First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

In search of black teachers in Denver

Lucas Nkwelle, a black chemistry teacher at Montbello High SchoolDENVER — When Malcinia Conley attended Montbello High School in the early ‘80s, she was inspired by the black teachers she saw at the front of her classrooms.

Lucas Nkwelle teaches chemistry at Montbello High School, where 29 percent of students are African-American compared to 12 percent of teachers and 31 percent of total staff.

“It was a feeling of, here is someone with an understanding of the cultural things that I am experiencing, so I believed they were someone who could help me to get through them,” said Conley.

“I’d look at them, and believe, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I could follow in their footsteps.”

Conley did just that. Today, she is one of 233 African-American teachers in Denver Public Schools. She’s back at her alma mater, where classes she teaches include Intro to Urban Education, a DPS program geared toward encouraging students to pursue teaching. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Ed commissioner search ends

Robert Hammond, who’s been serving as commissioner of education since December, is the sole finalist for the permanent job and is expected to be formally hired by the State Board of Education next week. During a brief teleconference Monday afternoon, the board voted 7-0 to name Hammond sole finalist, choosing him over Aurora Superintendent John Barry. The board had voted 7-0 on April 21 to name the two as finalists. Read more at Education News Colorado.

Feedback welcome on proposed teacher effectiveness rules

One year after the passage of Senate Bill 10-191 calling for a new statewide approach to measuring educator effectiveness, the Colorado State Board of Education has announced a timeline and process for public input prior to formal adoption of rules, currently anticipated for November.

As a first step in the process, the state board will begin in May to explore in further detail the recommendations from the State Council on Educator Effectiveness.

The discussion will begin on May 11, when the department will provide a follow-up to the April 13 presentation from the council. This meeting is designed to address those areas where the council did not make a specific recommendation and to ask whether the state board agrees with particular recommendations. From 10 a.m. to noon May 12 the board will hold a study session to further explore the recommendations from the council.

For those wishing to provide testimony at the state board meeting on May 12, a sign-up sheet will be provided.

Throughout this process, the draft rules along with recommended changes will be posted on the state board website. As suggestions come in, the department will post the recommended changes. Written comments on the report or recommendations to the state board on the draft rules may be sent by e-mail to, or by mail to: State Board Office, 201 E. Colfax Ave., Room 506, Denver, CO 80203-1087.

After gathering input from the state board, the department will begin drafting proposed rules, which will be provided to the board June 8.

Two Colo. teachers honored in math/science

WASHINGTON – President Obama named 85 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Thursday. Two of them are from Colorado. The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. Each winner was selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians,and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level.

Susan Parsons of Boulder (math) and Patricia Astler of Castle Rock (science), are the recipients for the state of Colorado. Learn more on 9NEWS.

Mixed reaction to teacher evaluation plans

It wasn’t as if teachers and principals around Colorado were holding their collective breath, awaiting the release of the report from the state Council on Educator Effectiveness with its recommendations on how they ought to be evaluated in their jobs. No, it was more like, “Reform proposals? Take a number and get in line.” Read more in Education News Colorado.

Garcia highlights education priorities

The top education goals of the Hickenlooper administration are implementation of the educator effectiveness law, improving third-grade reading scores and raising college completion rates, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said Thursday. Garcia spoke to reporters and a large group of state employees and education lobbyists in his first major public talk since Senate confirmation this week as director of the Department of Higher Education.

In addition to that job and being lieutenant governor, Garcia is the head of the yet-to-be-convened Education Leadership Council. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Bill GatesGates to help schools adopt common core standards

The Gates Foundation is announcing on Wednesday that it will be investing $20 million in game-based learning and other tools to help the new national education standards into the classroom. Read more in the Seattle Times.

Aurora schools tout tech to female students

Ryan Handy gave the group of about 20 middle school girls free reign to be as destructive as they wanted to be. Gathered around old computer towers at the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center on Tuesday, the sixth-graders held screwdrivers and wrenches as they waited for his cue. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Overland H.S. principal accused of plagiarism

AURORA – At first, there were the stories about the student newspaper being shut down over a story related to the death of a student wrestler when the season ended this winter.  Now, Overland High School Principal Leon Lundie is under the microscope yet again.

This time bloggers on the Huffington Post say Lundie, who is in his first year as principal at Overland High, plagiarized portions of his monthly Message to the Community. Check out Fox 31.

High school classes may be ‘advanced’ in name only

More students are taking ambitious courses. According to a recent Department of Education study, the percentage of high school graduates who signed up for rigorous-sounding classes nearly tripled over the past two decades. Read more in the New York Times.

Public comment sought on federal “Title” fund priorities

Each year, School District 6 receives federal funding for specific “Title” programs that assist with various needs. These programs include:

  • Title I – Reading and math support for schools serving large numbers of students who have significant socio-economic needs.
  • Title II – Support for hiring and retaining highly qualified staff.
  • Title III – English Language Acquisition.

District 6 is currently seeking recommendations from the community on how these programs can be best used to improve student achievement during the 2011-12 school year. Comments and recommendations should be sent to Kathi VanSoest, director of federal programs and grants, at 348-6260 or

English fluency grows in St. Vrain Valley School District

LONGMONT – More English-language learners in the St. Vrain Valley School District are becoming fluent than ever before, according to assessment data from the Colorado Department of Education. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

Colorado could ditch more school tests

DENVER – Opponents of standardized tests for schoolchildren have a fresh weapon this year in Colorado — the high price tag of exams. Colorado lawmakers are expected to consider joining other states in dropping statewide testing requirements beyond those required by the federal government. Check out the story on 9NEWS.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.