Growing pains

Teachers aren’t the only only ones facing new evaluation system

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.

Since a landmark piece of school reform legislation passed in 2010, teacher evaluations have become a hot topic in Colorado education circles. What’s lesser-known is that the system ushered in by Senate Bill 10-191 extends to thousands of school employees who don’t work in classrooms, but rather counseling offices, health rooms and other school spaces.

Starting this year, the law requires annual evaluations of counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other staff labeled “Specialized Service Professionals” or SSPs. These employees fall into nine categories, number about 4,700 and make up around 9 percent of the licensed school workforce.

As with the introduction of statewide teacher evaluations last year, the evaluation process for SSPs has brought some predictable bumps in the road: anxiety, confusion and a steep learning curve.

“The details of it are huge,” said Anne Hilleman, director of exceptional student services for Montrose and Olathe Schools. “It’s a bear.”

It’s a sentiment familiar to Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education.

“There was a big fear factor with Senate Bill 191,” she said.

Despite concerns, there’s a sense among some SSP staff that the new system offers meaningful professional feedback and concrete avenues for improvement.

“I was kind of excited to have a useful evaluation tool,” said school nurse Jackie Valpiando, who came to the Widefield School District last year after working in other districts. “Before, we were kind of evaluated like a teacher because they didn’t know what to do with us…Most of the time I wasn’t evaluated.”

Widefield is one of 19 sites—mostly school districts and BOCES—that piloted SSP evaluations last year. So was the Montrose district. Previously, evaluations there were conducted using generic rubrics that didn’t always fit well with the employees’ responsibilities.

Under the state model system, which districts can use to guide the evaluation process, there are rubrics defining high-quality practice for all nine SSP categories.

“These rubrics [are] very detailed, very specific to each specialty area, which in terms of morale had to feel good to folks,” said Hilleman.

“Before last year, we were like, ‘Which rubric do you put an audiologist on?”

New model includes student outcomes

While many states have implemented evaluation systems for teachers and principals, mandating evaluations for other licensed school personnel is less common.

SSP Numbers in Colorado

    • School counselors: 1,617
    • Speech language pathologists: 1,065
    • Psychologists: 738
    • Social workers: 461
    • School nurses: 357
    • Occupational Therapists: 325
    • Physical therapists: 79
    • Audiologists: 67
    • Orientation and mobility specialists: 12
*Numbers are from the 2012-13 school year

“We’re probably in a small grouping [of states] that includes the specialized services professionals,” said Anthes. “Our state was pretty all-encompassing and comprehensive when the law said all licensed personnel must be evaluated.”

By the end of this school year, Colorado’s SSP staff will earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, partially effective, effective or highly effective. Eventually, the ratings will be posted publicly in the aggregate, but individual employee ratings will not be available.

While all Colorado SSPs must be evaluated this year, districts do have some leeway in how they come up with the final rating. They can choose to weigh only professional practice scores—those based on the SSP rubrics—in the final rating. That will change next year when 50 percent of the final rating must include “measures of student outcomes.”

Those outcomes, usually three to four different measures, are defined by each district and will vary by SSP category. For example, nurses may be asked to ensure that a certain percentage of asthmatic students can demonstrate the proper use of inhalers. Meanwhile, a counselor may be judged on students’ acquisition of knowledge after a social skills program.

In some districts, student outcomes measures may include things like state test scores. That may sound counterintuitive since SSP staff don’t provide academic instruction, but the rationale is that all school staff have ownership of student achievement.

“Interestingly, a lot of the SSPs are including some portion of student growth in the collective measure,” said Anthes. “Kind of as a nod to saying, ‘We’re all supporting students. We’re all contributing to the environment that helps them learn.’”

In Widefield, state test scores will count for 5 percent of SSP evaluations.

“They want us to have buy-in and I agree with that 100 percent,” said Vialpando. “We need to make sure the kids are successful too.”

She added, “I’m glad it’s 5 percent and not 50 percent.”

Adjusting to a new system

While most district administrators have always had some role in evaluating SSP staff, most agree that the new system is far more time-consuming. Hilleman, who evaluates SSP staff as well as other employees, said the new system has tripled her evaluation workload.

“You are more frequently engaged in coaching and evaluative conversations with people,” she said.

Overall, she believes the process is valuable, but given the time commitment wonders if “rock star” employees truly need annual evaluations.

James McGhee, assistant director of special education in Widefield, said the district’s old process, which entailed a written narrative about the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, took about an hour to complete. Not only do the new write-ups take 1.5-2 hours to complete, the district opted to move from one formal evaluation a year to two though that’s not required by the state.

“It’s a big shift,” he said, one that was rough at first but ultimately more informative for staff.

“The feedback is more specific in helping them grow as professionals.”

SSP staff have noticed the increased time commitment too, but some say the close examination of their day-to-day work is welcome.

“It’s a chance to be acknowledged and validated for what we do as special service providers,” said Christine Gray, a counselor at Aspen Elementary School.

Working outside the classroom sometimes gives SSPs the sense, “You’re an ‘other,’ a  little out of the mainstream,” she said.

The evaluation process–time-consuming though it is–helps remedy that feeling. For Gray, the new system has also meant more on-going reflection. Under the previous system, she’d usually turn her attention to her evaluation for a day, maybe two.

Now, she says she can’t quantify the minutes and hours she spends preparing for, having, or reflecting on her evaluation because it’s woven throughout her job.

“Its not something you put to bed anytime,” she said. “Hopefully its something you carry with your and it guides your practice.”

Moderating expectations

Aside from the extra time investment, many SSP employees find the new system challenging because earning top ratings on the professional practice half of the evaluation is tougher than under most previous evaluation systems.

Under the state model system, SSP staff can earn one of five ratings for professional practice: exemplary, accomplished, proficient, partially proficient and basic. While “proficient” meets state standards, it can seem like a mediocre rating to employees who are used to superlatives.

Valpiando said she earned “exemplary” on a few standards last year, but overall would have fallen into the proficient category.

“I’ve always thought of myself as better than proficient….so that was hard for me to take,” she said.

One of the criteria that distinguishes proficient from “accomplished” or “exemplary” for all types of SSP staff, is whether they move from carrying out required duties to empowering students, parents or teachers around certain professional goals. For example, a proficient employee might make a recommendation to a student, whereas an exemplary employee prompts the student to act on the recommendation.

“That is a really unique piece of all of our rubrics…the same things happen with principal and assistant principal rubrics,” said Anthes. “When you move to accomplished or exemplary it’s what has the work you’ve done enabled others to do?”

Hilleman said while her SSP staff all scored well into proficiency based on the rubric, few were exemplary.

“I did really have to frontload especially with my overachievers…Don’t feel like this is a ding.”

Impacting personnel decisions

With many SSP staff employed on single-year contracts, their employment status may depend more on student enrollment and district needs than evaluation ratings. Still, those not on single-year contracts who score below effective for two years in a row can lose non-probationary status. Technically, this could make it easier for districts to dismiss them.

“It is easier to fire you if you don’t have non-probationary status,” said Anthes. “Whereas if you had non-probationary status… it might take a district longer to remove you.”

No SSPs will lose non-probationary status till the end of the 2016-17 school year at the earliest, since this year is considered a hold-harmless year. Even then, districts will not be required to dismiss partially effective or ineffective employees, though administrators will have that option.

Despite the potential influence of SSP evaluations on job security, Anthes said, “That’s really not the main point of the law…We really try to emphasize…it’s about professional growth.

As always, she said, districts should use evaluation ratings for personnel decisions, such as determining what professional development to offer, how to draft professional growth plans or where to place staff.

“Every professional in public schools deserves meaningful practice.”

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The state’s year-round scramble to fill teaching jobs

PHOTO: DPSCD
Miss Michigan Heather Heather Kendrick spent the day with students at the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science in Detroit

While much of the media attention has been focused this year on the severe teacher shortage in the main Detroit district, our story this week looks at how district and charter schools throughout the region are now scrambling year-round to fill vacant teaching jobs — an instability driven by liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers.

The teacher shortage has also made it difficult for schools to find substitutes as many are filling in on long-term assignments while schools try to fill vacancies. Two bills proposed in a state senate committee would make it easier for schools to hire retirees and reduce the requirements for certifying subs.  

Also, don’t forget to reserve your seat for Wednesday’s State of the Schools address. The event will be one of the first times in recent years when the leader of the city’s main district — Nikolai Vitti — will appear on the same stage as the leaders of the city’s two largest charter school authorizers. For those who can’t make it, we will carry it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

Have a good week!

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

STATE OF THE SCHOOLS: The State of the Schools address will pair Vitti with the leaders of the schools he’s publicly vowed to put out of business, even as schools advocates say city kids could benefit if the leaders of the city’s fractured school system worked together to solve common problems.

LOOKING FOR TEACHERS: The city’s teacher shortage mirrors similar challenges across the country but the problem in Detroit is exacerbated by liberal school choice policies that have forced schools to compete with each other for students and teachers.

Hiring efforts continue at Detroit’s main school district, which is planning another job fair. Head Start centers are also looking for teachers. Three new teachers talk about the challenges, rewards and obstacles of the classroom.

WHOSE MONEY IS IT? The state Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow charters to receive a portion of property tax hikes approved by voters. Those funds have historically gone only to traditional district schools.

UNITED THEY STAND: Teachers in this southwest Detroit charter school voted to join a union, but nationally, union membership for teachers has been falling for two decades.

COLLEGE AND CAREERS: A national foundation based in Michigan granted $450,000 to a major Detroit business coalition to help more students finish college.

High school seniors across the state will be encouraged to apply to at least one college this month. The main Detroit district meanwhile showed off a technical center that prepares youngsters and adults for careers in construction, plumbing and carpentry and other fields.  

STEPS TO IMPROVEMENT: A prominent news publisher explains why he told lawmakers he believes eliminating the state board of education is the right thing to do. An advocate urged Michigan to look to other states for K-12 solutions. And one local newspaper says the governor is on the right track to improving education in Michigan.

This think tank believes businesses should be more engaged in education debates.

LISTEN TO US: The newly elected president of a state teachers union says teachers just want to be heard when policy is being made. She wrote in a Detroit newspaper that it takes passion and determination to succeed in today’s classrooms.

A PIONEER: Funeral services for a trailblazing African American educator have been scheduled for Saturday.

Also, the mother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died in her west Michigan home.

FARM-TO-SCHOOL:  A state program that provides extra money to school districts for locally grown produce has expanded to include more schools.

BETTER THAN AN APPLE: Nominate your favorite educator for Michigan Teacher of the Year before the 11:59 deadline tonight.

An Ann Arbor schools leader has been named the 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by a state group of school administrators.

MYSTERY SMELL: The odor from a failed light bulb forced a Detroit high school to dismiss students early this week.

EXTRA CREDIT: Miss Michigan encouraged students at one Detroit school to consider the arts as they follow their dreams. The city schools foundation honored two philanthropic leaders as champions for education.

And high school students were inspired by a former college football player. 

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!