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

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

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

And tell on their parents.

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

And talk about the big lessons they’re learning.

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

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

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

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

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

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

Belmont's Principal Smith

Belmont’s Principal Smith

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

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

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

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”


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.”

Gov., CEA officially kickoff campaign to increase investment in Colorado schools, students

CEA leaders turn out for the campaign launch

CEA leaders turn out for the campaign launch

Top leaders of the Colorado Education Association, from the Denver metro area to Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, gathered at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Aug. 15, for the official campaign launch for “Colorado Commits to Kids,” an education funding ballot initiative that will go before Colorado voters in November.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and other political and business leaders spoke at the campaign kickoff, explaining the necessity to increase Colorado’s investment in public education to give students the skills and tools they need to compete for jobs, achieve their potential and make a better life.

CEA Pres. Kerrie Dallman thanks Gov. Hickenlooper for his support of Colorado Commits to Kids

CEA Pres. Kerrie Dallman thanks Gov. Hickenlooper for his support of Colorado Commits to Kids

Hickenlooper called the initiative “the single-most comprehensive education reform initiative in the history of the United States” during his remarks.

“We’re not going to get anywhere without an educated workforce. Colorado has got to be ready to have those jobs filled in the 21st Century,” Hickenlooper said about the impact increased education funding would have on energy, aerospace and other sectors that drive our economy. “With the Colorado Commits to Kids initiative, we get to build a better Colorado for our students, for our families, for our businesses, and for every future generation that’s going to come after us.”

The “Colorado Commits to Kids” ballot initiative would generate $950 million annually to improve public education under the provisions of the Future School Finance Act (Senate Bill 213). The State Legislature passed and Hickenlooper signed SB 213 in May to bring badly needed resources to our public school system. Over the past five years, lawmakers cut more than $1 billion from our schools and Colorado now spends $2,000 less per student than the national average.

SB 213 begins to address the shortfalls by overhauling a school funding system that has not changed in nearly 20 years. In his remarks, Garcia highlighted some of the benefits of SB 213, which calls for increased funding for all students with targeted resources to students who need help the most: at-risk preschool, full-day kindergarten, special education and gifted and talented, and English- language learners.

Lt. Gov. Garcia speaks at the kickoff for the ballot initiative campaign

Lt. Gov. Garcia speaks at the kickoff for the ballot initiative campaign

“We know that not all kids enter school on equal footing. We know that not all kids speak the same language at home. We know that not all kids have books in the home. We know that not all kids make the same progress when they show up at school,” said Garcia. “If we want kids to graduate and all be ready for higher education, we need to make sure we can provide the level of individualized support that most district cannot now afford to offer. That’s what is key, and it’s key not just for those students, but for the long-term good of this state.”

Two days later, CEA held a statewide leader conference in Denver to plan how its Local Associations will reach out to members and voters with the facts on “Colorado Commits to Kids.” 

CEA VP Amie Baca-Oehlert reviews campaign materials that show how "Colorado Commits to Kids" funding will better serve all students in all communities.

CEA VP Amie Baca-Oehlert reviews campaign materials that show how “Colorado Commits to Kids” funding will better serve all students in all communities

At the conference, more than 70 leaders and staff affirmed “We’re All In” on passing the ballot measure and engaged in table discussions on how educators can drive voter support in their communities. They reviewed the success of the summer signature drive, in which CEA leaders, members and staff collected more than 19,400 signatures toward putting the initiative on the November statewide ballot, and they looked at ways to engage more CEA members to become involved in the campaign.

“This is about our students,” CEA President Kerrie Dallman told the conference participants. “A lot of us have talked over the last several years about the importance of taking action on social justice issues. I can’t think of an issue more important to us and our organization than the future of our kids and the investment in our kids’ future. Securing their future is exactly what these dollars are going to do.”

Engage in educator effectiveness conversation, Friday night on RMPBS

We encourage CEA members to tune into a Rocky Mountain PBS program on Friday about educator effectiveness.

It’s “Colorado State of Mind” this Friday night, September 16, from 7:30-8:00 p.m. The regular 30-minute on-air program will be followed by a panel discussion that will feature Michelle Conroy, a teacher in Craig and Moffat County EA member, and Henry Roman, a Denver teacher and Denver CTA president. There will also be a live online chat from 7:30-9:00 p.m., moderated by Alan Gottlieb, publisher of EdNews Colorado, an online education news source.

CEA is a co-sponsor of this program. Rocky Mountain PBS is partnering with PEBC (Public Education & Business Coalition) and EdNews Colorado on this program with the goal of exploring the challenges of measuring educator effectiveness.

You can post questions and comments now and throughout the Friday night live program — and we hope you will.

Educators: Talk to Vice-president Biden Monday at 5:00 p.m.

CEA encourages Association members to join Vice-president Joe Biden in a conference call on Monday, September 12, at 5:00 p.m. (Colorado time).

Vice-president Biden wants to hear from educators about jobs and the importance of maintaining teacher and support professional jobs in our public schools. On the call, the Vice-president will discuss the Obama Administration’s commitment to preventing educator layoffs through the American Jobs Act that the President introduced last week in Congress.

Date of Call: Monday, September 12, 2011
Start Time: 5:00 p.m. in Colorado

Please plan to dial in 5-7 minutes early
Call Number: (800) 260-0719
Participant Access Code: 216646

NOTE: This call is closed to the media.

About the American Jobs Act & Teachers: As many as 280,000 education jobs are on the chopping block in the upcoming school year due to continued state budget constraints. These cuts could have a significant impact on children’s education, through the reduction of school days, increased class size, and the elimination of key classes and services.

The President’s plan will support state and local efforts to retain, rehire, and hire early childhood, elementary, and secondary educators, including teachers, guidance counselors, classroom assistants, after-school personnel, tutors, and literacy and math coaches.  These efforts will help ensure that schools are able to keep teachers in the classroom, preserve or extend the regular school day and school year, and support important after-school activities.

To watch the President’s speech or to find out more:

White House-American Jobs Act

NEA Education Votes site

School Nurse Day: Wednesday, May 11

This week we celebrate school nurses, women and men who teach students, educators, and families how to promote student health, safety, and life-long wellness. National School Nurse Day is May 11, the Wednesday of National School Nurses Week.

The celebration began in 1972 and today it honors more than 60,000 school nurses in the U.S., their profession, and the specialty of school nursing. It coincides with the anniversary of the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of nursing.

For some school children, the school nurse is the only health care professional they ever see. And because of school funding cuts, the school nurse is often one of the first positions cut, forcing school nurses to work in and travel among two, three, four, five schools, seeing hundreds of students every week.

Take time on Wednesday to thank a school nurse, not just for a bandaid or a cool cloth on the forehead, but for keeping our students healthy, in school, and ready to learn.

School Nurses, we salute you.

NEA on School Nurse Day

National Association of School Nurses and its School Nurses’ Week radio campaign

Why Senator Hudak Voted No on SB 191

In her sole “no” vote on SB 191 in the Senate Education committee last week, Sen. Evie Hudak  (D-Westminster) voiced a number of concerns. Her first concern is the bill’s reliance on “gifts, grants and donations” to provide funding for the new system of standardized testing called for in the bill.

“Neither the state nor districts currently have assessments to determine students’ growth in every subject that is taught in every school – yet half of the new educator evaluation system is based on these assessments. The cost of creating such assessments has been estimated between $80 million and $140 million,” she writes on her blog.

Hudak  saw what CEA has seen for weeks: SB 191 is an unworkable reform measure that imposes unfunded mandates on our financially-strapped school districts. Our schools, and our students, can’t afford SB 191.

As Hudak so aptly writes, “The state has just reduced funding for schools by $260 million. With staff being laid off in schools, programs being eliminated, class sizes being increased, and schools being closed in some districts, I can’t see how spending money to write new tests is the wisest use of districts’ funds. The bill would also presumably require districts to pay for training for principals to perform the new evaluations, as well as a considerable amount of money for tracking all the new data. It’s an unfunded mandate and the wrong “solution” to the wrong “problem.”

Read Sen. Hudak’s blog post here, and remember to contact your state senators and representatives and tell them to say no on SB 191!