on the record

Colorado’s new education commissioner on the urban-rural divide, turnaround schools and the teacher shortage

Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).

Katy Anthes is known as a consensus builder and a steady hand.

As Anthes begins her tenure as Colorado education commissioner, those traits will be put to the test. There are no shortage of divides over education policy, and the state has plenty on the agenda.

Anthes was serving as the education department’s chief of staff eight months ago when she put in her notice of resignation — part of a period of upheaval at the department that saw a wave of resignations.

She changed her mind and stayed to become interim commissioner after Rich Crandall’s abrupt resignation. (Anthes has declined to discuss what prompted her to want to leave).

In her first interview with Chalkbeat since dropping the “interim” from her title, Anthes discussed her approach to understanding the nation’s new education law, how she plans to work with the state’s lowest performing schools to boost learning and what equity in education means to her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations. It’s been quite the year for you. First you resigned as chief-of-staff and eight months later, you’re the commissioner of education. Walk me through what it’s been like for you the last few months. How did you get from there to here — personally?

Situations change, circumstances change. I’ve always been really committed to the state of Colorado and education issues in Colorado. So no matter where my path was going to take me, I’d still be working on those issues and committed to those issues. It was a bit of a surprise, too, after giving my resignation, to step in. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to think deeply about those opportunities and I did.

It was announced earlier this year that you had planned to stay through May. And then just weeks later, it was announced you got the job permanently. What changed?

It was an ongoing process and discussion. We were working well together with the board and it was really a board decision. It was up to them. I can’t speak to their internal process. But when that discussion arose around, “Do you want to be permanent?”’ I was excited to take the opportunity.

You’re the first woman to lead the department since 1951. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised to hear that. It’s exciting. I’m honored to be in that role for sure. I also know I work with a lot of incredibly talented amazing women leaders, so it doesn’t feel that different or unique to me. I hope I do it well.

The urban and rural split is Colorado’s education community is sharp these days. You see it in the funding debate, the testing debate, the accountability debate, the teacher shortage. What steps is the department taking to really think through these different issues and positions?

That’s definitely a real tension and a real issue. I think it’s something we’ve always grappled with, too. Our role as the department is to implement the law the legislature passes with integrity and fidelity, and also implement the regulations the State Board of Education passes with integrity.

We definitely, and I as the leader of the department, always want to have the conversation, “What do those policies and those implementation practices look like for either a rural district or an urban district?” They certainly are different contexts.

What we’ve done so far in the last seven months, and when I was chief of staff and in other roles here, is look at those practices and see where can we support rural districts a little more, knowing that they don’t have all that personnel to submit their data reports. They don’t have a long line of teachers waiting to take all the hard-to-staff jobs. I think we’ve been investigating that in terms of data reporting — how do we streamline it, make it easier for rural districts.

Let’s talk about the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Your predecessor, Rich Crandall, had this idea of using ESSA to completely reshape or reimagine Colorado’s education landscape. Under your leadership, it’s been a much more tempered approach. You’ve repeatedly said the Colorado is in compliance and there probably isn’t a need for new legislation. Why this approach?

I think some of it was around understanding ESSA. For all the good intentions of going big and rethinking the landscape, we had a landscape here.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes addresses a joint committee of lawmakers studying the nation’s new education laws.

I think it was important that we do some education. We actually had a waiver from (the previous federal education law), No Child Left Behind. If you went from what are the rules and regulations under No Child Left Behind to what are the rules under ESSA, that would be a big shift.

But Colorado already did a big shift. We weren’t operating under the same kind of constraints that No Child Left Behind outlined. (The state received waivers from certain aspects of the law). So the shift you’ve seen, and the more tempered approach you’ve seen, is because we have a context. We got those waivers early on.

And we have a state legislative framework we’re already working under. It’s not necessarily the federal law that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We have our own state laws that talk a lot about those same things.

If we wanted to go bigger within ESSA, most of those changes would have to be taken up by our legislators. We wouldn’t be able to take that up as a department because we have to follow the law of our state.

You’ve said we probably don’t need new legislation to comply with ESSA. Do you think the state’s lawmakers are going to listen to you?

(Laughs.) That’s a question for them. But you know, I think we’ve been in ongoing dialogue with them. And we’re learning, too. It’s a long law. And the regulations are now coming out in pieces and parts. We’re making sure everything matches up. I don’t think we need any major changes (to be in compliance).

But legislators would have to make that decision if they want to make any changes to the state framework.

The state board has raised concerns about waivers to state law, especially around the law that governs how districts measure if Colorado’s youngest students are ready for school. Talk to me about the department’s concerns and what kind of legislative fixes you hope to see.

I’ll follow the lead from the board. It’s the governing entity that decides if it wants to take any stances on policy. I am in conversations about that. I think they have a balanced concern when they say, “Yeah, we want to provide some flexibility when it makes sense and when we can learn from it. But we also want to know that we have some timeframes for the districts to come back and report on progress. What are the district’s learning?” I think that’s what I’ve heard from the board so far and that’s what they’re interested in.

The teacher shortage: The department really doesn’t have a lot of authority to help in this issue. But can we expect to see anything in the coming year out of the department to help address this issue?

It’s definitely something high on my radar screen. It’s a concern I’m hearing from rural districts and from some on the Front Range, too. It’s something I want to explore and talk to the board about and see how we could be helpful. My personal approach to those types of things is being a convener — to have a discussion and collaborate with folks about different ideas.

You’ve been visiting with the state’s lowest performing schools and districts as they approach the end of the state’s accountability timeline. I know from talking with some of your staff that you want to find solutions to boost learning in collaboration with these districts. But are you also prepared to make recommendations to the state board that might go against the districts’ wishes?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class. The high school is one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

If the situation calls for it — absolutely. Our north star is around supporting student achievement and increasing student achievement. So we want to work in collaboration with school districts. Each situation will be different. Each context will be different. The trajectory of each district will be different. So I, along with the staff and others, are taking all of that into consideration. No two recommendations will be alike.

What are you hearing when you talk to these schools and districts?

I’m hearing that they have a sense of urgency, that there is a lot of hard work being put into their efforts, and in some cases there is some success. But turnaround is not fast work. There is no silver bullet that fixes it all. So I’m hearing they have to approach this work from multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are starts and stops. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s hard, complicated work. But I’m hearing they are committed to doing whatever they can.

The list of schools facing possible sanctions includes a mix of urban and rural. Is there a common denominator?

I don’t think there is a common denominator. You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things. And these things present themselves differently in different communities. So I don’t think there is a common denominator. It’s really contextual. And I think the support and the recommendations have to be contextual.

Do you believe all Colorado students have access to a quality education?

I think we are all striving for that. I think there are probably differences in context and communities. And I think that truly is our north star — that quality is happening. I think that is something that the legislature and the board and me and others across the state are striving for. There are probably places where it’s not all the same, and the opportunities are not all the same. And that’s part of the crux of the conversation moving forward.

I think having the conversation is important. I do think that raising issues of equity, and what equity means, what does equal access mean — that will be an important thing for me to do, and to have that open dialogue to get those different perspectives.

What does equity mean to you?

That’s a tough question. I think equity does mean that every student, no matter where they live, no matter what district they’re in, what ZIP code they’re in, has the opportunity to reach their potential and the opportunity to go wherever they want to go in their future: a career, college, their family business. And that they had an opportunity during their schooling to explore their different passions and enhance those passions.

Any predictions for how the education landscape may change in 2017?

I’m not a prediction person. We know every year we have somewhere between 50 and 100 education bills that come across. So I’m sure the education landscape will continue to shift. And I think we’re up to the challenge as it shifts, and up to the task to make sure all the different perspectives are heard.

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.