Teachers show up at the statehouse all the time while Colorado lawmakers are debating education policy. Rarely do they have a piece of legislation they crafted themselves in hand.

Elaine Menardi, education program coordinator for Wings Aerospace Academy in Denver, and Jess Buller, principal of West Grand Elementary and Middle School in Kremmling, are changing that.

The two educators helped develop this year’s House Bill 1201.

The bill creates a special high school diploma that shows colleges and employers that graduates are proficient in a blend of coursework that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. The legislation is the byproduct of a year-long policy fellowship run by the national education reform nonprofit America Achieves.

The policy fellowship grew out of a similar effort by the nonprofit to encourage teachers to get involved in policy decisions. The Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship coaches teachers and principals to write editorials and inform legislators on bills that have classroom implications. The policy fellowship — in its first year in Colorado and New York — takes a different approach: Educators should be proactive on policy rather than reactive.

Menardi and Buller spent months crafting the bill, which Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign into law this month at an Arvada elementary school.

“In the thick of things, between November and February, we were easily putting in a couple of hours every night,” Menardi said.

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Three lawmakers agreed to sponsor the legislation: state Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat, and state Sens. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, and Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican.

Zenzinger previously ran the fellowship program that Menardi and Buller participated in.

“The practitioners are the experts,” Zenzinger said. “Often times those classroom experts, their voices get drowned out and other people’s policies get hijacked by politics, politicians, agendas that often time don’t include educators in their vision.”

Menardi and Buller quickly learned exactly what Zenzinger was talking about.

Some lawmakers worried the criteria for the diploma Menardi and Buller sketched out was too demanding. And there was concern that students at some of the state’s smallest rural schools wouldn’t be able to obtain one because of a dearth of advanced classes that are required to earn the seal.

The two educators went into overdrive researching and creating arguments to protect their bill.

“We didn’t think we needed a grade-point average in the bill, but we agreed to put a minimum-3.5 GPA in the bill,” Menardi said. “Everyone said that was too hard. One person wanted to set it the minimum grade-point average at 2.5. We had to explain what a 3.5 represents. It represents a kid who consistently gets an 85 percent on a test. When we did that, everyone started to realize that doesn’t sound too high.”

And Buller set out to prove that rural schools would be able to participate in the diploma program.

He recruited families from his mountain school to travel more than 350 miles to Denver to advocate for the bill.

“Students in Kremmling, Colorado are just as capable as they are in Denver,” he said.

While the 3.5 GPA requirement made it in the final version of the bill, additional options to obtain the STEM diploma were added at the request of some rural schools.

So what should teachers and principals who want to step into the policy world know before they head to the Capitol? Buller and Menardi say be well-researched in your topic and be prepared to do a lot of explaining.

“It’s hard to solve a problem you don’t really understand,” Menardi said.

“We had to be really strategic in how we communicated,” Buller added. “Lawmakers don’t understand the education world just as I don’t understand the Capitol.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported state Rep. James Coleman’s first name. This post has also been updated to reflect that the policy fellowship is not launching in Tennessee as it was originally reported.