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The SPARK - November 2018

The Spark. A newsletter filled with information and inspiration for Colorado teachers.

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Photo of Commissioner Katy Anthes interacting with kindergartners at Fall River Elementary School in Longmont

Dear Educators,

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit with kindergartners in Allison Sampish’s classroom at Fall River Elementary School in the St. Vrain Valley School District. Allison is one of the outstanding teachers who serve on my Commissioner’s Teachers Cabinet, and she invited me into her classroom to see what implementation of education policies looks like with a group of excited, wiggling kindergartners.

The love of learning absolutely bubbled out of her students, warming my heart and inspiring me to redouble my efforts to ensure that education policy works for each of you so you can support all students and help them succeed.

My visit also kept me real.  After I left her classroom, Allison asked her students to describe my job, and one adorable student said I make hair soft. Hmmmm…  commissioner/conditioner… so close!

I loved seeing Allison in action and having the opportunity to read with her students during Family Literacy Awareness Month. I also had a great conversation with her principal, Jennifer Guthals, about the school’s STEM model and about the implementation of the READ Act.

We’ve heard from many of you that the READ plans required by the Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act do not always achieve the result envisioned by the legislators when they created the law in 2012.

The READ Act was created to give us the guiding philosophy, structure and resources to support students and make sure they read at grade level by the time they enter the fourth grade, but your concerns have been heard by CDE and by the legislature.

Last year a bill passed to authorize a READ Plan Working Group to make recommendations on improving the effectiveness of READ Plans. Educators and parents from all over the state have volunteered to serve on this group. We anticipate releasing a survey in early 2019 to gather input from educators across the state to help inform the working group’s recommendations, which will be presented to the State Board of Education and the legislature in early 2020.

Here at CDE, we’re digging into the data on students who are identified with significant reading deficiencies and students who, later in school, do not meet expectations on state assessments in English language arts. We’re learning that the intersection of supports for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, is critical to academic success, and we hope to be able to inform ideas for improving the effectiveness of READ plans for teachers, parents, and most importantly, your students. We’ve even created an online READ Act communications toolkit to help you discuss the importance of early literacy with parents. You can find that here.

I loved visiting Fall River Elementary School, and I consider every opportunity to see classrooms in action as a chance to discover how CDE can enhance our efforts to support teachers and districts so all students can achieve success.

If you’d like to share a story or give me feedback on a state policy, please drop me an email at

I wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving and a restful school break. Since it’s also Family Literacy Awareness Month, I’m particularly thankful for all of our teachers who work with students of all ages to ensure that they are strong readers who are ready to succeed in school and in life.



Graphic of computer with coding program created to represent the training opportunities for computer science for elementary school educators

With demand for computer science degree holders far outpacing current supply in Colorado, state policymakers have a simple strategy in mind for meeting future workforce needs – invest in teachers.

Over the last two years, the state legislature and the State Board of Education have taken several steps to support K-12 teachers as they strive to prepare students for good-paying jobs or higher education programs in computer science. Professional development grants of nearly $1 million along with new academic standards in computer science and a bank of online resources are some of the investments the state is making in teachers.

Professional development helps teachers prepare students for careers and postsecondary education programs in computer science

The Computer Science Teacher Education Grant Program, enacted in 2017, provided $440,000 in professional development grants for teachers last year and another $380,000 will be distributed this year. These grants are distributed to districts, BOCES, and charter schools for professional development in computer science for K-12 teachers.

The legislature allocated an additional $500,000 earlier this year specifically for the elementary school level, where students begin to acquire the thinking and problem-solving skills that make them successful in school and, ultimately, in life.

The Colorado Department of Education will begin accepting registrations in January from elementary school teachers for the professional development that will be offered for free. The department will also provide stipends to participating teachers or funding to pay for substitutes while teachers are in training. For more information about this professional development opportunity, check out the January edition of the SPARK or the CDE website.

Academic standards set the bar for what students should know and be able to do

Legislation passed in 2016 required the development of voluntary academic standards in computer science for high school students. The department engaged a broad array of stakeholders to inform this work, and the state board approved the new voluntary secondary Computer Science Standards this spring.

Content covered in the computer science standards includes computational thinking, computing systems and networks, and computer programming. Additional topics provide students with opportunities to examine the impact technology has on privacy, communication, and society. Districts can choose to adopt the standards for their high school students.

The department will be offering a variety of supports to districts to help them with implementation of the standards.

Resource bank provides ideas and help for classroom instruction

An online Computer Science Resource Bank was created through a collaboration with educators and industry experts. Authorized by the legislature in 2017, the online resource bank includes a wide variety of ideas for teachers, including sample curricula and materials – even information about scholarships for students.

Policymakers are hoping the investments in teachers will vastly increase opportunities for Colorado students to learn computer science, opening up a world of career opportunities for them.  Computing occupations are the number one source of all new jobs in the United States and make up over half of all projected new jobs in STEM fields, making computer science one of the most in-demand college degrees. Yet in 2017, Colorado institutions of higher education graduated only 505 students with computer science degrees.

Stock photo of backpack and student's shoes to represent Homeless Youth Awareness Month

Teachers are often the first people to notice the signs of homelessness in a child and can be the first to provide much-needed help, so it is critical for classroom instructors and school personnel to know what to look for and who to contact if a student needs help.

During Homeless Youth Awareness Month, teachers are recognized for being key responders in helping youth experiencing homelessness achieve success at school. We spoke with some experts on what teachers can do to help this vulnerable population.

“One of the biggest barriers is not being identified,” said Whitney Reid, McKinney-Vento program specialist for the Poudre School District. “If we have identified them as being homeless, we can begin to understand their needs and give them those supports. It could be transportation, more support at school or even just letting students know they are being heard.”

Look for signs of homelessness.

“The red flags can be behavioral differences, kids hoarding food, they may be talking about being hungry or not having a meal,” Reid said.

Other red flags: Students talking about suddenly moving or a parent’s recent unemployment, a change in hygiene, wearing the same clothes over and over, attendance problems, excessive weariness or extreme possessiveness.

What if homelessness is suspected?

Ask the child about any recent changes in their home life. If homelessness is confirmed, reach out to the district homeless liaison.

Every school district across Colorado has an identified Homeless Education Liaison. Larger districts may have a team to meet the needs of thousands of students. Whereas in smaller school districts and those in rural areas, the role of the liaison may be the responsibility of a superintendent or other district leader. No matter the size of the district, the role of the McKinney-Vento liaison is critical to the identification, enrollment, and educational success of youth experiencing homelessness.

“In Poudre, we have contacts at every school site,” Reid said. “That person can reach out to the family and student and learn more. Then we can see what barriers the student is having and see if we can remove them. I have found that kids and families are extremely resilient. They just need some support, like removing fees, providing transportation or tutoring or even just some space in the school to get their homework done.”

Homelessness continues to increase for students in Colorado. As of 2017, more than 22,000 Colorado students were experiencing homelessness – a condition defined as not having a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. The number of students identified by school districts as experiencing homelessness continues to rise every year.

Homeless students have some of the highest dropout rates in the state among historically underserved student populations. Fewer than 56 percent of homeless students graduate from high school within four years. In addition, students experiencing homelessness may lack social and economic supports that enable them to pursue postsecondary options.

The most vulnerable homeless students are those who are “unaccompanied,” meaning they are “not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” That number also continues to rise – increasing from 1,325 unaccompanied youth in 2010 to 2,058 in 2017 – a 55 percent increase over seven years.

Kerry Wrenick, state coordinator for education of homeless children, said it is important that teachers know to reach out for support within their district.

“School personnel may be unaware of the resources and rights of students experiencing homelessness.” she said. The liaison’s role is to uphold the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was enacted to address the barriers faced by youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

“Lastly, if teachers become aware that a student is homeless, there are strategies that can build relationships while maintaining their dignity,” Wrenick said. “Our kids who are highly mobile don’t feel connected. Go out of your way to make sure they feel connected and involved.”

Headshot photo of Meg Cypress, 2019 Teacher of the Year

Margaret “Meg” Cypress, a fifth-grade teacher at Bradley International School in Denver Public Schools (DPS), was named the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year in a surprise ceremony on Oct. 30.

Cypress has an influence, energy and knack for making connections with everyone. Those who know her well can attest to the inspiring effect she has on all who come “into her orbit.” Her exceptional ability to engage and excite students, parents, other teachers and administrators is one of the many reason she was named Colorado’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.

At Bradley since 2003, Cypress started as a reading specialist as the school faced the possibility of being closed. Cypress worked with the staff to bring the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme to Bradley to keep it open for the surrounding neighborhood. Since then the school has become a high-performing school with a wait list.

Cypress has built connections with the community, organizing family events such as Math Night, the Cardboard Challenge and the Annual Bradley Science Fair. In addition, she started a summer camp at Bradley with more than 150 students and was assistant volleyball coach for Thomas Jefferson High School.

Cypress is a Colorado native who received her bachelor of arts from the University of Northern Colorado. She has previously received the 9News Teachers Who Care Award and was a Mile High Teacher for Denver Public Schools in 2007.

As Teacher of the Year, she will automatically be Colorado’s entrant into the National Teacher of the Year competition. She’ll represent the entire profession in Colorado and get many professional development opportunities. The President of the United States will honor Cypress along with the country’s other teachers of the year at a special ceremony at the White House. Over the summer, Cypress will get the opportunity to go to NASA’s Space Camp for a week.  She will also become a member of the Colorado Education Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet.

The application for the 2020 Teacher of the Year will be released in the spring. Learn more about the Colorado Teacher of the Year program.


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Photo of student smiling with lockers in background

One of the strongest refrains from 35,000 Colorado teachers who participated in the 2018 Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey was a call for more training and time to deal with students’ social and emotional learning.

Social and emotional learning, or SEL, is defined as the process through which people learn the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions. It incorporates setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy for others and knowing how to effectively establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

Roughly half of the teachers who responded to the statewide survey earlier this year said they don’t have adequate time to support their students’ social and emotional learning. And a third of the teachers said they haven’t received adequate professional development in social and emotional learning.

“It is important,” said Lynne DeSousa, Colorado’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) state-wide coordinator. “The No. 1 reason students are excluded from school is because of their behaviors – disruption and not being compliant. The public often thinks it’s because of violence or substance abuse. It’s not. It’s really those habitual disruptions or defiant behaviors.”

In addition, many teachers who leave the profession cite student behavior, more specifically a lack of respect, as one of the top reasons for their change of jobs,   DeSousa said.

These behaviors could be addressed through social and emotional learning, she said.

The Colorado Academic Standards include emotional and social wellness in the Comprehensive Health & Physical Education content area. The Emotional and Social Wellness Standard includes mental, emotional and social health skills that enable a student to:

  • Recognize and manage emotions, develop care and concern for others; establish positive relationships; make responsible decisions; handle challenging situations constructively; resolve conflicts respectfully; manage stress; and make ethical and safe choices.
  • Examine internal and external influences on mental and social health.

  • Identify common mental and emotional health problems and their effect on physical health.

“Actually teaching SEL is no different than teaching any academic skill,” DeSousa said. “You have to demonstrate the skill, break it into steps to make it easy to understand and you have to model and practice and provide feedback  – just like any academic skill.”

CDE has developed a framework that can help connect students to effective behavioral supports to enhance social emotional learning. The PBIS webpage on CDE’s website features ideas for teaching expectations, lesson plan templates and a schoolwide behavior/teaching matrix.

Schools and districts that wish to receive training and technical assistance on PBIS from CDE can reach out to Scott Ross, director of CDE’s Office of Learning Supports at 303-866-6853 or


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book logo

The Office of Standards & Instructional Support has created Professional Learning Modules to help classroom teachers and specialists transition to the 2020 Colorado Academic Standards.

The first seven modules cover disciplinary literacy and readiness and are now available. The second set of modules is set to be released Spring 2019 and will include topics of curriculum and resource alignment.

Find more information and access the modules.

Colorado's Stories of Promising Practices
Bell Middle School uses an innovation STEM program to engage students using problem-based learning. Green Mountain High School has used an academy-style approach to give students multiple academic pathways. These are a few of the ways Jeffco Public Schools is preparing students for an array of postsecondary options. 

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