Green Acres

What a $10,000 fellowship for rural teachers will and won’t do to address teacher shortages

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Backers of a bill that would establish a new fellowship program for rural educators acknowledge that it won’t, by itself, attract enough qualified teachers to meet the need in small communities outside the Front Range. But it could help students like Kenia Pinela complete her student teaching and get a full-time job in the community where she grew up.

Pinela told the House Education Committee Monday that she’s had to put off student teaching because she can’t afford to go a year without income.

“I have worked a full-time job since I started at Colorado Mountain College,” said Pinela, who grew up in Carbondale and would like to teach there. “It’s just what you do. You have a family, and you have to support it. This can be the determining factor in someone finishing the program or not finishing it.”

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, would create 100 of these $10,000 fellowships every year for aspiring teachers in the last year of their educational programs.

As she advocated for the bill, Hamner held up a recently completed state report that lays out a path for addressing Colorado’s shortage of teachers in certain subjects, geographic areas, and schools. Strategic goal No. 3 calls for the state to “attract educator talent in content shortage areas by developing targeted programs in areas of need.”

Hamner and Rankin, who both represent rural districts and who often team up on education issues, said the bill is aimed squarely at that goal, even as they conceded it was just a small step. “We’re certainly not asking this bill to address the whole problem,” Rankin said.

State Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said the bill “treats a symptom.”

“This seeks to get at an enormous problem, and that’s the teacher shortage,” he said. “My position is that we need to get at this in a different way, that it’s not a pipeline issue, but a funnel issue.”

That’s the metaphor that Lundeen uses to say that it should be easier for people to become teachers in the first place, including those entering the profession through non-traditional paths.

“I’m going to be a yes coming out of committee, but I’m not at all convinced this is the way to solve it,” he said.

The rural fellowships bill, which passed out of committee on a 9-2 vote, is just one of what lawmakers say will be a package of bills to address Colorado’s difficulties filling some teacher jobs. Another bill being heard for the first time this week would expand an existing program that provides stipends to rural teachers pursuing additional certifications and training. In addition to making up to 60 $6,000 stipends available each year, it would also allow people pursuing alternative licensure to apply for the benefit in exchange for a commitment to teach in a rural school for at least three years.

The state’s strategic plan to address the teacher strategy includes more than 30 ideas, ranging from loan forgiveness to housing assistance to extra pay for rural teachers. The report stops short of recommending a minimum wage for teachers, though the authors said lawmakers should “explore” that possibility

The pointed questions that lawmakers asked about the fellowships bill highlight the difficulty of crafting legislation that will solve the bigger problems. Fewer students are enrolling in teacher programs, starting salaries are low in many communities, and the cost of living can be high. Many young teachers leave the profession after just a few years on the job, and in some rural communities, they face social isolation because most people their age leave for opportunities elsewhere.

In Colorado, the term “rural” encompasses communities that don’t necessarily face the same types of economic conditions or education challenges.

And the fellowship bill doesn’t directly address a problem that recruiters for rural school districts face: the teachers who sign up with certain ideas about what their life will be like and then pack it in after a year or two because they don’t enjoy small town life or because they can’t afford it.

“You brought up the gorilla in the room,” state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and retired teacher, said at one point. “Is that $10,000 going to make any difference in that teacher being able to afford housing?”

It will make a difference in that first year of student teaching, responded Matt Gianneschi, chief operating officer for Colorado Mountain College. The idea for the fellowships is based in part on a program that the college, which has 11 campuses in rural Colorado, is piloting this year on a small scale with its own money.

Barbara Johnson, director of teacher development at Colorado Mountain College, said teachers are in a different position than students coming out of many of the college’s other pre-professional programs. Culinary arts students get paid for their restaurant internships, while student teachers don’t. She said she frequently hears from promising students in a panic about how they’ll do their student teaching and hold down a paying job at the same time. Many of them have jobs that support not just themselves, but their family members.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget sets aside $10 million in marijuana tax revenue to help rural schools attract more teachers. Hamner and Rankin, who also sit on the Joint Budget Committee, hope their fellowship program will be among those funded by those pot taxes. The bill calls for the state to provide a portion of the money for the fellowships, while teacher colleges and school districts would provide the rest.

The money that students would earn through these fellowships would be treated like financial aid and wouldn’t be taxable income. If they’re offered a job at the end of their student teaching year, they could turn it down – but they’d have to pay back the fellowship, just like any other student loan.

However, to have the loan forgiven, they’d only have to stay at that first job for a year.

Supporters said the bill isn’t aimed so much at people from urban areas who want to give the rural life a try, though those student teachers might be eligible. Rather, it would help students from rural communities complete their education and return to give back. This “grow your own” approach might get more teachers on the job and keep them on the job.

“In many of these communities, we’re working with our own high school students,” said Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent for Eagle Valley Schools. “Those students know our communities. They have the resource of already having a place to live. You’re investing in your rural communities. With a $10,000 investment, it provides a job opportunity for someone in a rural community.”

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.


Carrots and sticks

No pizza parties, no raffle tickets: Bill would bar Colorado schools from offering rewards to test-takers

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

Update: This bill was amended to remove the penalties and received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 14.

It’s already illegal in Colorado for schools to penalize students who don’t take state assessments. Now a bill before the legislature would make it illegal to reward students who take the tests and would penalize schools who offer such incentives.

“The school can’t say you can’t play on the team or go on the field trip,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who opted to keep his own sons from taking state assessments. “This bill addresses something that’s come up recently: If you take the assessment, you get to go to the party or go on the field trip or maybe even get to play on the sports team. It’s the same message, but the other way around.”

That’s just as wrong, said Holbert, a Republican from Parker who sponsored the bill with state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat.

Kerr is a teacher who serves on his school’s accountability committee, and he said another teacher raised this idea – supposedly used at a different school – as they discussed how to get more students to take the tests.

“We know that we can’t do negative consequences, but at this school, every student who takes the test gets a raffle ticket and the winner of the raffle gets a widescreen TV,” Kerr said. “This was given as an example of a positive reinforcement to take the test.”

The widescreen TV in this example was donated; no taxpayer dollars went to reward test-taking and the luck of the draw.

Under the bill, schools could still have parties after testing is over, but they couldn’t exclude students who didn’t take the tests.

Colorado has been at the center of the opt-out movement nationally, and its partisans include people on the left and the right – students in conservative Douglas County as well as liberal Boulder County. How Colorado handles accountability for schools with high opt-out rates has been a point of contention with the federal government.

The State Board of Education has a policy that the state won’t lower the quality rating of schools who miss the 95 percent participation mark, while the federal Department of Education wants those students counted as “not proficient.” In a compromise, Colorado agreed to keep two lists of schools, one that complies with state law and one that complies with federal law, but Colorado is still waiting for approval from the federal government of its Every Student Succeeds Act plan.

Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said his organization doesn’t have a position on the bill, but he does have a few questions: “Who are the bad actors?” and “Does this need to be a law?”

“I don’t want to pick on anybody in particular,” Holbert said, declining to name any schools or districts. He characterized the problem as “more than one, but not widespread.”

The Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the State Board of Education all support the idea behind the bill.

“We certainly believe students who have the family discussion to not take the test should not have any inappropriate hook dangled before them,” Nate Golich, director of government affairs for the teachers union, told the Senate Education Committee. “They should not feel stigmatized or ostracized because there’s a pizza party or a granola bar or orange slices.”

But there is a point of dispute: how to enforce such a law.

The original version of the bill calls for the Colorado Department of Education to make a note in the performance report of any schools found in violation, and to “impose a significant penalty” on the accreditation rating of any school that violates the law three or more times in a year.

Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that provision would be difficult to enforce. The department collects a lot of data, but it doesn’t know which schools hold pizza parties for kids who take state assessments. Doing enforcement on a complaint basis could create an unfair situation in that schools whose parents complain are punished while schools with the same practices whose parents don’t complain go unpunished.

Lisa Escárcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, called docking a school’s rating over this issue “using the jaws of life to go after a minnow.”

“We would not want a school to lose an entire accreditation point if three people call CDE,” Golich said.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony about the bill Thursday but postponed a vote.

Holbert and Kerr said they’re open to removing the penalty, but that raises the question of what the law even means.

“What happens if we pass a bill that has no particular penalty or enforcement mechanism and parents are frustrated because they’re seeing these consequences?” asked state Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican.