top honors

Cherry Creek leader named Superintendent of the Year

Harry Bull, superintendent of Cherry Creek schools, sits with students. (Photo courtesy of Cherry Creek School District)

Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull was named 2017 Colorado Superintendent of the Year on Tuesday.

Bull has led the nearly 55,000-student district for about three years. He has worked in various positions in the same district for 33 years, according to a news release.

“Harry Bull is an outstanding district leader and held in very high regard by his peers across the state,” said Lisa Escárcega in a statement. Escarcega is executive director for the Colorado Association of School Executives, the organization that gave Bull the award. “He is tireless in his advocacy for students and public education, and one of the most effective voices at the state level when it comes to making the case for adequate school funding.”

In his time as superintendent, Bull has been vocal in his support for a change in the way school districts are funded and was also an outspoken critic of the state’s move to abandon the ACT college preparation exam in favor of the SAT.

Under his leadership, the Cherry Creek district recently has been recognized by the state for their work with English language learners.

Bull will now go on to represent Colorado in a national competition for superintendent of the year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified how many years Harry Bull had worked in the district in other positions.

leadership matters

Meet the leader behind one Memphis school’s Blue Ribbon success

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg celebrates during a schoolwide event in November at Jackson Elementary, one of two Memphis schools honored as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.

In many ways, Jackson Elementary School is an anomaly in Memphis.

In a district in which more than 78 percent of students are black, 71 percent of Jackson Elementary’s students are Hispanic. And more than 99 percent of its students come from poor families, much higher than the district average. Yet its most recent state test scores outpaced Shelby County Schools in most every subject, earning Jackson Elementary a 2016 Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the performance gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent and white peers.

To insiders, Jackson is known affectionately as Heidelberg University, named in honor of the school’s inspirational leader.

As principal of the 350-student school, Yolanda Heidelberg fosters an all-hands-on-deck attitude that creates a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers.

Parents volunteer in preparation for Jackson Elementary School's annual Hispanic heritage festival.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents volunteers decorate for the school’s annual Hispanic heritage festival.

“We’re a family school,” Heidelberg said. That, in turn, trickles down to interactions with parents, who frequently pack the auditorium for parent meetings.

The confidence that Heidelberg exudes is a far cry from how she felt when interviewing for the job in 2001. At the time, Hispanics made up less than a quarter of the school’s enrollment. But district leaders expected the composition to change dramatically as more Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood. Heidelberg was asked if she spoke Spanish and had to answer no.

“I was frightened by that because I wasn’t sure I could help,” Heidelberg recalls of eventually landing the job. “But that became my greatest strength.”

Her lack of knowledge about serving English language learners drove Heidelberg to dive into research on how to help her incoming students feel welcome and flourish academically.

And it worked.

Jackson ES in Memphis
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hispanic students comprise 71 percent of the school’s student population, much higher than the district average.

In 2012, Jackson Elementary was named a state Reward School for achieving top growth rates in scores across multiple years. In 2015, the most recent year for which standardized test scores are available, nearly 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in state math tests and nearly 70 percent in science. About 40 percent of students did the same in reading.

The school’s success can be traced to Heidelberg’s persona, leadership, coaching and resourcefulness, according to faculty members.

When she was unable to get the former Memphis City Schools to provide translation services to produce literature for parents, Heidelberg found help from the Memphis Police Department. Those services came in handy when she needed content translated for event programs, marquees and even the school’s website.

“I never wanted language to be a barrier for us. … I never want language to hinder our progress,” she said.

Heidelberg also works with area churches and businesses that provide volunteer tutors for Jackson’s after-school programs.

Yolanda Heidelberg's favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidelberg’s Wall of Fame celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

The focus on academics is clear when entering the school, where a prominent display celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

Among staff, teamwork and collaboration are viewed as school values.

Strategies used by teachers of English language learners are often found in mainstream classrooms. Classroom teachers work closely with ELL teachers to plan lessons and skew work toward visuals. To show their mastery of a topic, students can do presentations and projects that aren’t text-heavy but still build language skills.

“We work really hard together — meeting kids where they’re at,” said Charnisha Phipps, a third-grade teacher.

“What sets us apart is that we’re not in competition with each other. We operate as one unit,” adds Lavonda Brown, who teaches fifth grade. “Here we share. We build on each other’s strengths.”

Carla Wilson teaches English language learners but she still attends classroom teacher meetings, for instance, and sometimes steps in other classrooms to offer extra support. “Just because I’m an ESL teacher doesn’t mean I’m only going to be doing that. We go in and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The culture is apparent in the front office too, where students and parents vote each month for a “star” staff member. The prize? A lunch out with Heidelberg — and a half day off.

For Heidelberg, the prize is the National Blue Ribbon award, shared this year with 278 other public schools across the nation. While there’s no material benefit, the designation is viewed as a badge of honor in education.

“This is just a validation of the hard work we’ve done over the years,” she said. “It’s finally being recognized.”

Movers and shakers

Rebecca Holmes named president and CEO of Colorado Education Initiative

A past CEI awards ceremony (Denver Post file).
Rebecca Holmes (provided by the Colorado Education Initiative).
Rebecca Holmes (provided by the Colorado Education Initiative).

Rebecca Holmes, a former associate state education commissioner with experience working as a teacher and charter school executive, as well as for private foundations and in the private sector, was announced Tuesday as the next president and CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative.

Holmes will take over the role in January, leaving her current position as a senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation.  (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

“We’re excited that Rebecca is joining the CEI team,” Leroy Williams, the nonprofit group’s board chairman, said in a statement. “Her experienced leadership, vision, and passion for making a difference in Colorado education is contagious — while she understands the dynamics and unique challenges of Colorado’s K-12 public education system. Her wealth of experience and ability to partner and collaborate will be great assets in advancing CEI’s mission to help all students achieve success.”

The Colorado Education Initiative describes itself as an independent nonprofit working with the Colorado Department of Education, educators, schools, districts and others “to accelerate educational improvement and innovation across Colorado.” The organization provides teacher training and supports STEM education, health and wellness programs, and other programs.

CEI has been in leadership flux over the last couple of years. Chief financial officer Sandy Sales has been serving as interim president and CEO since the departure of Glenna Norvelle, who resigned in June after just over a year in the position.

Holmes, who has degrees from Yale and Harvard, started off teaching in Denver, became chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school network’s Colorado schools and also has worked for Deloitte Consulting.

In her state role, Holmes served as associate commissioner for innovation, choice and engagement. She was among a number of high-ranking education department officials who left after the 2015 retirement of former education commissioner Robert Hammond.