even here, get how significantly challenging our schools are as a whole. We don’t have a mix of student needs in Pueblo. We have a demographic continuum that starts high-need, and just gets higher and higher and higher.”

Belmont has not only survived but thrived in conditions where similar schools are struggling. The key to its success starts at the top, with Principal Smith and her predecessors.

“We’ve had four principals in 59 years, which is practically unheard of,” said 4th grade teacher Terry McCanne. “You have to have stability in leadership. A lot of Pueblo schools have had 25 principals in that time, and the average turnover of every two to three years isn’t going to cut it.”

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

“Every time you have a new principal, the programs are going to change, the expectations are going to change, and that is really what makes Belmont good. We’ve stayed stable,” added library media specialist Julie Naccarato. “We’re not a school that gets a new principal every two years. The stability helps.”

Kendra Zerfas, a 5th grade teacher, says principal firing is too often the silver-bullet, quick-fix to whatever issue a school is having. “Administrative offices think, ‘Let’s just get a change of principal in there and it will make the difference.’ That’s the absolute wrong approach to take. The more stable your principal is, the more stable your building is going to be.”

Principal stability has led to teacher stability at Belmont. “I believe having stability in leadership is really important in developing a good school. Once you get a reputation of being a good school, many teachers want to teach there,” said McCanne, who has taught at Belmont for 20 years. Naccarato has taught Belmont students for 17 years, Zerfas for 12.

Kendra Zerfas checks progress one-on-one with her 5th graders

Kendra Zerfas checks progress one-on-one with her 5th graders

“That is something to celebrate and tell other districts and schools,” Zerfas said of Belmont’s experienced workforce. “You don’t want 90% of your staff to be a first-year staff. You need to have a good mix of veteran teachers because they teach younger teachers how to handle change and problems.”

CharLou Simonson, a kindergarten teacher here for 29 years, is proud to be part of the long history of teachers who have stayed Team Belmont. “That’s been the trend since I’ve been here, teachers stay. It’s a very cohesive staff and that really helps too.”

Principal and teacher stability has led to a solid community reputation that in turn fosters student stability.

“The principals and teachers get to know the families, and the families become very comfortable with them, and that’s what makes Belmont special,” Zerfas explains. “Many Belmont families have their kids come here kindergarten through 5th grade, then their brothers and sisters come here. Even when families move, they still come here because they don’t want to switch schools.”

According to Smith, nearly 200 of Belmont’s 550 students choice-in to attend Belmont from across the city.

“I get challenged here at Belmont,” said Lauren, a 5th grader in the Gifted and Talented program. “If math problems or worksheets are a little too easy, they’ll give me a more challenging one. It really helps because I feel like I’ve grown so much. I’ve been really successful over the years.”

So if stability is demonstrated to be a positive force at Belmont, trickling benefit down from principal to teacher to student, why don’t we see more stability at other Pueblo schools?

“That’s a good question. Because there hasn’t been consistency at other schools, it’s a problem that just keeps feeding itself,” Simonson offers. “The more instability there is, the more people don’t want to stay because it’s not a stable feeling. So then people leave, and then it’s not stable. That’s the real challenge in truly turning a school around.”

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

Though every teacher CEA spoke with felt fortunate to work in a highly successful school, they have aspirations for working in a better school system. Among the roadblocks they face:

Curriculum: “The powers that be are causing what I call curriculum-creep, where what used to be taught in 6th grade is now taught in 5th grade, and now it’s even coming down to 4th grade. It’s not developmentally appropriate and it’s a huge challenge for us to get kids up to the level that’s expected. It’s gone too far.” (McCanne)

Testing: “Testing has taken over the whole feel of a school in many ways. Here, kids know that tests are important, but we’re not making it into the be-all and end-all of the school year. I think a lot of schools focus way more than they need to on the whole process because they’re scared. They hear rumors of, ‘We’re going to close you down.’ That’s scary. So then they think, ‘We better make sure we’re doing well on these tests.’ That doesn’t necessarily make you do well on tests.” (Simonson)

Funding: “I wish the taxpayers in this city who didn’t have children in school anymore would understand how poor our city is and the majority of our kids are. If they would support a mill levy or a bond, it would trickle into businesses and improve everything else. That’s what I think the everyday lay person doesn’t get. They don’t understand what kinds of financial things we’re seeing here.” (Zerfas)

belmont6The education of children like Kaelia, Sunny and Lauren are impacted by these challenges, but Belmont mitigates them better than most through a stable learning environment.

“Schools reflect society. You can’t really change society by changing the schools, and yet we all try to do that,” Simonson reflected. “That’s what we try every day – we try to fix it. I don’t really think we can, but we are a positive force toward that change.”

Kaelia and Sunny certainly appreciate the stable, caring staff. When asked about the lessons and skills they’ll take with them when they leave Belmont, they couldn’t even fathom the thought of leaving.

Kaelia: “I just love this school, I don’t ever want to leave it.”

Sunny: “I’m going to take my principal, my teachers, and my stuff – but mostly my principal and my teachers.” 

Note: Terry McCanne, Kendra Zerfas, Julie Naccarato, and CharLou Simonson are all members of Pueblo Education Association. Belmont Elementary has 27 members of Pueblo EA and classified employee associations.