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.”

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.

CEA student members treat Pueblo kids with ‘books for keeps’

Minnequa kids show their books.

Minnequa kids show their new books

The book drive could have placed the donations directly into the Minnequa Elementary School library and done a lot of good. The Title I school in Pueblo doesn’t have a great amount of funding to raise a big book collection. But there’s something special about giving a book to a child to keep that Kelly Gonzalez calls a ‘magical’ experience.

“It’s just awesome that they know, ‘This is my special gift that I got from school,’” says Gonzalez, a student preparing to become a teacher at Colorado State University – Pueblo. “The child will always remember this experience and that will be something special for them when they open up that book and look at it.”

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Gonzalez and several other members of the Colorado Education Association’s student group at CSU-Pueblo collected more than 1,000 books for Minnequa Elementary students through community donations. They stayed in the school library for nearly four hours, meeting class after class, helping every child pick out a book to call his or her very own.

“If people are taking time to come out and give them a book, the students will see the importance of having a book,” said student member Ayana Bentley. “If this is the one book they have, maybe they’ll ask their parents for another book. Maybe it will go further down the line than this book just being their one book.”

Owning books at home is a challenge for many Pueblo families, according to Minnequa’s teacher-librarian Kathy Plath.

“The parents don’t have a lot of money to purchase books for their children,” said Plath. “An opportunity like this for them to build their home library is pretty awesome.”

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

That opportunity, however, caused a fair amount of confusion for the children. Reading a book in the school library is one thing, but taking a book home for keeps is, well, a novel concept for many kids in this community.

“They’re so shocked about it,” Bentley noticed. “They don’t understand it’s their book.”

“A few of the kids tried to put the books back on the table, because they think they’re going to look at the book, sit down and read it, then put it back,” added Gonzalez. “And we say, ‘No, no, you get to keep the book and take it home.’”

Even though Minnequa teachers wrote the student’s name inside of the book for younger ones, Plath said many kids will still have a hard time believing they get to keep the book.


Plath (center) guides kids to a book table

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of these books come back in my book return slot, with our students thinking that they can’t keep them, but we’ll let them know they can keep these books.”

Plath, a member of Pueblo Education Association and herself a graduate of CSU-Pueblo, was happy to invite the college students into her school.

“When they put together a book drive like this, it’s giving back to the community in a big way and just wonderful to see. And they get hands-on experience with the students and dealing with the students on a personal basis. That’s important too.”

“It was beneficial to see the different reading levels the students were on,” said student member Morgan James as she helped students find their book. “Just because they were in the second grade didn’t mean they were reading on a second grade level, so that was an eye-opener.”

“I just want to say, ‘Oh I think this book is great for you’ and sit and read with the kids, but there’s just not enough time to spend with each individual child,” added Gonzalez. “It’s motivating me to want to come back into their media time and sit and read with the kids.”

Teaching kids is James' career choice

Teaching children is James’ chosen career

Gonzalez also noted the first and second graders were already aware of their reading proficiency and their personal interest in reading, “which lets us know that the teachers are really working with each individual student.”

For James, the experience affirmed her career choice to become a school teacher. “It gets me excited to help kids get excited about reading and learning, which is the whole reason I want to be a teacher. I love seeing them smile.”

Plath loves seeing her students build enthusiasm for reading, and this book delivery supported a larger strategy to get kids hooked on books at an early age.

Student member Elizabeth Wilson came to school as Cat in the Hat

Student member Elizabeth Wilson as Cat in the Hat

“There’s so many other things that vie for their attention – video games, television, many things – so if you can build that excitement for reading early on, it’s been proven that it will stay with them for a good, long time.”

See more photos of CSU-Pueblo student members at Minnequa Elementary in CEA’s flickr set.

Lakewood teachers describe the Katy Perry experience

Katy Perry, in Lakewood cheerleader attire, sings for Lakewood High students in a private performance, Oct. 25.

Katy Perry, in cheerleader attire, sings for Lakewood High students in a private performance, Oct. 25. (Concert photos from Lakewood H.S.)

One of the world’s top pop entertainers performed in Colorado, Oct. 25, but only the students and faculty of Lakewood High School could get in door. Which was fitting, because Katy Perry gave her concert in their high school gym.

Understanding how Lakewood High won a national concert to get a private Katy Perry concert starts with an explanation of a ‘lip-dub’ video.

“I’ll be honest, I was like, ‘What is a lip-dub?’ said Laura Zlogar, a physical education teacher at Lakewood High. “Is that like lip-sync back in the 80’s that I can remember?”

Laura and fellow teacher Tami LoSasso of the theater department now know first-hand what goes into making a lip-dub video.

“A lip-dub is a continuous shot,” Tami explained. “The camera takes a walk through whatever has been staged and the whole thing is done in one continuous shot. It does incorporate that idea of the 80’s lip-sync, but there’s no editing. It’s just all one walk-through.”

A lip-dub video came immediately to mind for Lakewood students when Katy Perry put out a national challenge on Good Morning America to find the high school that could give the best roar – Roar being the name of Katy’s latest hit single. First, Lakewood had the right mascot to showcase for the song’s chorus.

“Tiger – it was all Tiger, and it was a great song just to show spirit,” said Gwen Ahlers, drawing and painting teacher. “So we found a connection right away.”

Second, Lakewood students had made a lip-dub video a few years back to Katy’s hit Firework.

“The Good Morning America contest video didn’t need to necessarily be a lip-dub, but we figured hey, we have experience at this. It works perfectly with our school mascot. Let’s give it another shot,” said Tami.

The Bridge Club's card deck and bare-chested tiger student is one of many Roar highlights.

The Bridge Club’s card deck and bare-chested tiger student is one of many Lakewood Roar video highlights.

For three days, the school used 20 minutes of non-instructional homeroom time to plan and produce the Lakewood Roar video (watch at A planning team mapped out a course, placing nearly every athletic team, club and student group in the school along the route. Tami, Gwen and Laura, all members of JeffCo Education Association, helped students in orchestrating their few seconds in the spotlight when the camera rolled by.

“There were quick meetings – let’s plan your space, plan what you want to do, practice your portion of the song,” said Gwen, who worked with the art club.

Tami’s most difficult challenge was getting a commitment from her theater students to be in place when the camera arrived. “There are kids involved in so many different activities – ‘I want to do theater, then I want to run to choir, and after choir…’ – and so my responsibility was making sure we had enough kids for our shot.”

Laura’s ‘unified physical education’ group, an adaptive P.E. class for special needs students, appeared early in the video. Her student coaches were then off to the races to catch the camera again. “They were running across the hall, trying to get to another spot to get to the baseball team, or some of the girls with the tennis team. Almost all of the students had two or more groups, clubs, or teams that they wanted to be with in the video.”

With students on the run making multiple appearances throughout the campus, Lakewood’s Roar video gives the impression the school has double or triple the 2,000-plus students and staff who participated. “The ending shot is really the best indication of the amount of kids we have, because that’s where they all ran, from their groups into that big collaboration on the football field at the end,” said Tami.

“It was like Christmas Day, ants in their pants, couldn’t sit still,” Laura said of her adaptive P.E. class on recording day. “We didn’t want them to settle down - it was really cool, such a neat thing to be a part of. We tried to run around and do as much as we could to burn off some of that energy, but it was a really fun day. And it was okay to be excited and be a little squirrely.”

“And there was a lot of positive energy that you don’t always see in schools,” Tami added, noting the expectations and higher stakes of today’s school structure can weigh students down. “So just to have the opportunity for positive energy to fuel the building, I think the teachers welcomed that openly and tried to carry that positive vibe throughout the rest of the semester. We’re kind of coasting with that right now.”

Gwen Ahlers, Lakewood drawing & painting teacher

Gwen Ahlers, Lakewood drawing & painting teacher

“The kids here are awesome, teachers are awesome. It would not have worked without administration, the community, teachers, the entire staff, and students. They all pulled together,” said Gwen. “You can tell by the lip-dub, it’s amazing. It couldn’t have happened with just a few kids or a few people, it was the whole, entire school.”

Katy watched hundreds of videos from schools across America and Lakewood made her list of five finalists. The students packed the Lakewood gym in the early morning hours of Oct. 18 to watch Katy announce the winner live on Good Morning America. She chose Lakewood.

“Of course the gym just erupted and the kids went nuts,” said Laura.

“Oh my goodness,” said Gwen. “Kids were texting, moms were texting kids, congratulations from aunts, uncles, grandparents. In the community, businesses were just so excited for Lakewood. As a community, this is a pretty neat deal.”

Lakewood and its high school were suddenly famous. The Roar lip-dub has more than 425,000 views on YouTube. Lakewood High appeared on live national TV and in media reports across the country. And when Katy Perry tweets about you, she reaches 47 million followers.

What to do with their ’15 minutes of fame’ was a heavy question for the student body and Principal Ron Castagna. The answer: a charity campaign dubbed “One World, One Roar” in which Lakewood students challenged high schools across America to raise $1,000 for charity.

Lakewood teachers Tami LoSasso and Laura Zlogar show off the school's "One World, One Roar" t-shirts.

Lakewood teachers Tami LoSasso and Laura Zlogar show off the school’s “One World, One Roar” t-shirts.

“I think what the principal has done is used the Katy Perry experience as a springboard for a larger message, in that we as adults need to teach students to be a part of a community,” said Tami.

Lakewood trademarked the phrase “One World, One Roar” and built a website to track progress of reported charity fundraising. As of mid-November, the campaign has topped $36,000. Lakewood and other Colorado schools have given their donations to Colorado flood relief.

“I guess it’s catching on. We’re getting some feedback,” said Gwen, with calls coming in to Lakewood from school districts in other states. “The kids were very inspiring. Maybe it’s just a switch where kids are thinking beyond their school and what they can do in their own community. The kids feel really empowered to reach out and do more.”

“What I would like to see is for that sort of ideal to really permeate beyond this year, to really get students fully engaged in their communities,” said Tami, who noted her theater students donated $1,000 they had raised at an earlier event. “In a selfish world, we still need to perform selfless acts to be a community. And getting kids to understand that is what ‘One World, One Roar’ hopes to achieve.”

Katy Perry received a Lakewood jacket and tiger-themed cake for her birthday concert.

Katy Perry received a Lakewood jacket and tiger-themed cake for her birthday concert.

United in black and orange “One World, One Roar” t-shirts, the students filed back into the gym starting at 3:30 a.m., Oct. 25, for the concert. Katy, wearing a Lakewood cheerleading uniform for the occasion, just happened to be celebrating a birthday.

“I’m 29. I feel great,” Perry said to the students and staff. “I still feel like I’m 13 sometimes. Obviously you can tell by my music and my spirit. I’m so excited about this record and I just love all the participation and the unification …of all of you guys coming together and roaring!”

“Katy Perry did a great job. She was very professional, she treated the kids with respect, and they treated her with respect,” said Gwen. “It was exciting to have a concert and have her there for the kids.”

“She spoke their language, for lack of a better word,” added Tami. “And she was really respectful to the administration. She came across as a class act.”

In the days after the concert, Laura noticed a different attitude and a sense of camaraderie in everybody.

“In Lakewood, we’ve always kind of had that, but it seems even more so, kids just outgoing, looking for ways to help. Kids have that sense of, ‘What can I do to help you.’ It’s great, it’s really nice,” said Laura.

“As teachers, it’s been an interesting journey. Finding ways to channel the energy has been a new and exciting challenge,” Tami added. “To have kids who are enthusiastic, willing to take on whatever in the classroom just because they have this sense of something bigger, was a nice addition to the past couple of weeks.”

students web

Katy Perry leads a Roar! with special needs students at Lakewood High.

Laura said the sense of community is particularly high with her special needs students, who don’t always feel so appreciated.

“They’re feeling embraced a lot within the community in the school, which hasn’t happened for a while,” said Laura. “But they certainly feel a part of the experience, that they have a piece in this too.

“There’s an attitude now that this was much bigger than getting a Katy Perry concert. It’s ‘how can we do more?’ and looking at the bigger picture,” Laura continued. “The special needs kids are starting to see that too. There’s an awareness of, ‘maybe there’s some disadvantages here, but there are ways I can help somebody else.’ And it’s been a huge education piece for us to talk about something and just take it to a different level, a bigger scale with a lot of these kids. It’s been a great learning experience for them.”

“We have two backpacks and we’re leaving – now what?”

Education is a people business. Away from they hype around curriculum and test scores, the success of an educator often hinges on the strength of personal connections made with students and their families.

“These are our students, our children. We’re more than just a teacher when we’re at school,” said Mark Bruemmer, a teacher of  construction trades and information technology at Greeley West High School. “Students come to school to have some of that safety, some of that support, some of that comfort.”

The Army evacuates residents of Drake two days after the heavy rains hit.

The Army evacuates residents of Drake two days after the heavy rains hit (photos from Bruemmer family).

A sense of safety, support and comfort were all in short supply across northern Colorado on the evening of Sep. 11, 2013, when torrential rains pounded the region and unleashed powerful floods that destroyed homes, bridges and roads. Two of Mark’s students still don’t have a place to call home.

“These two students, I’ve definitely pulled in and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you’re going through, but let me know if you need something. We can put something together for you,’” said Mark. “They have nothing. Their backpacks, their notebooks – everything is gone.”

Mark knew what these students needed first, because his family needed it too – the gift of time. He gave the students as much time as they needed to get caught up and get family life back in order before worrying about school work.

“And that was very similar to my family as well, and what we received from the administration here – ‘let us know what you need.’ I needed time off to chat with FEMA. I needed time off to figure out where we were going to live. I need some time to process all of this. That’s very similar to how I reacted to what these students potentially needed.”

The rain was coming down pretty hard when Mark and his wife Sarah, also a teacher at Greeley West, made the hour drive home on Sep. 11, west along Highway 34 to the mountain town of Drake. Later at home, the Bruemmers learned the highway had closed, but authorities were letting people drive out of the area. Mark decided to ride the storm out at home. “I didn’t want to be that person who was driving out and never seen again,” Mark laughed.

Mark and Lily go canoeing in their soaked neighborhood.

Mark and Lily go canoeing in their soaked neighborhood.

“That first day (Thu, Sep. 12) it rained like crazy,” Mark recalled. “It kept raining, coming down, sheets of rain. It sounded like hail on the roof, even though it wasn’t hailing, it was coming down so hard.”

The rain let up in the afternoon and Lily, his 5-year-old daughter, asked to go canoeing in the new lake outside.

Bruemmer4 web

Lily and Sarah are all smiles as the Bruemmers plan to ride out the storm.

“We took the canoe out, hopped into our little pond and paddled around a bit and made some light of the situation, still again thinking things are okay and we’ll get out eventually,” Mark said. “We might be stuck here for a week or two, but we had enough supplies to survive up there.”

But the rain was still coming down Friday as the Bruemmers monitored the situation at home on the Internet. They found roads were starting to disappear everywhere.

“We drove down that morning and looked at the destruction of our little bridge to get across to Road 43, and it was almost gone. The roadway was gone,” Mark said. “It was just magnificent – the power of the water. And we knew it was more serious.”

Back at home, Mark found the Internet and phone service had died. He also saw an Army Chinook transportation helicopter landing in the distance and went over to ask questions.

“They mentioned they had three helicopters coming and that might be the only trip out for quite some time,” Mark recalled. “Our daughter was running a fever – we need to get out of here.”

Mark and Sarah each loaded a hiking backpack, packed tightly with laptops, business supplies and anything else that would fit.

“I brought a few items of clothes, but thought, what an opportunity to wear shorts and t-shirts to work. I can be casual every day and nobody’s going to argue with me for at least a few weeks,” Mark said with a grin.

Mark and Lily, ready to climb aboard, though not sure where they're going.

Mark and Lily, ready to climb aboard, though not sure where they’re going.

Lily picked one stuffed animal and a blanket. “She was trying to figure out what was going on, and I had to yell, ‘We need to get out of here now – go! Get your stuff, we’re leaving!’ Lily handled it really well. She wasn’t afraid,” Mark said. “We got to talk about the excitement of riding in a helicopter – ‘hey, this is kind of cool.’”

The Bruemmers and their neighbors left Drake on the second helicopter.

“Yeah, it was pretty wild. I’d never flown in a helicopter before. I was a little curious, pulled one earplug out and I was not very happy that I did that. They’re pretty damn loud, so I put the earplug back in.

On the Army Chinook, heading to Fort Collins.

On the Army Chinook, evacuating to             Fort Collins.

“Our daughter was pretty brave about it,” Mark continued. “She thought it was pretty cool that she got to ride in a helicopter. She definitely told a lot of people about this helicopter ride.”

Mark built their home in Drake and left knowing it would hold up well to the storm. “I wasn’t too concerned about leaving the house other than the fact that we have two backpacks and we’re leaving – now what?”

The helicopter took the Bruemmers and other families to Fort Collins, where they were bused to a church in use as a Red Cross evacuation center.

“That was really humbling,” Mark remembered. “There we are with a couple of backpacks, our only belongings, and people are feeding us like we’re kings and queens. I had a fresh hamburger, they gave us a full-baked pie. Life was pretty good for a few moments there, but we had no clue what was going to happen next.

“What the heck do you do?,” Mark wondered. “It was a little surreal at that point. We were evacuees.”

The Bruemmers arranged to stay with another teacher’s family for a couple of nights, then moved in with Sarah’s father for the next month. The Greeley Tribune ran a profile story on the Bruemmers, and from that attention, a couple who lives in Arizona for the winter offered their house to the family. It’s been a place to call their own while they keep a watchful eye on their home back in Drake.

Many residents stayed in Drake for the long haul and Mark gave the house code to a few people who check on things occasionally. Mark and a friend even made a 16-mile hike up to Drake to winterize the home and grab some more items. So far, so good.

“We have nothing to lose at this point. It’s just things,” Mark said of what they left behind. “We have each other. We have a few of our necessities that we like. There’s a few more necessities that would make life more comfortable, but they’re things.

“We’re not too concerned,” Mark continued. “We’re going to get back home. This is a temporary situation for us, fortunately not permanent. We have a home that’s intact and so do our neighbors.”

Mark and Sarah were back at Greeley West the following Tuesday, Sep. 17. “We felt it was necessary to be back. The students needed us there, they had questions,” Mark said. “Our students rely on us every day to be here, so that was huge for us.”

The Bruemmers showed their students a slide show of their adventure, but that was it for the past. Both teachers were eager to keep their students, and themselves, moving forward.

Mark Bruemmer at his construction trades class at         Greeley West High.

“Day one I think my students just thought I was going to step in, chat about how the flood was,” Mark said of his construction trade class. “They asked, ‘Are we going to do something in here today?’ Absolutely. I’m your teacher, I’m here. Learning still needs to happen. Yeah, so I don’t have a home to go to for a while. Whoop-de-ding. We still need to be in here, we still need to be working,” Mark told his students.

The ordeal even brought something new into the classroom instruction – how to build a floodplain.

“I thought that was appropriate for some of the students down here, in addition to what I was going through, just to touch upon there is building code revolving around building in a flood plane and what that looks like,” Mark said. “It was one of those teachable moments.”

The Bruemmers greatly appreciate assistance from the school and the community. They’ve received offers of places to stay as well as gift cards for fuel, groceries and clothing.

“I really appreciate all the outreach from folks, our local union definitely.” Both Mark and Sarah are members of the Greeley Education Association. “Our local president, Pat Otto, was on the phone right away – ‘Do you need anything? What can we do for you?’ I’ve had a lot of support.

“That’s why you’re an educator. Everybody is here to help each other,” Mark added. “That’s why we’re here. We’re here to take care of each other. I really do appreciate that. It made it a lot easier to be displaced.”

Mark still checks in on his students, especially the two who are also displaced, making sure they have supplies and support. He perceives things are going alright for them under the difficult circumstances.

“They’re smiling every time they’re in class, so I’m hoping that they’re being taken care of as well as they need to be taken care of, if not better.”

American Education Week: Teacher for a Day

Now it’s breakfast. The students begin eating pre-packaged mini-waffles with apple juice and milk. This is a new strategy for lower income schools are implementing to insure that students are ready to learn. Now schools know that no one is arriving at school hungry.

As Mrs. Nelson teaches, a stranger watches.

As Mrs. Nelson teaches, a stranger watches.

There’s a stranger in Mrs. Nelson’s 2nd grade classroom at College View Elementary in Denver. She’s taking notes and taking pictures, watching and writing, then watching again, but Mrs. Nelson doesn’t seem to mind. She’s focusing her students on the task at hand: leading her students in discussion about the children’s classic Little Red Riding Hood.

“Today we’re trying to sequence the story by beginning, middle and end, making sure we have the conflict,” Jennifer Nelson, a member of Denver Classroom Teachers Association, later described. “My students put characters, setting, resolution and lesson learned in order, so that it’s more the story being told instead of just a list of answers.”

During this activity, the stranger takes more notes and takes more pictures, which will later appear in her blog under the title, Be a Teacher for a Day…

What strikes me is how well these kids KNOW what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s quiet. They all on task. They are respectful of each other and Mrs. Nelson. This continues throughout the day, too and I know from experience that it doesn’t happen by accident.

Melissa Taylor, former teacher, blogs about education in Imagine Soup.

Melissa Taylor, former Denver teacher, writes about education and learning in her ‘Imagine Soup’ blog.

Turns out Melissa Taylor, freelance writer and blogger, is no stranger to the classroom. She used to be a teacher in Denver. Now she’s on an assignment, perhaps better described as a challenge, from the National Education Association. She and many other notable people across the country are shadowing an educator for a day during American Education Week (Nov. 18-22). According to the NEA, “this opportunity will empower an influential person to tell our story to the public about the challenges, rewards, and issues educators face on a daily basis.”

“I don’t think most people have a clue how hard it is,” Melissa says of the dismissive view some people have of the teaching profession. “I’m sure NEA wants to get out this more positive view of the hard work that teachers are doing day in and day out and the struggles they have.

“When people talk about test scores, they don’t even realize what that classroom looks like and the diversity of children in that classroom,” Melissa added. “I hope that people will open their eyes a little bit more instead of being so judgmental.”

I watch Mrs. Nelson’s next teamwork activity in awe… “I’m going to time you,” she tells them. “Ready, go!” The children rush from the perimeter of the carpet to the middle squares in Mrs. Nelson’s shape. “23 seconds!” The kids cheer.

“It brings me back. I love the energy of the kids,” Melissa said of her morning in school. “I don’t have the energy to do it full-time anymore, sadly, but it’s so much fun.”

Jennifer Nelson takes questions from her 2nd graders.

Jennifer Nelson takes questions from her 2nd graders.

Jennifer is just in her third year of teaching. She used to work in the family construction business, but says this job of “constructing citizens” has greater rewards.

“I love teaching because every day is like a puzzle, and trying to get all the pieces to fit for everybody. And so it’s a challenge, and I love that feeling when you see a student that finally gets it – aha!” Jennifer exclaims.

Calling Jennifer “a masterful teacher,” Melissa recognizes the effort that goes into getting such a diverse set of kids to learn instruction and stay on task together.

“Jennifer has kids reading at different levels and writing at different levels. She also has some kids that are still learning English - one kid who just moved here and doesn’t speak a word of English,” Melissa noted.

“It makes my job more colorful, for what they bring to the table,” Jennifer says of teaching her multi-cultural students, a large group of whom are Vietnamese. “I try to build relationships with the families to support them and I think that carries over in the class.”

Melissa observes Jennifer leading a small group discussion.

Melissa observes Jennifer leading a small group discussion.

Jennifer is a graduate of Denver Public Schools and feels “highly invested” in doing the best job she can to keep students first and provide a top quality education. She likes NEA’s idea to bring storytellers into schools because she doesn’t believe most people, even parents, really know what goes on in the classroom.

“Some districts meet you at the door so that you don’t get that opportunity to see it, and you trust that your child is in good hands getting the quality of education that you’re hoping for,” Jennifer said. “It’s nice to show a little window into the world that most parents, who may be working or doing something else, don’t really get an opportunity to see.”

"I love the energy of the kids," Melissa said of being Teacher for Day.

“I love the energy of the kids,” Melissa said of being Teacher for Day.

I’ve only been here for one hour. Already I’ve seen Mrs. Nelson in her many roles as restaurant server, communicator, facilitator, instructional leader, manager, and organizer — not to mention the roles I don’t see — researcher, planner, collaborator, learner, designer.

“I hope my readers get the challenge of trying to instruct students who are at a variety of different learning levels and language levels, and then manage the behavior alongside it,” Melissa said of capturing Jennifer’s typical day for her blog. “And the resources… there’s so much to teach every single day, and she’s working hard after hours trying to find the resources she needs for instruction to meet all those different levels. It’s a hard job.”

Read Melissa Taylor’s full blog post of her experience in Jennifer Nelson’s classroom at


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