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Katy Anthes’s inner circle: Meet the eight people helping Colorado’s education commissioner in her first year on the job

Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).
Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).

When a new person assumes the top spot at any organization, there’s often turnover in the layers of leadership below.

That’s not been the case with the Colorado Department of Education under Katy Anthes, who is about to mark her first year as Colorado’s education commissioner.

It should not come as a surprise. One reason the State Board of Education appointed Anthes last December was to quell a rush of exits from well-respected department officials and bring stability to the department that had seen massive turnover since 2015.

Part of Anthes’s work in shaping the department’s executive leadership team has been tweaking and standardizing job titles and dropping the “interim” designation from a few cabinet members’ titles. The cabinet did lose one member earlier this year: Leanne Emm, the deputy commissioner of school finance.

You can find out below who is filling Emm’s shoes and get more information about who is helping Anthes run the department. But first, here’s a little more about the commissioner herself …

Anthes joined the department in 2011 to help put Colorado’s landmark teacher evaluation system in place. She went on to serve as the interim commissioner for achievement and strategy, and chief of staff before being named interim commissioner.

Before joining the department, she was a partner at Third Mile Group, an education leadership consulting group. She led and researched major education initiatives for state, district and national organizations, and was an evaluator for several district education programs across the state.

Anthes previously worked at the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that tracks state-level education policy.

Anthes earned a Ph.D. in public policy and a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Colorado Denver. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Oregon.

She makes $255,000 a year.

Here are the eight department officials who report directly to Anthes, their duties, salaries and a bit about their backgrounds.

Alyssa Pearson, Associate Commissioner of Accountability, Performance and Support
Annual Salary: $152,625

A former fifth-grade teacher in Denver Public Schools, Pearson oversees the state’s school accountability and improvement office, which produces the state’s annual school and district quality ratings. Her office also tracks what schools are doing to improve student learning. Recently, Pearson played a substantial role in shepherding the state’s federally required education plan to comply with the nation’s new education laws.

During her time at the department, Pearson also has worked with schools that receive federal Title I money, and coordinated and led school accountability and data reporting requirements. She wrote the successful proposal asking the U.S. Department of Education for approval for use of the Colorado Growth Model, which tracks how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who have similar tests scores, for federal accountability purposes.

Pearson holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an elementary education certification from the University of Colorado Boulder, as well as a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Melissa Colsman, Associate Commissioner of Student Learning
Annual Salary: $152,625

Colsman was appointed associate commissioner in January. Her department is currently leading the state’s mandatory review of academic content standards and helping school districts put in place new graduation requirements. The offices of Early Learning and School Readiness, Literacy, and Learning Supports are also in her purview.

Colsman joined the department eight years ago and has served as the state’s mathematics content specialist, and as the executive director of teaching and learning.

Before joining to the department, Colsman was the Cherry Creek School District’s mathematics coordinator. She taught middle school mathematics for 15 years. During that time she received National Board Certification and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest award a math or science teacher can receive.

Colsman has a Ph. D. in educational leadership and innovation from the University of Colorado Denver. Her master’s degree is in interdisciplinary studies in mathematics, science, and technology from the University of Northern Colorado.

Dana Smith, Chief Communications Officer
Annual salary: $122,880

Smith oversees the department’s media relations, publications, web management and legislative liaison functions.

She started her career as a journalist in Washington state. Later she shifted to managing public relations for school districts and businesses in the energy, sports, technology and telecommunications industries. Smith came to Colorado in 2000 to serve as the spokesperson and communications director for US West, now CenturyLink.

Before joining the department in 2014, Smith was the deputy director for communications and marketing for the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Jennifer Okes, Interim Chief Operating Officer
Annual Salary: $135,564

Okes is the latest addition to Anthes’ cabinet, replacing Leann Emm. She oversees the Division of School Finance and Operations, which includes the Offices of Budget, Accounting, and Purchasing; Capital Construction; Grants Fiscal Management; Human Resources; School Finance, School Nutrition, and School Transportation.

Prior to joining the department four years ago, Okes was the deputy executive director for the Department of Personnel and Administration. She also has worked for the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, where she was in charge of statewide budgeting. Okes also worked at the Colorado Department of Human Services-Information Technology Services, and at the Office of the State Auditor.

Okes was born and raised in Denver and graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in finance.

Marcia Bohannon, Chief Information Officer
Annual Salary: $135,394

Bohannon manages the department’s internal technology, data privacy and information security programs, and the department’s data service unit that provides direct support to districts.

She has more than 30 years of experience in providing technology services to organizations both domestically and abroad. She began her career in aerospace engineering providing engineering and technology services to NASA and Lockheed Martin. Since moving to the public sector, she has worked in city, county and state government.

Before joining the department in 2011, Bohannon spent six years as the chief information officer at Jeffco Public Schools. She was appointed to her current position in 2015.

Joyce Zurkowski, Executive Director of Assessment
Annual salary: $142,214

Zurkowski has been responsible for Colorado’s assessment program since 2010, which included the state’s transition to online assessment. The state’s battery of tests includes the PARCC English and math exams, a state-produced science and science test. Her department also oversees the state’s administration of the SAT college-entrance exam.

Before joining the department, Zurkowski held a similar position in Illinois. She also taught education and assessment related master’s-level courses at the University of Missouri, while doing advanced study in special education, and research and measurement at the University of Kansas.

Zurkowski holds degrees in philosophy and special education from St. Norbert College and University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. She has also completed doctoral-level coursework in special education and measurement at the University of Kansas.

Colleen O’Neil, Executive Director of Educator Talent
Annual Salary: $135,564

As executive director of the educator talent office, O’Neil manages educator preparation and development, licensing and enforcement, and educator effectiveness.

Prior to her current work at the department, O’Neil was the director of curriculum, career and technical education for the South Dakota Department of Education. O’Neil also worked at the Greeley-Evans School District as the chief human resource officer, an elementary school administrator and the director of strategic planning. She also has served as project manager and assessment specialist for the state education department, chief learning officer for an e-Learning company and a middle and high school English teacher and coach.

O’Neil earned a bachelor of arts from Colorado State University at Pueblo, a master’s from the University of Northern Colorado, an educational specialist degree from the University of Colorado Denver and her doctoral degree from Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minn. She holds her teacher, principal and superintendent license in the state of Colorado.

Jhon Penn, Executive Director of Field Services
Annual Salary: $128,242

Penn’s department provides general support to all school districts in the state, and organizes more intensive help when needed. He also runs the commissioner’s Rural Education Council.

Penn was hired in 2001. Before joining the department, Penn served in several educational roles in rural Colorado, including district director of student achievement, principal, middle school science teacher, and as an adjunct faculty member with the Colorado Mountain College. Before entering the education field, he was a senior geological engineer with the Tenneco Oil Company.

Penn has a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University and graduated Summa Cum Laude with his bachelor’s degree in geology from Ohio University.

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