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.

what happened?

Memphis parents demand answers on charter school principal’s abrupt departure

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
About 20 parents and parent supporters crowded a conference room at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences to demand answers about the high school principal's abrupt departure.

About 20 Memphis parents and their supporters lined a small conference room after being initially blocked from a charter school’s board meeting to learn more about why a beloved principal was gone eight days into the school year.

The answers were not clear, and after an hour of sometimes heated exchanges, advocates threatened to encourage parents to pull their children out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, the high school Reginald Williams ran for four years.

Williams’ last day was Friday, Aug. 10. Parents said a letter sent home with students on Monday, Aug. 13, announced the principal had resigned. But on a speaker phone during the meeting, Williams said he did not resign. Corey Johnson, the school’s executive director, said Williams’ departure was a “mutual agreement.”

“We cannot speak on what happened with Brother Williams, OK? So, let’s move on,” board chair Michael Dexter told parents.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange shows off a wall of students with high scores on the college readiness test.

Parent Eric Jackson followed up with a question that was met with eight long seconds of silence from board members.

“Are we allowed the opportunity, or is he allowed the opportunity, without reprisal, to tell us, if I get in contact with him, what happened?”

Patricia Ange, a Memphis Academy teacher who prepares students to take the ACT college readiness test, then called Williams during the meeting and put him on speaker for everyone in the room to hear.

Williams said the board’s decision to fire him was their choice. But he said, “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.” Williams, a former principal at Kirby High School and assistant principal at Central High School, added, “Now I’ve got to draw unemployment.”

“So, you did not resign, sir?” Ange asked as parents hushed each other to listen for the answer.

“No,” Williams said to parents’ amazement.

Williams said he had planned to retire in May, and was not told why he was fired, but suspected negative state test scores were a factor.

TNReady test scores at the 15-year-old high school in North Memphis declined in every subject last school year. For example, 6.2 percent of students were considered on grade-level by the state compared to 33.6 the previous year.

Williams blamed the charter network’s late purchase of laptops, which prevented students from practicing online, and the myriad technical problems with the state test this spring. State lawmakers banned using the scores in decisions to hire, fire, or compensate educators, and only allowed school boards to use them for up to 15 percent of a student’s grade.

Johnson maintained the decision for Williams’ departure was mutual and that he “wanted to support him in his decision” to retire earlier than planned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences is a 15-year-old charter school in North Memphis.

Memphis Academy, which enrolls about 400 students, was one of the first schools chartered by the Memphis school district. It was founded by the nonprofit group 100 Black Men of Memphis. Inc.

Charter schools in Tennessee are funded by public money, but nonprofit boards of directors run the schools. The schools are overseen by local districts or the state — in this case, Shelby County Schools. State law states that board meetings are open to the public.

But Sarah Carpenter, leader of the parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the board blocked access to the regular quarterly meeting for about 30 minutes. Dexter said there was confusion about when to allow parents inside. He initially wanted to wait until after board members approved minutes from the previous meeting, but after reviewing the board’s bylaws, he allowed parents to enter.

Dexter said one of his goals for the school year was to form parent committees to work with the board. Parents present at the meeting said the effort was too little, too late.

“I can’t believe you don’t know what’s going on,” parent Golding Calix told board members through a translator. “You say you’re listening, but are you going to do something?”

Big speeches

Emanuel tries to shore up education legacy in final budget address

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel choked up twice during his final budget address to Chicago’s City Council Wednesday morning: once when he talked about his wife, Amy Rule, and the other when he read aloud a letter from a John Marshall High School senior who lives on Chicago’s West Side.

The address highlighted millions he wants to spend to expand after-school programming, middle school mentoring, and a summer jobs initiative for Chicago teens. It also signaled loud and clear how Emanuel views his legacy: as the mayor who took the reins when the city faced a $600 million deficit and then righted Chicago’s fiscal ship, while pushing for the expansion of programs that serve public schools and children.

In the speech, he ticked off such accomplishments as expanding kindergarten citywide from a half- to a full-day, extending the city’s school day, increasing the graduation rate to a record 78.2 percent up from 57 percent when he took office in 2011, and paving the path for universal pre-kindergarten, though that initiative is still in the early stages.

“When you step back and look at the arc of what we’ve done in the past seven years, and take a wide lens view, from free pre-K to free community college, from Safe Passage to mentors to more tutors in our neighborhood libraries … at end of day, it is really no different than what Amy and I, or you and your partner, would do for your own children,” he said.

Emanuel, the former congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama who announced on the first day of school in September that he won’t be running for re-election, acknowledged that shoring up civic finances isn’t glitzy work — not like, say, plopping a major park in the middle of downtown, as his predecessor Richard M. Daley did by opening Millennium Park.

But, said Emanuel, “one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years in politics is that they don’t build statues for people who restore fiscal stability.”

Outside of the longer school day and school year, the mayor stressed his work expanding programming for children — particularly teenagers — after school and in summers as an antidote to the city’s troubling violence that did not abate in his term. Amid a $10.7 billion budget plan that includes a chunk of new tax-increment finance dollars that will go toward schools, the new budget lays out $500,000 more funding for his signature Summer Jobs program, bringing projected total spending on that up to $18 million in 2019.

He also set aside $1 million for his wife’s Working on Womanhood mentoring program that currently serves 500 women and girls, $1 million more for the after-school program After School Matters, and more money for free dental services at Chicago Public Schools and trauma-informed therapy programs.

The mayor’s address had barely ended when the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email with the subject line “No victory lap for this failed mayor.” It pointed to blemishes on Emanuel’s education record, from closing 50 schools in 2013 to systemic failings in the city’s special education program — an issue that now has Chicago Public Schools under the watchful eye of a state monitor.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey called on the city’s next mayor to restore money to mental health clinics and social services, fund smaller class sizes, broaden a “sustainable schools” program that partners community agencies with languishing neighborhood schools, and invest in more social workers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, and teachers’ assistants.

In his address, Emanuel did not talk about some of the tough decisions the school district had to make during tough budget years, such as the school closings or widespread teacher layoffs that topped 2,000 that same year. 

He did, however, stress his philosophy that investments in children must extend beyond the typical school day. In the letter from the Marshall High School senior, the teen wrote that, until his freshman year of high school, “I never saw or met any males like me who lead successful lives.” The letter went on to praise the nonprofit Becoming A Man, a male mentoring program that has expanded among Chicago schools during Emanuel’s tenure.

The teen intends to attend Mississippi Valley State University next fall, the mayor said. When Emanuel pointed out the young man and his Becoming A Man program mentor in the City Council chambers, many in attendance gave them a standing ovation.