year in review

Movers and shakers: Significant comings and goings in Colorado education in 2016

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

While every year brings farewells and new faces to the institutions that shape public education in Colorado, 2016 was like a revolving door spinning in a blur.

The year began with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg going on a six-month unpaid sabbatical to Argentina with his family, an unusual perk made possible by Boasberg’s long tenure and the district’s relative stability.

His absence gave Susana Cordova the opportunity to step into the role of acting superintendent. Cordova was an intriguing pick — a Denver native who attended school during desegregation, and became a teacher, principal and high-ranking administrator.

Boasberg returned in July with improved Spanish and greater appreciation for “the extraordinary resources we have here,” while Cordova took the new title of deputy superintendent.

A couple of DPS alums ventured into new territory this year. Former principal and assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson was tapped to take over the top job in Washington, D.C., while former Boasberg lieutenant Alyssa Whitehead-Bust launched a new consulting firm.

The state’s most significant departure of the year came in May, when Colorado Education Commissioner Rich Crandall announced his resignation after just four-and-a-half months, citing family reasons and the demands of the job. Later, it emerged that Crandall and the board had met privately — violating Colorado open meetings law — in an unsuccessful effort to better define the then-commissioner’s priorities.

Katy Anthes was named interim commissioner. The well-liked former department chief of staff was appointed to the role on a permanent basis last week.

A former state government colleague of Anthes, meantime, is stepping into a different role. Rebecca Holmes, a former associate education commissioner, is set to take over as president and CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative, another organization that has seen recent turnover at the top.

The nonprofit education community saw other notable comings and goings: Kelly Causey was named new president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, replacing Chris Watney; and Nora Flood announced she was leaving the Colorado League of Charter Schools to lead a new Walton Family Foundation program.  (The Walton Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

Finally, a few suburban Denver school districts have experienced some leadership upheaval this year.

In May, Adams 14 School District Superintendent Pat Sanchez was hired for the top job at the Newark Unified School District in the Bay Area, leaving the Commerce City district as it was about to run out of time to right itself or face state sanctions.

As a replacement, the school board chose Javier Abrego, a longtime administrator who pledged to bring along English language learners quickly. Abrego now has the task of overseeing the 7,500-student district as it does, indeed, face repercussions from the state for persistent low academic performance.

Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen announced later in May she was leaving to become superintendent of a smaller school district outside of Houston. Fagen’s tenure included a controversial market-based pay system for teachers and a private school voucher program that drew national attention and legal challenges. Erin Kane is serving as Dougco’s interim superintendent.

The fate of another high-profile district leader — one with a history in Douglas County — will be decided early in 2017.

The Jefferson County school board has met twice in executive session to discuss the contract of Superintendent Dan McMinimee, a former Dougco assistant superintendent. McMinimee was hired by conservative school board members who were recalled in November 2015. The Jeffco board is expected to revisit the issue in January.

year in review

State leaders took a hard look at the teacher shortage in 2017

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The problem of teacher shortages has plagued some Colorado school districts for years, but it reached a tipping point of sorts in 2017.

With a growing trove of anecdotes about teachers who can’t afford housing, who work second jobs to make ends meet or who leave the profession early, state education officials hit the road last summer. They conducted a series of town halls to learn more about the problem, which is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas and in certain grades and subjects.

The input they collected informed a sweeping strategic plan mandated by legislation passed during the 2017 session. It included recommendations ranging from student loan forgiveness to exploring the possibility of a minimum salary for teachers tied to the cost of living.

Some school districts also attacked facets of the teacher shortage issue with their own initiatives over the past year. Denver Public Schools considered converting an old elementary school into teacher housing, though it may not follow through, in part because of neighborhood opposition. In Aurora Public Schools, officials have partnered with a local university to give teacher prep students paid jobs at one elementary school while they take college classes.

The teacher shortage problem — and potential solutions — also came up at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. A half-dozen superintendents weighed in on the issue, with several calling out Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools.

year in review

How President Trump’s immigration policies made waves and stoked fears in Colorado schools in 2017

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies had a profound effect on Colorado’s education community in 2017, with students taking to the streets, teachers recasting lesson plans, and school boards seeking to calm fears.

At a gathering at Denver’s South High School, a group of teenagers whose families fled persecution and war in their native countries decried Trump administration actions they say betray American values they hold dear.

Denver Public Schools took a number of steps this year as fears spread in immigrant communities about enforcement crackdowns under Trump, assuring families that the district will protect students’ constitutional rights. The state’s largest school district also joined with the Mexican consulate in those efforts and promised to build on their longstanding partnership.

Students made their voices heard loud and clear. In February, several Colorado school districts reported a spike in absences among students and staff during a “Day Without Immigrants,” a demonstration of  immigrants’ contributions to society.

At northeast Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, sixth and seventh graders in an English language development class spent an afternoon tweeting to President Trump about their experiences, pride, and fears.

Trump’s plans to roll back protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children generated a whole new wave of protest and concern.

Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg predicted that repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, would prove “catastrophic” for the school district and the city.

Not all superintendents were so vocal. Across Colorado, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students took different approaches to support kids without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee.

In September, students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus to protest President Trump’s order to end the DACA program.

The Aurora school board grappled with heightened concerns about immigration policy, too. Dozens of Aurora students and parents pressed the board to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools. The board ultimately adopted a resolution, but not before fault lines emerged over the intent.