'oscars of teaching'

Surprise! Aurora third-grade teacher named winner of $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Teacher Jennie Schmaltz surrounded by her students at Elkhart Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation).

An Aurora third-grade teacher who splits her time between the classroom and coaching other teachers was surprised Wednesday with a prestigious education prize that carries a $25,000 no-strings-attached check.

Jennie Schmaltz of Elkhart Elementary School is being honored with a Milken Educator Award, given annually to educators throughout the country who not only have achievements on their resumes but have plenty left to give, according to organizers.

At a gym assembly Wednesday morning, Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the family foundation that gives the award, asked students who helps them do their best every day. The first student to be called on didn’t hesitate. “Teachers,” he said.

“Good teachers really do make a difference,” Milken said, sharing a sentiment backed up by research.

Schmaltz is credited with helping improve teacher retention at Elkhart. She splits her time leading a class of 23 third-graders, with coaching other teachers.

According to the district and the Milken Family Foundation, 90 percent of staff at the school say they are “pleased with the professional development and instructional coaching” she leads. Both her students and the students of teachers she coaches have been showing at least 65 percent growth, “despite multiple challenges in the student body which included parent deaths, learning disabilities and a high percentage of English Language Learners.”

But “it’s not a lifetime achievement award,” Milken said. “We believe you have the potential to accomplish even greater things.”

After she was given a few minutes to process the news, Schmaltz thanked the rest of the staff at her school, and her students.

“You achieve great things when you surround yourself with greatness,” Schmaltz said. “I learn every day from you.”

According to state data, Elkhart Elementary, a school serving a declining enrollment of about 600 students where 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, has been improving. In the 2012-13 school year, the school moved up in ratings to the performance category. State officials and politicians congratulated the students Wednesday for the continuing improving achievement.

The Milken Educator Award is given to up to 35 educators across the country each year through a process that starts with recommendations from sources the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the Milken Family Foundation, which picks the winners.

Teachers cannot apply for the award, which has been dubbed the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine.

Even though her mom is also a teacher, Schmaltz did not grow up planning to become an educator.

She went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, started out in journalism school and ended up with a degree in psychology.

It was a few years later when she had a child that she decided to go back to school and become a teacher instead.

Now as she works in the city she grew up in, she says she found her calling. But she said hearing her name at the assembly Wednesday still caught her by surprise.

“I kept saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and then I finally was like, that’s me,” Shmaltz said. “That was about it. The rest is a blur.”

So what will she do with the money? A few of her third-graders told her they expected candy, cookies, pizza parties and the like after giving her their best and helping her win.

Shmaltz said she is torn between using the money for the school and her students, or using it to take a trip.

“I might go to Disneyland,” she told the students.

Milken told her she is free to use it on herself. He said the financial award is meant as a recognition that teachers often make financial sacrifices in becoming teachers.

When Shmaltz called her mom to tell her she won the award — still less than an hour after the news and in a room full of her students, officials and journalists — Schmaltz started crying as her mom told her she was proud.

Then her third graders rushed to hug her and nearly tackled her to the wall.

Follow Up

These 16 school districts haven’t updated their teacher contracts to comply with evaluation law, report finds

Some of Colorado’s largest school districts have not updated contract language governing layoffs to factor in teacher performance as required by state law, according to a new report.

Such layoffs are exceedingly rare — and representatives from two districts named in the Independence Institute report said they would follow the law if the situation arose.

The report, released Monday by the Denver-based libertarian think tank, found 16 school districts including Denver and St. Vrain have provisions in their teacher contracts that violate the state’s educator effectiveness laws.  

Passed with bipartisan support in 2010, Colorado’s educator effectiveness law changed the way schools were supposed to evaluate teachers, and lay them off if necessary.

That provision of the law went into effect in 2012 and requires schools to include a teacher’s performance as a factor in deciding whom to lay off if teaching positions must be cut.

The report says that 16 school districts — slightly less than half of all the Colorado school districts that negotiate with teachers unions — are not considering performance when they need to reduce the overall number of teachers.

A true “reduction in force,” when a district must make layoffs, is a rare event, said Ross Izard, the author of the report.

Michelle Berge, deputy general counsel for Denver Public Schools, said the district’s policy has long expired and is not enforceable.

“DPS had the option to renegotiate new provisions regarding (layoffs) in order to align with SB191 requirements,” Berge wrote in an email. “We elected not to do so because we have been projecting student enrollment growth for so many years that we knew we would not have the conditions for a reduction in force.”

Officials from DPS were unable to identify the last time the district had to use across-the-board layoffs. The district has cut teaching jobs at individual schools.

The St. Vrain School District last laid off teachers about nine years ago, said Ella Padilla, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Like Denver, the district has not prioritized updating that section of its teachers contract due to resources, she said. She added, “state law trumps the district’s agreement.”

Padilla said she believes the district is in compliance with all other provisions of the state’s effectiveness law.

Izard said just because a school district hasn’t hasn’t had to lay off teachers in recent memory doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

“The economy is volatile,” he said, noting a sluggish economic forecast for the state.

One school district named in the report said it has updated its policies. In 2014, The Cherry Creek School District wrote a new “displacement” policy that outlines how teacher positions are eliminated.

It “does address using evaluations to determine how teachers would be dismissed in the event the board of education took formal action to eliminate positions,” said Tustin Amole, the district’s spokeswoman. “And it would require board action to eliminate positions to start the layoff process which is outlined in the policy.”

Here are the 16 districts the report says has out for out of date policies:

  • Boulder Valley School District
  • Brighton 27J
  • Centennial R-1
  • Center 26 JT
  • Cherry Creek School District
  • Denver Public Schools
  • Gunnison Watershed RE-1J
  • Lake County R-1
  • Mapleton Public Schools
  • Pueblo County 70
  • Salida R-32J
  • St. Vrain Valley School District
  • Summit RE-1
  • Telluride R-1
  • Trinidad 1
  • Westminster Public Schools

Update: This post has been updated to reflect new information from the Cherry Creek School District. An earlier version said the district has not updated its policy, but it has. This post has also been updated to better reflect when a reduction in force can occur. 

scholarships up for grabs

Where are the teachers? A new state program offers money to future educators but many spots remain open

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson.

A scholarship program for prospective teachers that lawmakers hoped would stem the state’s teacher shortage has so far filled only half of its available spots.

Up to 200 high-achieving high school seniors could receive $7,500 for college tuition each year in exchange for a promise to teach in Indiana for five years after graduation. But with less than a month to go before the application period closes on Dec. 31, just 103 students have applied.

Of those, only seven are from Marion County, and none of the applicants are graduates of Indianapolis Public Schools.

“We expect to see a big surge at the end,” said Stephanie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Commission for Higher Education, the state agency that administers the program. “But we’re understandably digging into the applications a bit to see who’s applying.”

The scholarship program — called the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship — was approved by the state legislature last spring in response to news that the number of educators applying for state teaching licenses had dropped, along with enrollment in teachers colleges.

That has led to a teaching shortage in some districts, especially urban and rural districts with high numbers of low-income kids. Many schools also report shortages in certain subjects like science and special education.

Lawmakers, who set aside $10.5 million for the new scholarships, hoped that the program would make a bigger splash.

Before the application window opened for the first time last month, the Commission ran ads on television and radio in hopes of attracting a large group of future teachers.

Wilson says the higher education commission is working to continue to spread the word before the application deadline, but schools and districts can also play a big role in notifying their students. She said people probably might just be waiting until the last minute, but she also knows schools and districts are busy, and the program could be getting lost in the shuffle.

“In some districts we’ve seen some leadership where superintendents are actually calling principals to say ‘Hey, identify at least one student in your building who would be a good candidate for this,’” Wilson said. “I think that makes a big difference. (Principals) get lots of emails from lots of government agencies. It’s just a matter of breaking through the constant bombardment that they get.”

To qualify for the scholarship, students must either graduate in the top 20 percent of their senior class or earn a score in the top 20th percentile on the SAT or ACT. If they earn a 3.0 GPA and complete 30 class credit hours per year, they can continue to receive the scholarship. Once they graduate, students will have to get their teaching license.

Students who are interested in applying must be nominated by a teacher and then submit the nomination form to the Commission. Those who will be considered for a scholarship spot will then take part in interviews with local community, business and education leaders from across the state.

For more information about the scholarship program, check out the Commission for Higher Education’s website.