Q&A

11 things former state superintendent Glenda Ritz wants you to know as she leaves office

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz began as Indiana’s schools chief four years ago, buoyed by the success of an unexpected win.

But at her Statehouse office on Friday afternoon — her last day — it was quiet.

Although her administration was marred by political battles with Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers, as well as snafus with state tests and the distribution of Title I funding, Ritz was consistently held up as a champion for teachers and public schools.

Ritz rose to power in 2012 after an upset over then-superintendent Tony Bennett. Her campaign garnered the support of a number of educators as well as strong backing from the state’s teachers unions. While she has remained popular in many education circles since then, her loss in November to Yorktown superintendent Jennifer McCormick came as a surprise to teachers, policymakers and community members throughout Indiana.

On Friday, she sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her time in office and her hopes for Indiana education in the future.

(This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)

What are your plans now that you’re leaving office?

I think you can expect me to still be in the public education space. I don’t think I want to put that out there at this time.

I probably will be spending my time really figuring out what it is I’m going to do. I’m not a person who sits around. I can’t sit around doing nothing.

 

Do you think you’ll stay in politics in some way?

Even before I was superintendent, I was very involved here at the statehouse. So the public should expect me to stay involved as a public school advocate, because that’s important to me. I don’t think I will venture to say what my political aspirations will be, if any, because I didn’t get involved in this job because of politics. I’m an educator. I care about education policy and students.

What is a specific moment that stands out to you at a school or with a teacher, student or parent?

The most fun welcome that I received was a rural school. Their entire band met me at the front door and played for me as I walked in. And I’ve gotten the red-carpet treatment at some schools — they really rolled out a red carpet!

I visited some schools where a (state) superintendent had never showed up.

You were relatively unknown statewide before you ran for office. What do you think made you such a popular figure to begin with?

I think they saw my passion for public education. I wasn’t unknown here (at the statehouse). Out the field, through my teachers association, I was known for that work. But I think people saw passion for public education, and they had a belief in their public school teachers.

So when (teachers) went and said to people they knew in their communities, “This is who we want to be superintendent,” they said, “OK, I’ll go and vote for her.” Even across party lines.

What sides of you as an educator or a leader do you think people didn’t get a chance to see?

Many couldn’t see past the politics of who I was to really engage in the conversations about education systems and how we need to put certain things in place to be sure we’re serving kids. And that was new for me because I’ve always been in an education space where I was highly regarded because of my intellect and my ability to problem solve and my ability to put things in place.

When I grade kids on a project, I don’t grade on the end product. I grade on the process along the way, and that’s what they get credit for. I don’t think people got to see that (from me). They wanted to just see the outcome, and they didn’t want the outcome necessarily to be positive. I don’t think people got to see all the work that the (Department of Education) did. They just wanted to put the political spin on it all the time.

What do you want to say that you haven’t been able to say before?

I don’t think we left things on the table. I don’t feel like I left anything unsaid.

Probably what you’ll hear me talk about more going forward, especially with the national scene, will be vouchers and school choice. I implemented that school choice through the department. I was implementing something I don’t believe in. (But the department carried it out) it with fidelity and with transparency.

Let the facts speak for themselves. I did not really engage in the conversation in the statehouse regarding school choice and vouchers. But you’ll see me in that space now.

Do you think the changes you’ve made at the Indiana Department of Education will be lasting ones? Why?

Yes. What I think I’ve done is change the expectation of schools. Schools now expect to be supported by the Department of Education — not just monitored, but supported. And even if the new superintendent changes the model in which she provides support, I feel the field and the schools will expect it of her.

I spent a great deal of time and found money to supply online reading for every family in the state of Indiana. We’ve had access to these online books for four years now. So hopefully that will continue.

What do you worry most about when you look at Indiana education going forward?

It’s individual students having access to the resources that they should, no matter where they live. And that it’s all about meeting their needs. But it’s individual students getting what they need that worries me. And that the adults who create the systems don’t really get down to that. Systems seem to be created for adults rather than children.

What do you think the biggest problem facing Indiana education is?

Politics. That’s pretty succinct. Politics. The General Assembly is gearing up to make this position appointed. I’m an educator, but (education) is the most important driver of your economy. Having a viable citizenry who are going to be able to go right into the workforce.

Not having continuity in your educational programming, or it being driven from a political point, will not be in the best interest of students. When superintendents are appointed by a political body, they are there for a political will, and they can be dismissed. They are beholden to no one. When you’re appointed position you don’t have any allegiance to anyone, and you can just leave or be told to leave.

I strongly feel that this position should always be elected. Education is one of those things that people should care most about and and should want to vote (for). If I had my druthers it would be an elected position and it would be nonpartisan.

Do you have any advice for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick?

I don’t know that I will leave her with advice. I wanted to have a very smooth transition, which was not afforded to me. I wanted to make sure that the operation of the schools was going to continue very smoothly when I left.

She’s a highly capable superintendent. She’s highly intelligent, so I hope that her focus is going to be on service to our schools and our students, and not the politics.

Do you have any regrets?

I wouldn’t call anything a regret. I would say sometimes you wish you’d taken this decision path, rather than this decision path, but no matter what decision path you take, it leads you to another one.

I don’t deal in what did happen, I deal in where are we going. And you’ll probably see that in anything that I do, that I’m always moving forward.

Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases were mistakenly reported by the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

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.