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

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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.

Teachers lead the training at Edcamp

Class was in session on a clear, pleasant Saturday at Grand Junction’s Central High even though the school’s students were nowhere to be found. More than 80 area educators volunteered for an extra day in the classroom to take part in a teacher-led form of professional development sweeping that nation called Edcamp.

Edcamp participants start the day by choosing their training topics

Edcamp participants start the day by choosing their training topics

“It was our very first Edcamp today in Mesa Valley and I was wondering what it was going to be like. I’ve been teaching for a lot of years and I’d never seen one done. I loved it,” said Anne Djokic, a teacher at Clifton Elementary. “My favorite moment was the energy at the start when everybody was talking about education, about students. There was a sincere cacophony of excitement to be here on a Saturday, on our own time, sitting in a high school library and getting ready to talk about what’s best for kids, what’s best for teachers, and how to get there.”

Edcamp bills itself as the ‘unconference’ according to its foundation website (edcamp.org). Unlike traditional conferences, the Edcamp agenda is created by the participants at the start of the event. Built on principles of connected and participatory learning, Edcamp brings educators together to talk about the things that matter most to them: their interests, passions, and questions. The training centers on an expectation that the people in the room will work together to build understanding by sharing their own knowledge.

A group breakout session on student behavior, moderated by CEA's Casey Kilpatrick

A group breakout session on student behavior, moderated by CEA’s Casey Kilpatrick

Edcamp in Grand Junction was hosted by the Mesa Valley Education Association for all teachers, student teachers, education support professionals, and administrators throughout Mesa Valley County School District 51. “It’s exciting because the training is timely, it’s relevant, and teachers are getting to choose what’s going to impact their classroom the next day,” said MVEA President Darren Cook. “And it helps kids when teachers get to improve their professional practices.”

The training started in Grand Junction in typical Edcamp fashion with classmates posting notes on a board stating the topics they wanted to learn more about. The day’s courses were decided and people stepped up to teach them. Becky Johnson started with Google Docs and Apps, sharing how the technology is “transforming teaching and learning and East Middle School” by allowing students to create and present in multi-media platforms.

Becky Johnson leads the class on Google Docs

Becky Johnson leads the class on Google Docs

“Our kids just finished a project on plate tectonics, where they developed a presentation, wrote explanatory paragraphs, and made a webpage,” explained Johnson. “They are products that work together and that’s the nice thing about it. Once you are signed into your Google Apps account, you have access to this whole universe.”

“I had never heard of Google Docs before,” said Cheyanne Gentry, a teacher at Grand Junction High who enjoyed the Edcamp push toward networking and camaraderie. “I have lesson plan ideas exploding in my brain.

“This is a great way to energize people,” Gentry added. “I connected with people I hadn’t seen in a long time, I made a new friend. I’m just really excited and happy that I came. Edcamp was worth giving up a Saturday.”

Bill Johnson finds shared interests in Edcamp discussion

Bill Johnson finds shared interests in Edcamp discussion

“I had a great time today learning new ideas and meeting new teachers, networking with them,” agreed Bill Johnson, a science teacher at Fruita Monument High. “On things that I truly battle every weekend, it’s good to find out other teachers are battling the same problems. I love the MVEA’s new vision and effort in training, and getting proactive in issues that concern all of us every day.”

The Edcampers broke down their issues and concerns in small-group discussions, scattered in classrooms throughout the high school. Topics of interest included navigating Colorado’s educator effectiveness evaluation system, managing challenging student behaviors, and diving into the district’s gifted and talented program offerings. Changing technology, though, is a popular theme throughout Edcamps as educators strive to bring the latest high-tech tool into the classroom that will engage their students and possibly lighten the heavy instruction load. In fact, Aurora Education Association teamed up with its district’s education technology department to host an Edcamp centered on sharing and learning with digital tools and resources.

At the Mesa Valley Edcamp, ‘ActivInspire’ and ‘Padlets’ were some of the brand names seemingly pulled from science fiction that captivated the imagination on what is now possible in classroom management. Younger MVEA members like Katie Allen were often at the front of class explaining their capabilities to older colleagues.

Catherine Gardner (second from right) takes in ideas to bring technology into her classroom

Catherine Gardner (second from right) takes in ideas to bring technology into her classroom

Catherine Gardner, a media specialist at Grand Mesa Middle, sat in on a session to learn about Quia, an online education platform offering 16 types of activities for teachers to customize to their classroom instruction and to create engaging, online practice games that motivate student learning. “I came to Edcamp with an open mind, not knowing what to expect, and I have had a fantastic day,” said Gardner. “I’ve been learning about instructional strategies and websites that I can take back and share with my teachers that will help engage students in the classroom.”

“The reason why this Edcamp was so successful is that every single teacher left with something to take back to the classroom and try on Monday,” added Allen. “It also invigorated the teachers and inspired them. We’re pushing each other to be more excited to get back in the classrooms and pass on that inspiration to our students.”

Joan Axthelm takes new Edcampers through an online orientation

Joan Axthelm takes new Edcampers through an online orientation

Edcamp’s rising popularity in the United States and in other countries is easy to view by searching #edcamp in social media. Professional development chosen by and led by teachers is getting people excited about what they learn and what they can do to become better teachers for their students. “We had more than 10 groups of people say they will continue the conversations they started today. They’re not just getting information, but using that information and checking back to ask, ‘Hey, how did this work for you?’” said teacher Joan Axthelm, an organizer of the Mesa Valley Edcamp. “Here’s a bunch of folks that came out on a Saturday. They aren’t with their families today, they aren’t relaxing. They’re taking time to make sure they continue to learn and get better as teachers so their students can be the best learners they can be.”

After training, three teachers of Orchard Mesa Middle stopped at the official Edcamp trailer parked outside the school to reflect on the day’s events. “I never had tweeted before – I now know how to tweet so that’s exciting, being old and not social networking much,” Krysti Klueber said with laugh. “Every one of the things I did was beneficial and I’m very excited about this way to do professional learning. It was a Saturday well spent.”

Pittman, Klueber and Nicholson after Edcamp

Pittman, Klueber and Nicholson after Edcamp

“I feel like that too. I came away with something from every single session that I can take back to my classroom and use immediately,” Heather Nicholson agreed.

“Some of the content I already knew about, so it was nice for me to be able to help some of my fellow colleagues along,” added Becky Pittman. “I was also excited about the vision and seeing where things need to go in our district.”

The child is the winner when teachers gather together to find best ways to teach and make the best practices even better for students, concluded Djokic. “You want a teacher in your classroom who believes in the Edcamp because that means he or she believes in the profession. This is the wave of the future and the future is here. Edcamp is the way to make sure that students get the benefit from our time spent learning together.

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.”