CEA convenes educator ESSA Summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educator team brings Theory back to Aurora school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

theory class

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

Teaching on the Plains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National leaders find power of teacher autonomy at MSLA

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

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

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

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

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff

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

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

MSLA3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher liaisons provide communication safety net for evaluation system

Colorado’s new educator effectiveness evaluation system began in pilot programs for some teachers in the 2012-13 school year. One realization became clear as the selected districts put the ideals of a new law into practice – educator effectiveness requires a serious amount of time for thoughtful, successful implementation.

Integration liaison Cathy Epps (seated front center) at CEA Theory into Practice training.

Integration liaison Cathy Epps (seated front center) at CEA’s “Theory into Practice” training in Durango.

“Superintendents were saying, ‘We need help with this implementation.’ Everyone in this profession is pulled in many directions, and the evaluation work wasn’t getting completed,” said Cathy Epps, a veteran teacher who left the classroom to solely devote her time to the success of the evaluation system. “My job is to focus just on educator effectiveness, and it is a full-time job to do that and to support teachers.”

Epps is one of 18 teachers across the state serving as an ‘integration liaison’ in the pilot districts. Along with Jim Parr, fellow teacher and Education Association of Cortez member, they provide information and answer queries on the evaluation system for educators in the four southwest school districts of Montezuma-Cortez, Mancos, Delores and Delores County. They talked about their role at CEA’s “Theory into Practice” training for educators in Durango.

Jim Parr, right, during the CEA educator training session.

Jim Parr, right, during the CEA educator training session.

“I like to think that we bring a little bit of sanity to the situation,” said Parr. “People get overwhelmed. There is a long laundry list of initiatives, mandates and actions that are taking place in education in Colorado right now. If it weren’t for positions like we have, evaluations would be ignored until the last minute.”

“The communication piece wasn’t happening as strongly as it needed to, communicating what’s going on down to the classroom,” said Epps. “There’s so much going on in a school system. We’re in the middle. We’re not in charge of anybody – we’re more of a safety net for real communication. We get information sometimes before administration and other people do, and we share that out.”

Integration liaisons have lessened the anxiety of teachers feeling their way through the new evaluation reality, according to Epps. Teachers can take their questions and concerns to a fellow teacher who has the time and resources to work their issues.

“We’re also seasoned teachers. We’ve been in this for a long time, so we understand. We’re a safety net for asking questions, and we have the resources to get those answers,” Epps added.

In Durango School District 9-R, Durango EA members Dave McKeever and Jeb Holt serve as the integration liaisons. They spread the understanding that administration and teachers are on the same team.

“We really need to work together to get this done and to make a change,” said McKeever. “Communication of a consistent message that we are all on the same team is huge right now.”

McKeever also tries to connect ‘overwhelmed educators’ with each other across all levels, finding they weren’t always talking to each other as the evaluation system rolled out.

“I was surprised how disconnected schools are, even within a district. It’s not because the district is dysfunctional. But the educator effectiveness system is so complicated, you need more people on the same team that can work together, share ideas and help each other out,” McKeever noted. “Communication seems such a struggle, and I have felt rewarded by helping in that.”

Parr, Epps and McKeever talk about the integration liaison role with CEA Journal during a session break.

Parr, Epps and McKeever talk about the integration liaison role with CEA Journal during a session break.

The region’s integration liaisons also finished their first cycle of a peer coaching system, an important practice critical to successful teaching evaluations. In this system, teachers step out of their classrooms to observe another teacher and reflect on teaching practice together.

“The reflections of the teachers that were involved said it was by far the best professional development they’d ever had,” Epps said. “They had never learned more than by working with a colleague in their profession to develop better practices. It’s powerful to be able to implement a peer coaching system into our classrooms.”

“For our four districts, we didn’t have a lot of opportunities for professional growth in place prior to this,” observed Parr. “We didn’t have individualized professional development where teachers felt they were getting the most out of training. When we come forward and offer peer coaching, we’re bringing water to thirsty people. It’s been very well received and appreciated.”

The liaisons agree teachers have had a strong voice in developing the state’s educator effectiveness evaluation system. Teachers are leading the evaluation process in these school districts, which Epps calls an ‘exciting shift’ validating a larger ideal that teachers need to be viewed as the experts in the education field.

“The superintendents we work with really value teachers and what they’re doing. They listen to us, they trust us and say, ‘Okay, you’re speaking for all those teachers. Tell us what’s right and where to go to with this.’ I feel teachers’ voice is being heard in a really positive way more than ever before,” Epps concluded.

“For those people who will step up and participate, they do make a difference,” McKeever agreed. “The teacher voice is heard and it’s used, especially in the current administration and the culture we have now.”

The integration liaisons see their role in supporting teachers and administration continuing and growing into an embedded part of the evaluation system. They are rewarded by contributing to an overall state education system that is on the cusp of dramatic change.

“We are reshaping what education looks like, at least in our little corner of the world,” said Parr. “We put our teachers and our students first so we can have some meaningful results and outcomes, and watch our kids go onto better things when they leave us.”

Durango teachers embracing shift to higher standards

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

CEA's "Theory into Practice" workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

teacher group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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