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Former Colorado education department employee sues over lost job

Colorado Department of Education
The Colorado Department of Education.

A former Colorado Department of Education employee is suing the department, claiming that she was fired last year for speaking out against proposed policy changes in how English Language Learners are identified for reading help.

Dian Prestwich, who helped roll out the state’s early literacy law, claims she was fired in 2015 after she spoke with State Board of Education member Deb Scheffel about the department’s request to allow schools to test English language learning students in their native language, primarily Spanish.

Prestwich’s lawsuit claims she reached out to Scheffel as a Colorado resident and not a department employee. Her firing, the lawsuit claims, violated her First Amendment rights.

Under Colorado’s early literacy law known as the READ Act, schools are required to test students in kindergarten through third grade to identify early problems with reading. Students who are identified with “significant reading deficiencies” are supposed to be put on improvement plans. Schools must track student results and share results with the state.

The lawsuit establishes a two-year timeline of conflict between Prestwich and other department officials. It also provides a new window into the behind-the-scenes debate over how the state’s rules for the READ Act evolved since the law was first passed in 2012.

When the law was first put in place, schools were required to test students only in English, but then had an option to test in Spanish. More recently, the State Board made it a requirement that students tested in Spanish also be tested in English.

Prestwich’s lawsuit states she first raised concerns with department officials in 2013 when she questioned data provided by Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district.

Prestwich also alleges department officials in 2014 discouraged her from raising concerns over a policy shift that would allow school districts, like DPS, to test some students only in Spanish. According to the lawsuit, she believed the shift would allow districts to count fewer of their students as having significant reading deficiencies, and would deny those students state money earmarked for struggling readers.

Court documents were filed June 10 in Denver District Court. Also named as defendants are Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, former commissioner Robert Hammond, former associate commissioner Jill Hawly and other department officials.

A department spokesman declined to comment while the case is litigated.

Prestwich, who began working at the department in 2009, is seeking reinstatement, back pay and lawyer fees.

Prestwich’s lawsuit

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