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

Advertisements

Evaluating beyond teachers: CEA leads counselor evaluation training in Durango

School counselors are vital members of the education team. They help all students with academic achievement, personal/social growth and career development, ensuring today’s students become productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow. However, not all school counselors in Colorado have had a direct connection with their districts in navigating the state’s new educator effectiveness evaluation system.

The new evaluation system went into effect for all teachers and principals in the 2014-15 school year, so the first focus of districts was to prepare teachers and administrators for the change. This left a training gap for school counselors and other Specialized Service Professionals (SSP) to understand and thrive in the new evaluation environment. The Colorado Education Association advocates for all categories of licensed personnel, so it teamed up with Durango School District 9-R to deliver critical training for school counselors in the surrounding region, offering a training program that can be replicated in other districts.

Amie in DurangoCEA and the district hosted training for area counselors, Dec. 9, in conjunction with the Durango Education Association, the Colorado Department of Education, and San Juan BOCES. The all-day session, called Operationalizing Professional Practices for Counselors, was designed to help school counselors and their evaluators understand what to look for during observations that greatly inform an evaluation. The goals of the training were to:

  • understand the SSP state model system;
  • develop “look-fors” to help evaluators provide a fair, credible, and rigorous evaluation based on professional growth; and
  • understand the process for developing and using measures of student outcomes.

To fully understand the importance of understanding professional practices, the groups divided by grade level to identify specific practices for evaluators. Using the evaluation rubrics, the evaluators defined the “look-fors” during professional practice observations.

“This training helped me get a better view of a clear path around evaluation and my role as a counselor. Counselors need time together to understand the standards, curriculum and connections to our professional practice in the rubrics,” said Durango EA member Sallie Kautter, a counselor at Needham Elementary.

Linda Barker, CEA’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Jean Williams and Courtney Cabrera from CDE led the participants through several activities to understand the Colorado State Model Educator Evaluation System and highlighted the differences between the evaluation process for counselors vs. teachers.

CEA Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert, herself a high school counselor and member of the State Council on Educator Effectiveness, explained how the counselor rubric was developed. “The counselor rubric is one of nine Specialized Service Professionals rubrics developed by the Council in collaboration with practitioner work groups. Our work involved connecting the practices of the rubrics with the real roles and responsibilities of each category of SSP.

“The rubric was designed not only to be a component of the evaluation of school counselors, but also to be used as a tool to elevate the profession,” she added.

Linda in DurangoCEA will post the counselors “look-fors” from the Durango session on its website once finalized from all the groups’ work.

“This training gave us an opportunity to network with counselors from the surrounding districts to learn about the tools we can use to improve our practice,” said Susie Robertson, a counselor at Sunnyside Elementary and Durango EA member. “It was great hearing from counselors from other districts and how our roles are different based on our school environments.”

CEA has the quality standards for SSP on its website and, in partnership with Cherry Creek EA, has created examples of artifacts that may be used as evidence by members to support their practice in evaluations. SSP are encouraged to download and reference the documents to know the standards and demonstrate mastery of and pedagogical expertise in their content area.

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.”

Parent involvement stressed by Garcia at Literacy Week stop in Aurora

Lt. Governor Joe Garcia made Aurora’s Vaughn Elementary one of his metro area stops Monday (May 19) in kicking off a statewide Colorado Literacy Week tour.

Lt. Gov. Garcia meets Vaughn Elementary families in Aurora during Colorado Literacy Week

Lt. Gov. Garcia meets Vaughn Elementary families in Aurora during Colorado Literacy Week

Garcia met neighborhood families on a sunny afternoon on the school lawn to see parents and children play literacy games and work together on reading activities popular at the school. Vaughn is noted in Aurora Public Schools for running successful literacy academies that welcome parents into the school and provide both parent and child learning opportunities.

“There’s no teacher who is every going to be more important to your child than you are,” Garcia told the families. “You are the most important teacher, the best teacher, the most effective teacher your children will ever have, so it is key for you to be here and learn about how you can be the best possible parent and the best possible teacher.”

Instruction coach Shelli Deaguerro gives parents reading strategies for the summer

Instruction coach Shelli Deaguerro gives parents reading strategies for the summer

Aurora EA member Shelli Deaguerro, an instructional coach for reading programs at Vaughn, had the pleasure of introducing Garcia and updating families on how they can support their student’s education during the summer vacation months.

“We encourage parents to spend time talking together, to tell family stories and engage in conversations throughout the day,” Deaguerro said during her remarks. “When a student’s oral language improves, their reading fluency and comprehension also improve.”

Deaguerro encouraged families to make quality time during the summer to:

  • celebrate their home’s language and culture;
  • make reading together a special part of the day; and
  • visit the local library to check out books and explore the world around them.

“When you read, share your thoughts and reactions to the story and then ask your child to do the same,” Deaguerro added.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia asks about the books  Vaughn Elementary students are reading during Colorado Literacy Week

Garcia uses Colorado Literacy Week to engage communities in efforts to improve the state’s early literacy rates. In addition to Aurora and other metro locations, his schedule included Durango, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Lyons. At each stop, Garcia looked at successful early childhood education programs and led community discussions on how parents, educators, supporting organizations and policy makers can come together to improve the literacy outcomes for Colorado’s youngest students.

“We know that as a state, nothing is more important in making sure that our young children get the support they need so they can be successful readers,” Garcia said, noting strong readers will go on “to make Colorado a better and stronger state.”

Garcia makes his case for literacy very personal. He shared with the Aurora families that his parents spoke only Spanish when they started school. Growing up in a bi-lingual family, he and his four siblings always had books around the home. Parents and children read to each other, working together to help each other learn.

“I want to encourage you to do to the same,” Garcia continued. “Make sure you’re not only reading to your kids, but just talking to your kids – talking to them about their day and what they’ve learned, and learning from them. Make sure they understand that they have the ability to teach you, to teach their brothers and sisters, and most importantly to be successful in school.”

story3Garcia strongly encouraged parents who didn’t themselves possess strong literary skills to become more involved in their child’s education.

“My grandfather couldn’t read, but he sure could tell stories, and I learned so much about the history of my family from him,” Garcia said. “You have so much to share with your kids. Don’t ever under-sell what you can do, what you have to offer.”

According to a release from the Lt. Gov.’s office, one-quarter of Colorado students read below grade level at 3rd grade, a major predictor of future academic and career struggles. To improve early literacy, the state created the Colorado Reads: Early Literacy Initiative, a joint effort between state agencies, community organizations and Colorado’s business community. SERVE Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper’s commission on community service, leads the community partnership efforts of Colorado Reads, including Colorado Literacy Week.

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.”

Community rallies to reduce testing time, red tape in education

A community movement known as “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students” kicked off Feb. 18, with educators, parents, students, legislators, and community members gathered at the Denver Press Club to call for reductions of testing time, educational mandates and bureaucratic red tape in Colorado’s public schools.

Red tape is tying up more Colorado teachers,

Red tape is tying up more Colorado teachers,

“This is a campaign to say, ‘No more mandates.’ Let’s make sure we have all the tools to give students the best education and a solid future,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, in opening remarks. “We’re seeing actual teaching time vaporize because of increased red tape and testing mandates. That’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for our students and it’s not good for the educators.”

Dallman introduced a new video spot highlighting some of the pressing issues facing Colorado public schools, including anemic funding for a growing student population, a corporate-driven testing culture absorbing classroom time, and the loss of vital instruction time for students. Supporters were also encouraged to share their stories on a new Facebook page, also named “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students,” which had more than 350 ‘likes’ overnight.

Glass speaks at the kickoff event for "Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students."

Glass speaks at the kickoff event for “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students.”

Jason Glass, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, spoke to the enormous amount of change his schools are going through while enduring massive budget cuts.

“The state schools have experienced an historic gutting of education funding while simultaneously being saddled with an unprecedented number of state government reforms,” said Glass. “The combined effect of these two forces puts our schools in a pressure and policy vice-grip that, by the accounts of those actually working in our community schools, makes the goal of becoming a high-performing education system a more elusive endeavor.”

While Glass said he supports the Colorado Academic Standards and Common Core State Standards, he said no other country subjects every student, every year to machine-scored standardized testing and hitches those results to school and educator accountability.

“Of all the international systems which purportedly outperform the United States, and whose results we so often pine after, none of them uses such an approach when it comes to student assessment. Instead, our higher performing global competitors rely on more heavily on classroom level, formative assessments…that are more squarely focused on improving instruction,” Glass said. “The heaping of accountability, and more and more blame and shame-based education policies on this still very unproven assessment system, has generated reactionary fear, and it is that fear that is the root cause of much of the resistance to these new systems.”

student0

Rossi watches her students speak to supporters of less testing, less red tape.

A February poll of 1,200 Colorado public school teachers, released yesterday by CEA, found teachers spend more than 30% of their instruction time with students preparing and administering tests, with a clear majority of teachers favoring less than 10% of instruction time devoted to testing. Several teachers and students spoke at the event who typically spend 50 days during the academic year preparing for and taking standardized tests. Jefferson County EA member Stephie Rossi brought three of her students from Wheat Ridge High School to explain that current standardized testing doesn’t generate critical thinking and isn’t aligned to the skills and knowledge learned in class.

“The test was boring. It wasn’t calibrated toward what I was learning,” said Michael Coyne, who recalled having to re-study material from a previous year just to prepare for a test. “We really need to refine our standardized tests so that they’re more focused to what we’re learning in the classroom, not toward a set standard that really doesn’t reflect the state curriculum.”

Colorado kids are losing teacher instruction time for testing of questionable value.

Colorado kids are losing teacher instruction time for testing of questionable value.

Are kids just a test score in school today? Dee Blecha, a special education teacher and Wray EA member, asked this as she reflected over the changes she’s seen over a 33-year career. Blecha said what’s missing for her in today’s classroom is the opportunity to form relationships with students.

“A test doesn’t mean anything to students. What does mean something to you is the fact that your teacher likes you, that your teacher cares about you as a human being. And that’s the part that I’ve struggled with,” said Blecha. “How do I find the time – as I muddle through the red tape, as I progress monitor, as I standardize test, as I crunch the numbers, as I look at data – how do I find time to make sure that I continually connect with kids each and every day, each and every hour?”

Rep. Young represents House District 50.

Rep. Young represents House District 50.

Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, a career junior high school teacher, said he would not choose to teach in today’s high-stakes testing environment.

“Teachers need to drive the instruction, and the sense I have now is, they’re not in control of that,” said Young. “Let’s think about how we can put teachers back in control of the instruction experience in the classroom.”

Young observed decisions on education reform and funding in the Capitol are overly invested in standardized testing and often miss the mark on what is central to the learning experience – the interaction between teachers and students.

“We’re engaged in test preparation, and that’s okay if you agree that the test is what we really want. But I’m not convinced that any test really measures the full scope of what we value, what we want people to learn. I want deeper learning, and that’s hard to measure on a standardized test.”