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The Spark - December 2022
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As the year begins to wind down, I am thinking of all of you and the challenges you have been dealing with this year. I know many of you have been struggling to be the best teachers possible while dealing with understaffing, student behavior issues and student mental health concerns.
Please know that I convey your stories to the State Board of Education members, legislators, the governor and other policymakers so they can understand what you’re going through. This is why it’s so important for me to hear from you directly. I value each and every message I receive from educators across Colorado. I also find my Teacher Cabinet to be incredibly powerful because we take a lot of time to really discuss not only how things are going in your classrooms, but how things are going with the implementation of specific state policies.
I am currently looking for about 12 new members to join my Teacher Cabinet. Every two years we invite teachers to apply for the cabinet because I want to ensure that I continue to hear from diverse perspectives from all areas of the state, and I also want to make sure as many teachers as possible have an opportunity to participate.
Teacher Cabinet members meet with me three or four times each year to provide feedback and insight on education policies to help inform state decisions. If you or another of your dedicated classroom colleagues is interested, please visit the Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet webpage for more information. The application closes on Wednesday, Jan. 11. Applicants will be informed of their application status by Wednesday, Feb. 8, so they can attend our first meeting of 2023 on Friday, March 3.
I hope you will consider elevating your voice by applying to serve on the Teacher Cabinet. I believe the cabinet members also find great value in attending our meetings. One of our current members who is stepping down to take a different job, said he always looked forward to our meetings.
“I have never walked away without having learned something valuable and feeling better than I did before attending,” James “Alan” Flinn, a teacher in Harrison School District No. 2, told me.
Please consider applying. Your voice matters to me, and you will be making a difference for educators in your school, your community and our entire state by serving on the cabinet.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education is offering loan repayment assistance on qualified loans for Colorado educators, mainly those who serve in rural and hard-to-fill positions such as math and special education. Teachers, administrators and special service providers who currently work in a public school, including BOCES and facility schools, may be eligible to receive up to $5,000 towards their federal loan repayment per year for the program.
The 2022 program application will close on Sunday, Jan. 15. For background information, qualifications, instructions to apply, FAQs and contact information, visit the Colorado Educator Loan Forgiveness webpage on the CDHE website.
Federal teacher loan forgiveness and loan cancellation programs
Teacher Loan Forgiveness is an opportunity to have loans forgiven for teachers with Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans. To qualify for the program, teachers must be teaching full-time for five complete consecutive years at an eligible school, and at least one of those years must have been after the 1997-98 school year.
Additionally, teachers can have their Federal Perkins Loans canceled. A teacher may qualify for cancellation of up to 100% of a Federal Perkins Loan if they have taught for one full academic year in a public or non-public elementary or secondary school.
For more information, visit CDE’s federal loan forgiveness program webpage or reference the information provided in the ESEA Office Hours recording. For questions, contact Karen Bixler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manzanola School District 3J Superintendent Nancy Westfall says that ESSER I funding was a "game-changer" that allows students to get much-needed relief from the heat while getting some fresh air throughout the school day.
In the spring of 2020 when the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of federal dollars streamed into Colorado schools to help teachers and students navigate the new landscape.
The funding paid for cleaning equipment and supplies, laptops for students and staff to be able to continue instruction remotely, stipends for teachers, buses to create appropriately distanced space for transporting students back to school and other ways schools could continue teaching. But the positive impacts from millions of dollars in ESSER I funding also remain in schools around Colorado.
In March 2020, Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, from which the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund would originate. The first round of the grant, now called ESSER I, required schools to identify their most crucial challenges and then apply for a portion of the funding. Colorado received $121 million from ESSER I, which stipulated that 90% – roughly $109 million – must be allocated to school districts, with the remaining $12 million earmarked for state-level priorities.
Here are a few stories from Colorado school districts about how they used their funding in those early months of the pandemic in ways that have provided long-term value for students and educators.
Max Klekot (left), assistant transportation director for Ellicott School District 22, chats with Superintendent Chris Smith as he gets ready for a day that requires sanitizing the buses four times and routine maintenance checks.
Ellicott buys buses
Chris Smith, superintendent for Ellicott School District 22, which sits east of Colorado Springs in the middle of a vast swath of farms dotting windswept prairie, said that he and his staff felt “an enormous sense of fear” as everything ground to a halt that spring.
From the start, he said, “our main concerns were sifting through a mountain of information and learning new ways to do things, or reading through and trying to figure out health department attempts to give everyone plans to operate. Never in a million years did I ever think I would need to understand what PCR or antigen testing meant.”
Because Ellicott serves a 220-square-mile area with 80% of its 1,000 students needing to be bused in, Smith said he and his staff soon realized that keeping students safely distanced would be paramount, and so they looked at solutions such as staggering start and end times, switching to a block schedule where students would come in every other day, or dividing the district into quadrants to get everyone to the 80-acre campus that houses pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in multiple buildings.
Ultimately, they decided that adding three more buses to their existing 15 made the most sense because it would allow them to put fewer students on each bus, and so Ellicott put its $143,987 in ESSER I funding toward the total cost of $305,300 for the new vehicles.
In Manzanola School District 3J, ESSER I funds helped build an outdoor shelter that allowed students to continue learning outside during the pandemic.
Manzanola builds permanent outdoor shelter
Spacing students far enough apart safely was likewise a big concern in Manzanola School District 3J, a rural district on Colorado’s southeastern plains where temperatures can stay in the upper 90s and even above 100 well into October.
Superintendent Nancy Westfall and her staff decided that students needed to have more opportunities to be outside during the school day, providing relief from the older buildings with poor circulation and air filtration. That meant constructing a sturdy, 16-by-30-foot permanent shelter next to the playground with tables that could be easily cleaned. This would also benefit the community by providing a shady spot where people could also distance themselves during public events such as field day.
“We didn’t have any shade on the playground, which is for the whole K through 12,” Westfall explained. “So, the high temps limited the amount of time anyone could tolerate being outside. This shelter was a game-changer, and it’s something we’re able to use forever for both students and the community.”
Manzanola was awarded a total of $63,304 and used $33,556 to build the structure, with the remainder going toward expenses around remote learning, including stipends for teachers to help defray costs for technology and supplies.
Weld County RE-1 provides stipends for teachers
Weld County School District RE-1 administrators understood that teachers were using their own money to try to keep students connected and engaged in the learning process and decided to provide about $700 to 330 staff members to cover the costs.
Johan van Nieuwenhuizen, Weld RE-1 superintendent, said the district’s primary concern when schools shut down was connectivity. “It doesn’t help if we send students home with devices, and then they can’t connect,” he explained. “We obviously have no control over the home environment, and so we were brainstorming ideas of how to address that.”
At the same time, teachers were using personal devices to better connect with students and needed things like more-sophisticated cameras and microphones to conduct Zoom classes, along with reams of paper, printer cartridges and postage so that comprehensive learning packets could be sent to students to complement remote learning at home.
“We started to think about how we could reimburse them for these out-of-pocket costs,” van Nieuwenhuizen added. “We also really wanted to honor their commitment and their willingness to go down this new road of connectivity, and so we wanted to not only compensate for the physical devices but also to say thank you for the unprecedented commitment and resourcefulness they were showing.”
Pueblo D60 buys Chromebooks
Pueblo’s School District 60 prioritized connectivity, as well, purchasing 3,300 Lenovo 300e Chromebooks with a quarter of its $4.7 million ESSER funds to ensure that no one would have to share a device during remote or on-site learning. The school district used the remainder to pay for teacher tech support and mental health services, a Google Chrome Management Console to upgrade the Chromebooks’ capacity, “white glove” services for computer installation and maintenance, and unemployment costs.
“Even before the pandemic, Pueblo D60 had identified the need to provide one-to-one technology for students to access educational materials, and even with the equipment in hand, we were still concerned with how we would provide services to educate students and keep them engaged in learning, as none of us had experience providing remote learning district-wide consistently,” said David Horner, D60’s chief financial officer. “Had we not received the ESSER I funds, it would have been so much more difficult. And we are still using the equipment, and the student supports and the programs that were originally supported with ESSER I funds.”
Southern Ute Indian Tribe provides internet hotspots
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, located in the southwestern Colorado town of Ignacio, also spent $8,200 of its ESSER I funds to improve its students’ ability to stay connected through the pandemic, and families continue to use the hotspots, according to Nicole Cabral, the Southern Ute Education Department’s distance learning coordinator. The rest of the funds were used for tutoring ($16,800), supplies and incentives for participation in summer learning and remote learning during the school year ($10,000) and supplies such as temperature readers.
The Southern Ute Education funding came from ESSER I’s supplemental funding pot, which was set up to supply ESSER funds to Local Education Agencies that didn’t receive any of the initial ESSER 90% funding, which was based entirely on Title I allocations.
“Our main concerns were connectivity, but also attendance and the overall mental wellness of our students and families,” Cabral said. “We serve a rural community that already struggled with truancy and generational trauma. We have been able to continue using everything we received.”
ESSER I was followed by two other relief funds for schools
ESSER I preceded two other ESSER funds for schools, ESSER II and ESSER III. Ultimately, Colorado received a total of $1.8 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds to support students, families and educators.
“We had no idea that there would be ESSER II and then ESSER III, and so that was amazing,” said Westfall, superintendent of Manzanola School District 3J. “Without this funding, we would not have been able to bring students safely back into our buildings, without that ability to give them some outdoor relief. We are so very thankful for ESSER and I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
She added, only partly joking, “Any chance there might be an ESSER IV or V?”
- Educator at Craig’s Sunset Elementary named finalist for Presidential Excellence Award in science teaching. Steamboat Today, Nov. 6, 2022.
- I’m a first-year teacher. How do I become successful in the classroom? Chalkbeat, Nov. 3, 2022.
- How did Colorado school district funding issues fare at the polls in this election? CPR, Nov. 23, 2022.
- Word of Thanks campaign helps rural teachers through Nathan Yip Foundation. 9News, Nov. 29, 2022.
TEACH Colorado Resource Guides
Do you know a future educator? Over the past year, TEACH Colorado has expanded its list of comprehensive guides to help aspiring educators explore licensure options, prepare for content exams, find financial aid and more. Be sure to share these resources with future educators in your community!