‘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.”

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.”

 

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.

Educator team brings Theory back to Aurora school

The Colorado Education Association completed its latest series of Theory into Practice professional development training in Loveland. Weekend workshops held in September, October and November engaged educators from across the state to discuss curriculum, assessments, school improvement, student skills, and other topics that continually change and re-define the education landscape in Colorado.

Linda and Peg start the initial Theory discussion at the Sep. class in Loveland.

Linda Barker and Peg Portscheller begin the initial Theory discussions at the first Loveland session in September

This round of training brought a group of 120 school teachers and administrators together over the fall to reflect on their professional practice and find ways to improve the school experience for students. The training was led by Linda Barker, CEA’s Teaching and Learning Director, with on-site coaching from national education consultants Peg Portscheller and Dr. Janet Alcorn.

“When you’re in the building, it’s so quick and you’re down to business,” said Shannon Haney, an Aurora Education Association member who attended the Theory training with a team from Fulton Academy of Excellence. “We’re down to business here too, but we’re thinking more broadly that just what’s happening in the classroom right now or in the next few weeks. We can ask, ‘Where are we as a school and how will we get to 21st century skills with our students?’ and do that as a team, not just as ourselves.”

Fulton’s team of seven educators at Theory was led by Principal Jill Lliteras, who shared with Barker how the school is now applying the training concepts to the classroom.

“We were able to work through and identify our greatest needs to continue our momentum. The leadership team has resolved to map out the remainder of the year for professional development, focusing of feedback,” Lliteras said. Her staff is now focused on how to facilitate student learning and examining feedback at all levels: teacher-to-student, student-to-student, student-to-teacher and teacher-to-teacher.

“I want to thank CEA for the opportunity to work with my team in order to advance student learning at Fulton. You are helping us make a difference,” Lliteras added.

Shannon Haney talks about Fulton's team learning together at Theory into Practice

Shannon Haney talks about Fulton’s team learning together at Theory into Practice

Haney, a second-grade teacher of nine years, echoed the training helped her school narrow down improvement to items of critical importance, particularly in working through the Colorado Academic Standards.

“As a school, we decided on the power standards that were going to be deeply taught. I really latched onto that because my students leave knowing those things very well. I’m not trying to teach a million things but concentrating on those big things and how to get my students proficient.” Haney said her students appreciate having that focus as well.

“Instruction isn’t just about the activity but knowing why we are doing it and where we are going as a second-grade class,” Haney added. “One of my students was talking about his math problem and he referred back to why we were doing this and I got goose bumps. This is why I’m here.”

Theory into Practice reminded Haney that going slower is sometimes faster, and that it helps to go back to why she became a teacher in the first place. “Things get passed down, and passed down, and passed down, and pressure builds, and builds, and builds upon administration and teachers,” Haney observed. “We all have the same goal of helping kids and making things equitable, with social justice, but let’s ask, ‘Why are we choosing to do these things to meet that goal?’ More reflection is needed on the changes we’re making rather than having us continually try new things.”

theory class

Theory into Practice brings teachers and administrators across Colorado together for a series of weekend workshops to examine and improve professional practice

Teaching on the Plains

In a tiny town where everybody knows every teacher, Cassie Sonnenberg is confident the community holds her and colleagues at Wiggins High School in pretty high esteem. She’s less confident that parents understand the changes rolling through Colorado classrooms. “I don’t think the parents have heard the educators’ side of anything. It’s definitely something we need to work on.”

Cassie Sonnenberg, a member of Wiggins EA, shows editing techniques to ninth-grade students at Wiggins High

Sonnenberg is reflecting on Colorado Academic Standards, particularly the language arts piece she teaches that comes from the national Common Core. She’s playing catch-up to best explain the standards’ intent to parents back in Wiggins, a town of about 900 residents an hour northeast of Denver on I-76. “They’re only going to get what they see on the news, and in our area, it’s going to be FOX News. They really need to see the other side of it and hear it from us.”

She’s in Loveland on this day, attending a ‘Theory into Practice’ professional development course hosted by the Colorado Education Association. The training is designed to let teachers talk through weighty issues such as standards and assessments, away from the distractions of daily school business. The members, through their involvement with the Association, are learning how to make a more powerful difference in their kids’ learning and academic success.

“They’re not really that different,” Sonnenberg says of Common Core standards. “We’re still teaching our kids to read and write well. There’s a lot of assessment I don’t agree with, but kids are still learning to read, to write, to critically think, to communicate with each other – all of the things we’ve been trying to teach them forever. It just looks a bit different now…”

“It’s things that we’ve been doing, but we’ve got to take it a step beyond where we have been,” chimes in Becky Lubbers, an elementary teacher attending the training from Yuma. “We just have to be stronger and more diligent about the communication piece – for the kids to be able to communicate with each other, how to get it down on paper and show their knowledge.”

Yuma EA's Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

Yuma EA’s Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

In Yuma, a larger town of about 3,500 people more than an hour east of Wiggins, people have trust in Lubbers and her fellow teachers. However, she says more dialogue is needed with parents, particularly those who don’t agree with the changes. “The naysayers are the first ones to tell us that this is what they don’t agree with, and why are we doing that, and then it’s our job to educate them,” Lubbers explains. “We’ve got to build that next level of trust and say, ‘This is where we’re going, the standards are going to work, and they’re going to be here to stay.’”

That’s not to say rural teachers aren’t feeling anxious along with the parents. At ‘Theory Into Practice,’ Sonnenberg is asking about new standardized tests in group discussion and how they’re looking for everyone else across the state. “We’ve had to update a lot of our technology and the updates haven’t worked as we want them to,” she remarked, (getting instant agreement from Lubbers). “Where we are, there’s only so much we can do – there’s only so much bandwidth, there’s only so much money to pay for computers for all these kids we need to be testing. The start of the school year is always exciting and everybody is pumped up, but there’s also this underlying level of stress.”

PlainsStory3Lubbers said “a lot of headaches were happening” in her group discussions, with teachers thinking back into their districts about the need to do this or try that. “I’ve taught for 34 years, and I keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve done this. This is that pendulum that keeps coming back.’ But this is a different type of pendulum now.”

The focus on standards is what’s coming back around in her fourth-grade class, but with a 21st-century flair. “It’s got more meat to it – the communications piece, the technology piece. Kids have got to be accountable for their learning.”

“And we need the parents to be on board with us too,” Sonnenberg added. “When your kid comes home and says he’s doing a discussion in class or a group project, it won’t necessarily look like the group project that you did when you were in high school, where the A-student did all the work and everybody else sat back and said, ‘Good job.’ We expect more out of everybody now and really working together, not just saying they are.”

Sonnenberg and Lubbers have something in common with each other and with many of the new teachers coming into their schools: years ago, they viewed the beginning teaching job in a small town as a stepping stone to greener pastures. “My husband and I made an agreement when we moved to Yuma that we would be there for two years. We’ve now been there for 34 years. We’ve raised our family there, because we’ve found a community that felt like home,” Lubbers proudly proclaimed, knowing her story is the statistical outlier. “We do a lot of dog-paddling because we go back and retrain our new teachers on what works in our district, what we’ve been doing. We back-peddle with them and sometimes we stay stagnant.”

PlainsStory4While Wiggins has been fortunate to keep most teachers in place for several years, it’s hard to bring a new one in when needed. “Last spring I sat on an interview committee for an open position and we had tons of applicants,” Sonnenberg recalled. “Most of them were first-year teachers coming straight out of school from the Front Range, and they thought they were interested until they drove to Wiggins for the interview. Then they see there are no stores here and no mountains here, and it’s hard for us to overcome that.

“When I started – this is my eighth year – I thought Wiggins was going to be a stepping stone for me. My plan was to work a couple of years and then go to Poudre. And then I fell in love with the community and the kids, and now I don’t want to leave.”

Sonnenberg returned to Wiggins this time with a goal to get her teammates involved in answering Theory’s big questions, from how new teachers are treated to how the district uses data. “You would think, in a tiny little school like Wiggins, it would be so easy for us to all sit down together and make sure we’re talking about those things, but we don’t. There’s no time. ‘Theory into Practice’ is giving us a chance to talk about these things, and we each need to bring the conversations back to our own building and to the district as a whole.”

Lubbers said her district helped Yuma teachers adjust to the changing requirements by sending them to ‘Theory into Practice.’ “It’s a big step for our district to do something like this. We have representatives from each one of our buildings here, so six of us. We work pretty well together and we’re excited about taking some of the lessons back.”

With new tools, Lubbers hopes to rebuild school unity and develop a professional learning community among teachers in Yuma “where you can have an opposite opinion and not have it held against you, so you don’t later go to the parking lot, saying, ‘That won’t work in my classroom, this is what we should do.’ We want the open dialogue, not the parking lot meetings.”

National leaders find power of teacher autonomy at MSLA

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

The Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led school in west Denver that states as their motto, ‘Everyone in this school is a learner, a teacher and a leader.’ MSLA doesn’t have traditional school administrators like a principal. Instead, all the decisions – from the length of the school day to color of the chairs – rest with the teachers, who openly collaborate with school support staff, parents and students to drive the direction of learning.

The successes and challenges of running such a unique school model have attracted attention in the education community from Denver to Washington, D.C. During a two-day visit to Colorado, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a point to stop by MSLA, May 9, for a round-table discussion with faculty on the importance of teachers having leadership roles in their schools.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff

“This school is an interesting example of Denver being way, way, way ahead of where the nation needs to be in terms of creating these hybrid roles,” Duncan told the group. “Yesterday I was with a number of teacher-leaders who are now half-time in the class, half-time in mentoring and evaluation. I heard their enthusiasm, their excitement about where this can go… I think this is where the country needs to go and you guys are probably a couple years ahead. I really want to learn from what’s working and what’s not here.”

“What I think is impressive about MSLA is that it lets you hit the trifecta of job satisfaction: autonomy, purpose and growth,” said Pamela Yawn, a bilingual teacher and member of Denver Classroom Teachers Association who was one of several teachers who spoke with Duncan. “It’s not top-down… I can change my practice that day, for that student, for any particular learning. That’s what we’re doing here. We need to know what our students are going through almost minute-by-minute and be able to adjust. My practice has improved 400% since I’ve been here.”

MSLA3

Erika Franco (near right) participates in the roundtable with Sec. Duncan (far left)

“The person who really knows what’s going on in the classroom, who really knows what’s needed for those kids is the teacher. So we are the ones who have the decisions in our hands,” added Erika Franco, bilingual teacher and DCTA member. “This is what we want to do at MSLA, have our teams work so we all have a say, so we all have an opportunity to decide on the future of our school and on the future of our students. What makes us unique is that we are in the classroom, but we are working as leaders as well. That makes a huge impact in education, a revolution in education.”

DCTA member Lynne Lopez-Crowley is one of MSLA’s co-lead teachers. With the power to make decisions, she says the faculty continually looks at practice and what they can do better.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock

“Today we are looking at next steps – what is working well right now and what we need to change so we can implement that change right away to the benefit of our students. And I think that’s what makes our school different. The district has helped us take away all those layers so we can implement that change without going through this person, this person and this person, so we can always be on the cutting edge.”

Kim Ursetta, a bilingual kindergarten teacher and DCTA member of 20 years, said an important part of teaching at MSLA is holding each other accountable for results.

“We do hold each other to a higher standard, especially as a teacher-led school, because first of all we have that urgency for our students. Our parents expect that and we expect that of each other. So it really is up to us to not only look at that classroom level, but up in the airplane looking down at how do we move our school forward.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet also sat in on the MSLA roundtable with Duncan and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. When he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Bennet collaborated with Ursetta, then president of DCTA, to help launch the Academy.

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

“MSLA is one of those examples, and we have many others across the district, where we’re distributing our leadership, and teachers are able to find rungs on the ladder other than just being a teacher or being an administrator. There are many things in-between they’re now able to do, and I think the craft of teaching, as a result, is getting better,” Bennet observed. “We know it’s good to have a good curriculum, but that’s not what makes the difference. It’s the quality of the teaching that makes the difference. If you’ve got a lousy curriculum and a great teacher, you’re going to be fine. But you’re not going to be fine the other way around.”

Duncan, Bennet and Hancock heard many personal stories with common themes that defined how teacher freedom and empowerment gives MSLA its identity and helps the Academy reach its goals. They learned MSLA has:

  • Engaged students (attendance rate above 95%) who can voice opinions to teachers on what they want to learn;
  • Highly supportive parents who feel welcome in the school and overwhelmingly turn out for school activities;
  • Stronger mentorship practices than teachers experienced in other schools;
  • Emphasis on professional development, with many teachers starting advanced degrees and National Board Certification after arriving at MSLA.

Duncan was particularly interested in how the school arrives at decisions without a principal to make a final call. Tara Thompson, kindergarten and 1st grade teacher and DCTA member, calls the process “super-exciting because we are the ones who are getting to make that decision.” She related how the school decided upon use of the DIBELS literacy test.

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA's decision-making process

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA’s decision-making process

“There was a lot of disagreement, but man, it was amazing that we were getting to make that decision and I was able to talk to my peers about that and have my voice heard, whereas in other situations, you’re told, ‘You’re doing the DIBELS and find the time to do it.’ We were able to have that discussion, figure out how to do it, and implement it in a way that worked for all of us, not just have it placed on you. It’s very exciting,” Thomson said.

“One of the things I love most about MSLA is the teamwork and that so many of the people have very flexible thinking. It’s the flexible thinking that pushes us ahead,” added Lucinda Bowers, a school social worker and DCTA member with 37 years of education experience. “The strength of our team is in listening to each other, teamwork and collaborating. If we disagree, we talk it out and we keep talking. What comes from that is wonderful and successful.”

The teachers admitted being the only teacher-led school in the district has made it difficult to learn best practices from other schools, and they asked the leaders to encourage the creation of a network of teacher-led schools that could help one another. In doing so, the teachers reasoned more young people could be attracted to the teaching profession if they saw the potential to have greater professional freedom and autonomy in such a school.

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin, first grade teacher and DCTA member, is a good example of how schools like MSLA can attract and develop younger teachers. He came to Denver from Spain three years ago to start his teaching career. “To be perfectly honest, I came just to teach in the sense of, ‘Give me the curriculum, the books.’ But then I found here they are asking you to step up. That first year I tried to hide because I am a shy person.”

Martin soon found he wanted to step up to lead the way in preparing students and giving them the skills to succeed. “For me, it’s very important to be in MSLA, come out of my shell and to be a leader, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”

For veteran teachers, MSLA has challenged them to rethink their role in the school.

“Coming here woke up my eyes to see that there is really a leader in me,” said DCTA member Belinda Villalobos, a third-grade teacher. “We know how to motivate students and there is a passion among all of us to do – not having anyone tell us what to do… We want to be able to show everyone that we shine as teachers and we want our students to shine. That’s our passion.”

“I feel like my skills have really taken root here because I’ve been given the opportunity to lead my peers and to collaborate with my peers,” Thompson added. “I have the freedom in my classroom to do what’s best for my kids who I see every day, all day. The first graders that I have – I’ve had them for two years now – and they are shining. I’m so proud of them.”

Thompson is a 14-year veteran teacher, while Villalobos has taught in the classroom for nearly 30 years. Duncan, who spoke to the national need to support great teachers and ‘keep them, not burn them out,’ was mostly surrounded by experienced teachers during the discussion. The high retention rate of teachers at MSLA was pointed out to the Secretary as proof the teacher-led school model is working for them, the students and the community.

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

“Have you heard anybody here say they’re burned out? No, because when you have a voice in something, you have buy-in and you don’t burn out as easily,” Lopez-Crowley said. “When we get new teachers in, they’re scared or hesitant to make a decision. They’re not used to doing it, not used to having their voice heard. After they’ve been here a couple of months, you have a totally different person.”

“This is obviously a huge amount of work, a huge amount of courage,” Duncan said at the end of the discussion. “I’ll try and find ways for other school districts in other cities to look at what is going on here to increase public confidence in public education. There’s some pretty important lessons that others could learn from what you guys are doing collectively. So thank you for your leadership and thank you for your commitment.”

Durango teachers embracing shift to higher standards

Colorado raised the bar on public education standards in 2009 to provide all students a world-class education that would prepare them to thrive in the next stage of their lives. The Colorado Academic Standards replaced previous standards that were close to 20 years old and were no longer viewed as preparing students well for the realities of today’s advanced jobs and workplaces.

CEA's "Theory into Practice" workshop

CEA’s “Theory into Practice” workshop in Durango.

At the Colorado Education Association’s latest ‘Theory into Practice’ teaching workshop in Durango, three elementary school teachers talked about the big changes these standards have brought into the classroom. Each of these Durango Education Association members has about 20 years of teaching experience, and told CEA Journal the new standards are challenging them to rethink their performance and their profession.

“I’m not sure that all teachers really looked at standards before,” admitted Karin Bowker, a first grade teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary outside Durango. “Teachers are really looking at the standards now and asking ‘Why are we teaching this?’ We’re teaching it because this is what the kids have to know.”

In the past, Bowker said a teacher might say, ‘Dinosaurs are cool, so we’re going to teach dinosaurs,’ but only because the lesson was fun, not because it supported standards. By following the new standards, she says teachers can ‘eliminate the fluffy stuff’ and still make learning fun and engaging.

“I welcome the shift,” added Bowker. “The lessons are effective and kids are learning, and I’m not just wasting my time. There is a reason we’re teaching to the standard, and I’m not just filling my time with needless work that is not beneficial. It’s changed the way I teach.”

At Sunnyside Elementary in Durango, kindergarten teacher Tina Henderson explains to parents how instruction aligns from preschool through high school. The standards set higher expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, and Henderson says that creates a uniform ‘thread’ that ties one grade level to the next.

teacher group

Tina Henderson, Diana Wright and Karin Bowker talk with CEA Journal at the workshop.

“I think we’ve always had that connection, but I don’t think it’s always been as visible to parents, or sometimes even to us, on how that learning builds to the next grade level,” said Henderson. “It’s brought a little more professionalism to us, because now we can say to parents, ‘I’m teaching this lessons or these units, and it’s meeting these standards.’ Then the parents will say, ‘Oh, I see how it all fits together and I see why that’s important.’”

Henderson also shares the standards and expectations with her kids, which she didn’t do as much in the past. She says bringing that vocabulary of standards into the classroom makes student learning more solid.

“I see a lot more students creating their own goals, taking more responsibility for their learning, because they see what they need to do,” Henderson added. “Having that student-centered goal setting piece, even in kindergarten, has my kids taking ownership of their learning. It’s not just the teacher handing it to them.”

Back at Florida Mesa, Diana Wright is on special assignment as a math intervention and the acting assistant principal. She recently led a parent night at the school, explaining how Colorado Academic Standards are challenging students to evaluate concepts and make inquiries.

“We felt that parents might be seeing the bandwagons against Common Core to jump on, and we better be the ones to educate and reach out to our learning community,” said Wright. Common Core State Standards include two content areas, English language arts and mathematics, and they are embedded in the Colorado Academic Standards.

Wright connected the new standards to the 21st century skills their children will need to acquire for new jobs. She explained the coherence, rigor and focus the standards have brought to teachers and instruction. Wright said parents were appreciative for the open dialogue, which brought some balance to things they were hearing about Common Core in the news and social media.

“Parents are very much a big part of our rural schools, they love our schools, and educating them on this shift was our goal,” Wright explained. She said communication and transparency helped the school community feel valued, and believes teaching parents about the Colorado Academic Standards helps them filter a variety of opinions they may be hearing about standards.

The new standards require new assessments to measure student mastery of the updated learning expectations. These new online assessments, the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, represent the next generation of assessing student learning and will provide teachers with the critical information they need to help students succeed. Find out more about CMAS assessments at this link to the CDE website.