The Other 60 Percent

Teacher, charter settle breast-pumping case

In the first case of its kind in Colorado, a former Jefferson County teacher has won an undisclosed cash settlement and concessions from the school where she said she lost her job for taking breaks to pump her breast milk.

Former Jeffco teacher Heather Burgbacher and her daughter Dreya, now 2, on Tuesday. Photos courtesy Healthy Policy Solutions.

Under the 2008 Colorado Nursing Mothers Act, breastfeeding mothers in Colorado are entitled to take time in a private location to express milk at work. Colorado is one of 24 states with laws that support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. The right to pump milk at work is also now guaranteed under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Heather Burgbacher held her daughter, Dreya, who is now 2 and said the dark days she endured while fighting back are now worthwhile. The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the national ACLU fought the case on Burgbacher’s behalf.

“It was a very difficult road. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had done something wrong. It was devastating to have my career taken away from me,” Burgbacher said. “I’m just proud that we’re taking steps forward, changing for the good. Now people will be aware of what we need. Ignorance of the law was a big part of this.”

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Officials at the school, Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, said Tuesday they “strongly disagree” with the ACLU’s claims and that they already were compliant with the law when Burgbacher’s job was eliminated due to organizational restructuring.

“It’s unfortunate that the ACLU chose to target the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen to boast the ‘first public settlement of a lawsuit regarding the Nursing Mothers Act’. Especially in light of the fact that the plaintiff’s accusations were false, and that she was accommodated by the school in terms of time and space to express breast milk in accordance with the law and with RMAE’s policies and procedures around this issue,” said Dan Cohen, the school’s executive director.

“It appears that the ACLU may have been a bit over anxious to make a statement regarding this relatively new law, and our school was the unfortunate target,” Cohen added.

A lauded technology teacher for five years at the charter, Burgbacher said she had arranged for a fellow teacher to supervise her students while she took 20-minute breaks about three times each week to pump her milk for Dreya, the younger of her two daughters.

Burgbacher said she was told in February 2011 that her contract wouldn’t be renewed the following year. She said then that her supervisor cited disputes over her desire to pump milk as the cause for her dismissal.

“I was told, ‘Welcome to the school of hard knocks,’” Burgbacher said Tuesday as she and her lawyers announced the settlement. “I wasn’t willing to accept that. If you feel you have been wronged, then definitely explore it. Don’t be afraid to speak up to your HR person … if you’re facing issues that need to be investigated further.”

Officials at the charter school said the decision not to renew her contract had nothing to do with the pumping breaks she had sought. The school and Jefferson County Public Schools, the district authorizing the charter, did not admit any fault in the settlement and agreed to give Burgbacher positive letters of reference. Burgbacher has since found another job.

ACLU lawyers said the school has agreed to multiple concessions for future nursing mothers, including:

  • Full compliance with the Colorado Nursing Mothers Act
  • Written notice to employees regarding their rights under the law
  • A private location where mothers can express their milk
  • Notice to future employees who have filed harassment claims about the outcomes of any investigations

Burgbacher’s attorneys, Rebecca Wallace of the ACLU and Mari Newman of the law firm Killmer, Lane and Newman, both said Burgbacher’s case could help codify rights for other working mothers who want to pump at work in order to preserve their milk supply.

Heather Burgbacher, right, and one of her lawyers, Rebecca Wallace, at Tuesday’s press conference.

“This case serves as a real model for employers in Colorado that they can accommodate working mothers. The law simply doesn’t allow for discrimination,” Newman said. “This case certainly isn’t unique. Discrimination against working mothers certainly persists. This is just one of many examples of that.

“What’s significant about this is the efforts that the school has now made to accommodate future nursing mothers,” Newman said.

Until now, Wallace, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the 2008 Colorado law had not been tested.

“The primary reason for taking the case, both for the ACLU and for Heather was to do public education and to teach employers what their responsibilities are and to teach employees how to stand up for their rights,” Wallace said.

In partnership
  • Health Policy Solutions, a non-profit health news website staffed by professional journalists, is a project of the Buechner Institute for Governance at the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver.

Along with the ACLU, Burgbacher said she received help from local leaders of the breastfeeding support group, La Leche League International, and experts on breastfeeding and public health at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Burgbacher said she was pumping her milk in hopes of giving Dreya the healthiest start in life that she could.

“I wanted to get to a year. I try to be a hands-on mom,” Burgbacher said.

She believes breastfeeding is healthier for babies and said her older daughter, now 4, has never had an ear infection, for example.

“I saw the benefits (of breastfeeding). I wanted that to be the same for this one,” she said. “I know it’s important, not only for them physically, but also for the bond you establish.”

Burgbacher said employers should support mothers who breastfeed their babies.

“Do what you can to retain your valued employees. Breastfeeding is a huge commitment,” she said. “It’s a selfless act that needs support from everyone, your family, your spouse and your employer.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.