Personnel file

Katy Anthes’s inner circle: Meet the eight people helping Colorado’s education commissioner in her first year on the job

Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).

When a new person assumes the top spot at any organization, there’s often turnover in the layers of leadership below.

That’s not been the case with the Colorado Department of Education under Katy Anthes, who is about to mark her first year as Colorado’s education commissioner.

It should not come as a surprise. One reason the State Board of Education appointed Anthes last December was to quell a rush of exits from well-respected department officials and bring stability to the department that had seen massive turnover since 2015.

Part of Anthes’s work in shaping the department’s executive leadership team has been tweaking and standardizing job titles and dropping the “interim” designation from a few cabinet members’ titles. The cabinet did lose one member earlier this year: Leanne Emm, the deputy commissioner of school finance.

You can find out below who is filling Emm’s shoes and get more information about who is helping Anthes run the department. But first, here’s a little more about the commissioner herself …

Anthes joined the department in 2011 to help put Colorado’s landmark teacher evaluation system in place. She went on to serve as the interim commissioner for achievement and strategy, and chief of staff before being named interim commissioner.

Before joining the department, she was a partner at Third Mile Group, an education leadership consulting group. She led and researched major education initiatives for state, district and national organizations, and was an evaluator for several district education programs across the state.

Anthes previously worked at the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that tracks state-level education policy.

Anthes earned a Ph.D. in public policy and a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Colorado Denver. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Oregon.

She makes $255,000 a year.

Here are the eight department officials who report directly to Anthes, their duties, salaries and a bit about their backgrounds.

Alyssa Pearson, Associate Commissioner of Accountability, Performance and Support
Annual Salary: $152,625

A former fifth-grade teacher in Denver Public Schools, Pearson oversees the state’s school accountability and improvement office, which produces the state’s annual school and district quality ratings. Her office also tracks what schools are doing to improve student learning. Recently, Pearson played a substantial role in shepherding the state’s federally required education plan to comply with the nation’s new education laws.

During her time at the department, Pearson also has worked with schools that receive federal Title I money, and coordinated and led school accountability and data reporting requirements. She wrote the successful proposal asking the U.S. Department of Education for approval for use of the Colorado Growth Model, which tracks how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who have similar tests scores, for federal accountability purposes.

Pearson holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an elementary education certification from the University of Colorado Boulder, as well as a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Melissa Colsman, Associate Commissioner of Student Learning
Annual Salary: $152,625

Colsman was appointed associate commissioner in January. Her department is currently leading the state’s mandatory review of academic content standards and helping school districts put in place new graduation requirements. The offices of Early Learning and School Readiness, Literacy, and Learning Supports are also in her purview.

Colsman joined the department eight years ago and has served as the state’s mathematics content specialist, and as the executive director of teaching and learning.

Before joining to the department, Colsman was the Cherry Creek School District’s mathematics coordinator. She taught middle school mathematics for 15 years. During that time she received National Board Certification and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest award a math or science teacher can receive.

Colsman has a Ph. D. in educational leadership and innovation from the University of Colorado Denver. Her master’s degree is in interdisciplinary studies in mathematics, science, and technology from the University of Northern Colorado.

Dana Smith, Chief Communications Officer
Annual salary: $122,880

Smith oversees the department’s media relations, publications, web management and legislative liaison functions.

She started her career as a journalist in Washington state. Later she shifted to managing public relations for school districts and businesses in the energy, sports, technology and telecommunications industries. Smith came to Colorado in 2000 to serve as the spokesperson and communications director for US West, now CenturyLink.

Before joining the department in 2014, Smith was the deputy director for communications and marketing for the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Jennifer Okes, Interim Chief Operating Officer
Annual Salary: $135,564

Okes is the latest addition to Anthes’ cabinet, replacing Leann Emm. She oversees the Division of School Finance and Operations, which includes the Offices of Budget, Accounting, and Purchasing; Capital Construction; Grants Fiscal Management; Human Resources; School Finance, School Nutrition, and School Transportation.

Prior to joining the department four years ago, Okes was the deputy executive director for the Department of Personnel and Administration. She also has worked for the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, where she was in charge of statewide budgeting. Okes also worked at the Colorado Department of Human Services-Information Technology Services, and at the Office of the State Auditor.

Okes was born and raised in Denver and graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in finance.

Marcia Bohannon, Chief Information Officer
Annual Salary: $135,394

Bohannon manages the department’s internal technology, data privacy and information security programs, and the department’s data service unit that provides direct support to districts.

She has more than 30 years of experience in providing technology services to organizations both domestically and abroad. She began her career in aerospace engineering providing engineering and technology services to NASA and Lockheed Martin. Since moving to the public sector, she has worked in city, county and state government.

Before joining the department in 2011, Bohannon spent six years as the chief information officer at Jeffco Public Schools. She was appointed to her current position in 2015.

Joyce Zurkowski, Executive Director of Assessment
Annual salary: $142,214

Zurkowski has been responsible for Colorado’s assessment program since 2010, which included the state’s transition to online assessment. The state’s battery of tests includes the PARCC English and math exams, a state-produced science and science test. Her department also oversees the state’s administration of the SAT college-entrance exam.

Before joining the department, Zurkowski held a similar position in Illinois. She also taught education and assessment related master’s-level courses at the University of Missouri, while doing advanced study in special education, and research and measurement at the University of Kansas.

Zurkowski holds degrees in philosophy and special education from St. Norbert College and University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. She has also completed doctoral-level coursework in special education and measurement at the University of Kansas.

Colleen O’Neil, Executive Director of Educator Talent
Annual Salary: $135,564

As executive director of the educator talent office, O’Neil manages educator preparation and development, licensing and enforcement, and educator effectiveness.

Prior to her current work at the department, O’Neil was the director of curriculum, career and technical education for the South Dakota Department of Education. O’Neil also worked at the Greeley-Evans School District as the chief human resource officer, an elementary school administrator and the director of strategic planning. She also has served as project manager and assessment specialist for the state education department, chief learning officer for an e-Learning company and a middle and high school English teacher and coach.

O’Neil earned a bachelor of arts from Colorado State University at Pueblo, a master’s from the University of Northern Colorado, an educational specialist degree from the University of Colorado Denver and her doctoral degree from Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minn. She holds her teacher, principal and superintendent license in the state of Colorado.

Jhon Penn, Executive Director of Field Services
Annual Salary: $128,242

Penn’s department provides general support to all school districts in the state, and organizes more intensive help when needed. He also runs the commissioner’s Rural Education Council.

Penn was hired in 2001. Before joining the department, Penn served in several educational roles in rural Colorado, including district director of student achievement, principal, middle school science teacher, and as an adjunct faculty member with the Colorado Mountain College. Before entering the education field, he was a senior geological engineer with the Tenneco Oil Company.

Penn has a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University and graduated Summa Cum Laude with his bachelor’s degree in geology from Ohio University.

Movers and shakers

Success Academy COO leaving for another charter network

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

A top official at New York City’s largest charter network is leaving for another network, Success Academy officials confirmed Monday.

Kris Cheung, the chief operating officer at Success Academy, is headed to Texas for an operations job at KIPP. Rob Price, Success’s chief financial officer, is also leaving his post. The moves were first reported by Gothamist.

“As Success scales to 100 schools, we have hired several new leaders this past year — general counsel, chief of technology and head of leadership and human resources,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said. “While Kris Cheung, who has spent seven years with Success, is leaving to work in Texas for another charter network, Rob Price will continue as a consultant.”

Cheung was promoted to oversee operations in the shake-up that followed a 2015 school-supply fiasco required network staff to work nights and weekend days sorting boxes and furniture on Long Island.

The moves leave the network, which has ambitions to grow to 100 schools, with key positions to fill. Dan Loeb, Success’s board chair, also stepped down recently (and was replaced by Steven Galbraith); founder Eva Moskowitz lost another key ally in Emily Kim, the network’s former top lawyer, in 2017.

The city’s 46 Success Academy schools are known for their high test scores, strict discipline, Moskowitz’s fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and controversies around pushing out students and a much-publicized video showing a teacher ripping student work.

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said Cheung’s precise role is still being decided. That network’s well-known co-founder, Mike Feinberg, was fired in February after a sexual misconduct investigation.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.

Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti



Superintendent Search


Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below.