Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.

a unifying force

Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

Upset about the election result and wanting to act, Cheetah McClellan was excited to learn that women from across the country were planning to march on Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Then she checked out prices on flights and hotel rooms, and remembered she was earning a beginning teacher’s salary.

Maybe, she thought, Denver ought to have its own women’s march. After searching fruitlessly online for anyone planning such a thing, McClellan created a Facebook event page, shared it with some left-leaning social media sites and waited.

By the next morning, 800 people had signed up for an event that was more of an idea at that point.

Not long after, McClellan connected with a couple of similarly inspired local women — Karen Hinkel and Jessica Rogers — and plans for the Women’s March on Denver began to take shape.

PHOTO: Stan Obert
Cheetah McClellan

On Saturday, a larger-than-anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park in a display of what organizers described as a united front for equality and women’s rights after Trump’s ascension to the White House.

McClellan, 42, came to teaching later in life after working as a bartender, waitress and astrologer who did readings and wrote a column about astrology, she said. McClellan completed her teacher licensure through a University of Colorado Denver residency program, and is now pursuing a master’s in culturally and linguistically diverse education.

This school year, McClellan is doing math intervention work on a one-year contract at Colfax Elementary School in Denver, which has a large number of Latino students living in poverty.

We caught up with McClellan after the march she helped lead. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What led you to become a teacher?

Life just kind of pulled me in that direction. I was volunteering at my kids’ school, doing writing groups with kids. The school secretary said, “Do you want a job?” So I became a paraprofessional. Then I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

There is something so beautiful about a child’s mind that is just so wide open and eager to learn. There is nothing more fulfilling to me that hearing, “Miss, I get it.”

Why did you invest so much energy in the organization of this march? What motivated you?

I have always considered myself to be politically aware and informed. I’ve always voted, I try to be vocal and have conversations with people. But I never was super-active. Last year, I was doing student teaching for my residency. Even before Trump was the (Republican) nominee, kids were scared. I was working with fourth graders, and literally every single day a student would ask me a question about Trump that revolved around fear. “Will they really deport us? Will my mom and dad have to go back to Mexico?” While we want students to be aware of politics, they were not just aware of it, they were emotionally affected by it. They were scared. That just really bothered me. The day after the election, the whole fifth-grade class was sobbing.

My son has Asperger Syndrome. So when Trump mocks a disabled person, it irks you. My daughter identifies with the LGBT community. She said she was so scared. All this got me mad.

Have you brought any of your work organizing the march into the classroom, used it in your teaching in any way?

Some of the kids know what I’ve been doing. But it’s not something I have been able to discuss in more of an academic way. Moving forward, I am actively looking for a teaching position next year and I’m definitely excited to bring this into the classroom — especially in Colorado, where we have such a rich history of the women’s movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Continuing to empower girls at the same time educating boys that empowered girls are not a threat: That’s how I’d like to incorporate it into the classroom. This is definitely something that is not ending.

So what does come next?

We are working to create a nonprofit organization out of this. We want to move forward with it but we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look like at this point. I am hoping it becomes a platform for community networking and — as I have called it — legislative meddling. We want to make sure we have an impact on laws and the legislative process as citizens.

Beyond that, on a broader level what do you hope will come out of the energy and enthusiasm?

I hope to see people just continue to be active in their community. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of hiding behind our keyboard, hiding behind social media. We have tensions in our communities. We still have a lot of racial tensions in our communities. What you saw Saturday was all these different people coming out because they care about a central issue. We have to continue that — to try to find opportunities for people to sit in the same room together and work together on issues they care about.

The march was a sea of signs. Did you have a favorite?

That is a hard question. I loved them all. One of my favorites was a small sign by a man that said, “Gay, Muslim and fifth-generation Coloradan.” I just felt, “Wow.” It was the simplicity of it, and him just saying, “This is who I am.”

What do you say to those who think the marches are sour grapes about a lost election, and that this ultimately won’t make any difference? 

I would say, look at the history books. Take a class on civics. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a different approach to the civil rights movement.On Saturday, we had numerous state legislators marching with us and on stage. It sends a strong message to those in power. And it also unites the community.

OK, I need to ask. Is “Cheetah” a nickname? Where did that come from?

It’s an old bowling nickname. It has been around for about 25 years. That’s who I am.

Any closing thoughts?

One of the larger messages I’d like to pass along is you don’t have to be someone special or a board member or a politician to impact real change in your community. You just have to be a little bit brave and a little bit crazy.

A welcomed reprieve?

President Trump appears to be backing off repealing protections for undocumented youth. But anxiety is still running high.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

Tania Chairez is not excited about President Donald Trump backing away from a campaign promise to end temporary protections for young undocumented immigrants — even as she benefits from the news.

“I think he’s just continuously playing with our lives,” said the 24-year-old parent organizer in Denver, who is able to work because of those protections. “There’s still a feeling of anxiety in our community.”

Comments made by Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, this weekend that the president wants to work with congressional leaders to find a long-term solution for young undocumented immigrants — hundreds of them teachers, and thousands of them students — was met with skepticism and in some cases hopefulness by undocumented immigrants, advocates and politicians alike.

More than 750,000 young undocumented immigrants got a reprieve from deportation under former President Obama’s executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal that executive order as part of his hard line on immigration.

Leading up to Trump’s inauguration last week, state lawmakers and education officials from Colorado and other states petitioned Trump to reverse his position.  

“While it’s a relief to hear that thousands of people may not be under immediate threat, my request to President Trump remains the same: declare once and for all that the thousands of young people who are able to pursue the American dream through the DACA program will be able to continue to do so while working towards a more permanent solution in Congress,” Colorado’s Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said in an email.

Duran, the state’s first Latina speaker, and other Colorado Latino Democrats last week sent Trump a letter urging him to rethink his position.

Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college students to teach in schools that educate some of the nation’s poorest students, currently employs 146 teachers with deferred status. Leaders there have created a detailed plan in case DACA’s protections are repealed, but TFA spokesman Dan Griffin said on Monday the organization was hopeful.

“We believe that our ‘DACAmented’ teachers should be able to teach and lead in their communities while pursuing pathways to citizenship,” Griffin said.

School districts across the nation, including those in Denver and New York City, have also employed teachers who are only eligible to work because of DACA.

In May, the New York State Board of Regents made permanent regulations that allow people protected by DACA to apply for teacher certification and professional licenses from the state. Chancellor Carmen Fariña, head of the New York City’s schools, supported the move in a public letter. Though it’s not clear how many teachers have benefitted from DACA, at least 45,000 people statewide have been granted the protection.

Yatziri Tovar, who was born in Mexico City but now lives in New York City, hopes to be one of them. Her dream is to become a bilingual teacher at her old elementary school, P.S. 8 in the Bronx.

Just months away from finishing her degree, losing her status would change everything. For now, Tovar said she’s choosing to keep moving.

“A lot of my friends, they didn’t go to college because they thought, ‘Once I graduate, I can’t do anything with my degree,’” she said. “I plan to still graduate. And even if I can’t do anything with my degree, Trump can take away everything — but he can’t take away my degree.”

Tovar, who was first granted DACA status in 2012, just submitted the paperwork for her second renewal and is gearing up for her student-teaching assignment. But not all advocates agree that young undocumented immigrants should apply or renew now that Trump is in the White House.

“We’ve counseled families to not submit new applications for DACA,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic growth for ‎Conexión Américas, a Nashville-based nonprofit serving Tennessee’s immigrant community. “As of today, we’re not changing our position, which is just don’t submit anything.”

On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer also sidestepped a question about what young people now protected by DACA should know, saying that President Trump’s initial focus will be on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

While advocates remain anxious, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this month in the U.S. Senate, known as the BRIDGE Act, that would provide DACA-like protections to young undocumented youth for up to three years.

Among the sponsors of the legislation is Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

“I expect the new administration will look to Congress to help it address the DACA issue,” Coffman said in an email. “I believe my bill, the BRIDGE ACT, will start us on a path to meaningful immigration reform which will help us secure our borders, grow our economy, and keep families together while protecting these youths from the fear of deportation.”  

Chalkbeat reporters Christina Veiga and Grace Tatter contributed reporting from New York City and Nashville.