Dear Governor: Here’s what Colorado educators want Jared Polis to know about their schools

12 min. read
Jared Polis waits to walk on stage on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. in Denver. (Aly McClaran for Denverite)

By Chalkbeat

We asked Colorado educators to tell us what they want governor-elect Jared Polis to know about their jobs, their schools, and their students as he sets his education agenda, and they had a lot to say. More than 100 teachers, administrators, counselors, and paraprofessionals responded to our request.

Some of the letters we received were startlingly succinct. "It is underfunded," said one letter in its entirety. "My school needs a full-time school counselor, social worker, and nurse," said another.

Many expressed great pride in the work being done by their colleagues and their students. Teacher after teacher urged Polis to come to their schools and see for himself what goes on in classrooms.

Polis, who has a long history with education issues and founded two charter schools, takes office with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly but without the added guaranteed revenue for schools that Amendment 73 would have provided. Polis declined to endorse the measure, and voters rejected it. Polis' platform included funding full-day kindergarten and expanding access to preschool.

Here's what teachers had to say.

These letters have been edited for length and clarity.

We have done our very best to offer a quality education to students while resources have declined. When Arby's can pay employees $14 an hour, it makes it difficult to hire a $12-an-hour cook to prepare healthy meals for our students. When our local municipality can pay bus drivers $18 an hour, it makes it difficult to hire a $15-an-hour driver to safely transport our students. When a qualified math teacher can make $100,000 in private industry but only $40,000 with the school district, we have a hard time attracting and retaining qualified instructors for our talented students.

-- Stephanie Juneau, business manager, Gunnison Watershed School District

The majority of staff put in many hours outside the school day and on weekends. The workload keeps getting bigger, and the salaries do not measure up. We will lose good teachers soon because of the stress due to extra work and expectations from the state and administration and the lack of resources and compensation. Many of us have second jobs. I, for one, work 18-20 hours a week waiting tables to supplement my salary.

-- Stacey Petersen, K-5 counselor, Crested Butte Community School

As a special education teacher, I am the case manager for 27 students this year, but I actually serve many more students and have an "unofficial" caseload of special needs students (i.e. those with speech or affective needs) that numbers in the high 30s.  

This has a significant impact in the classes I am co-teaching simply because of the high number of students with significant needs. For example, in one of my sixth grade co-taught language arts classes, there are 29 students and more than 66 percent of the class is high needs. Getting the necessary support to a student who is reading at a second-grade level or a student who is just learning to write a paragraph in a class of this size is challenging.

My school needs more resources for our highest-needs students. A caseload cap of 20 students and a guarantee that no co-taught class is more than 50 percent high-needs students would go a long way to alleviating this problem.

-- Derrick Belanger, sixth-grade special education teacher in the Adams 12 district

Please, spend a week shadowing one of us in schools. The trauma students face, the needs students face, the nonsense that doesn't help students succeed being pushed onto them, etc. Please, spend some serious time in schools, and see not just what the superintendent or principal wants to show. See what the teachers want to show.

-- Bryan Lindstrom, high school social studies teacher, Aurora Public Schools

I believe all children deserve a quality education. I believe strong neighborhood schools are the best way to ensure all kids have access. I believe education should be free and not require parents to transport children across town. I believe in educating the whole child. I believe my students will not excel at tests unless there social-emotional needs are met first. And finally, unfortunately, I know how underserved our low-income schools are and how unfair this is to children because I fight for them every day.  I invite you to spend a day with me in my classroom.

-- Amy Bergner, elementary math teacher, Denver Public Schools

We have been raising our test scores, slowly but surely, but the bigger problem is the 40 percent turnover rate at our school. We suffer brain drain, with all of our best teachers leaving for better-paying jobs in places like Shiprock, New Mexico. We need to find a way to raise teachers' salaries so that we can grow and attract the best educators possible, especially in our rural communities.

-- Charles Cody Childers, middle school language arts and computer science, CEA Policy Fellow, Montezuma-Cortez School District

Century is a diverse school at the north end of the Adams 12 district. Students need all the support they can get to prepare them for high school, to help ensure that they graduate, and we can't afford to provide all the support they need. They also need and deserve extracurricular activities, particularly sports, but those were cut at the middle school level due to funding.

-- Karen Cohn, middle school special education teacher Adams 12, 26 years in the profession

Charters schools are vital to education. As someone who has seen firsthand the lack of support kids get in public schools, I'm tired of all the hate toward us. I work with the most incredible staff, but pushing 30-plus kiddos in a classroom is overwhelming at times. We need more funding. Please help education -- it is our future!

-- Elaine Zimmerman, third-grade teacher in an Aurora charter school

I want to ask you to consider finding a viable, long-term solution to school funding. The approved text for my science class was approved the same year my students were born. We have not had money to adopt newer texts. My books do not address gravitational waves, Pluto is still listed as a planet, and climate change is barely mentioned.

Students in my classroom have never lived in a world without an iPhone. They crave technology in learning, but with current funding levels we are unable to provide students with enough devices to access on a daily basis. We are looking at sharing devices or passing this cost on to families.

All 440 students in our school are serviced by one amazing counselor, but as we expand next year, this ratio will continue to go up.  My students have lived in a world of trauma. Since they started kindergarten, there have been 188 school shootings nationwide. Parents have deployed to Afghanistan, and teen suicide rates have risen. They need more support!

My students have never participated in middle school sports or outdoor education, and have seen average class sizes slowly increase. With the defeat of Amendment 73, future opportunities will continue to be a juggling act for our system as we try to equip students with the needed skills to be successful in the future. Please work with the legislature to find an answer.  

-- Jess Noffsinger, eighth-grade science and engineering teacher at the STEM Lab School in Northglenn

I have completely funded my classroom with the exception of furniture and three boxes of curriculum that is too high for my students. Every book, every pencil, every piece of paper, even necessities like Kleenex and Clorox wipes come from my pocket. I get $0 for a classroom budget and recently had to fund my own Donors Choose to get a color printer, which is super important for each of my students.

-- Sara Prue, K-5 special education teacher, District 27J

I am the only school psychologist for a school of 1,200 kids. We are impacted [by a high proportion of children from low-income families] and boast a very diverse student body. We are not able to raise sufficient money for the things our kids need -- mental health support, food, clothes, showers, school supplies, etc. Although we have fairly new facilities, our bathrooms for our K-2 kids have been closed for two days with a terrible sewer odor. Please listen to actual educators about what needs to happen in our schools.  

-- Paula Acker, K-8 school psychologist, Jeffco Public Schools

My students are highly impacted by poverty and trauma. Our work as teachers goes far beyond teaching. We are counselors, nurses, parental figures, hug-givers -- sometimes teaching is the last thing I do because my students have such high needs and we have a huge lack of resources.

-- Tessa McAleer, sixth grade special education, Strive Prep in Denver

My schools are filled with passionate, hardworking, intelligent professionals who dedicate many hours past their contract to help students and their families. I made more as a barista in Montana and didn't have to deal with half the b.s. I do with teaching. But I love my students and their families, and I know I'm making a difference in their lives and in our community.

If you truly cared about educators and our children, you'd validate our plight and do something to fix TABOR. It is absolutely unjust and shameful that our state makes the money it does and we're ranked in the bottom of student expense and teacher pay. Teachers are pissed and you better believe there's an uprising coming.

-- Jill Nichole Ayars, speech-language pathologist, former middle and high school language arts teacher, Poudre School District

I have died and gone to teacher heaven. That is how I often describe my current role preparing the next generation of social studies teachers in the University of Colorado's School of Education.

I have a group of student teachers who are paying a large tuition bill to student-teach, playing the role of a full-time teacher and then going to work at their regular job so they can afford to eat. Their weekends are filled with lesson planning and paper grading. They are inspiring to watch.  We must reward these teacher candidates by returning teaching to a secure financial footing in two ways: lowering the financial barriers to becoming a teacher and raising the financial rewards for entering the profession.     

-- Kent Willmann, senior instructor, University of Colorado, 32-year veteran teacher in the St. Vrain Valley School District

When you think of Catholic education, most folks envision plaid uniforms, strict rules, nuns, and the economic elite. Come to St. Rose and see how we educate over 250 pre-K-8 students each year in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver. We graduate successful students to high schools and colleges who are ready to impact their communities, and we do it for less money than public schools. For real.

-- Mark Dennis, middle school teacher at St. Rose of Lima in southwest Denver  

We have a high population of students with significant mental health needs who are impacted by traumatic backgrounds of neglect, abuse, abandonment, exposure to drugs pre- and post-natal, homelessness, etc. Currently we do not have a full-time school psychologist or counselor.  These students are in crisis on a daily basis, becoming both verbally and physically aggressive with teachers and peers before running from classrooms and in the case of a couple of students, even the building.

-- Kelly Atkinson, elementary special ed, Greeley-Evans School District 6

We are a very successful, innovative example of what can happen when teachers and schools are given the freedom to do what they do best. Our district and school leadership trusts us as professionals, which creates a wonderfully collegial atmosphere where teachers are unafraid to try new things. Education mandates often unintentionally stifle the art of teaching and learning.

-- Aaron Hendrikson, social studies, Fairview High School, Boulder Valley School District

Look into funding our schools and raising teachers salaries. Public education is not broken but our spirits are getting that way. Teachers should be paid as the professionals that they are. Schools should be funded so that the kids we teach get what they deserve.

-- Lori McCoin, high school computer applications and computer science principles, Elizabeth School District

I started working in public education right after the 9/11 attacks, filled with patriotic desire to change the future. At that time, I made what I thought was an "amazing" salary of $21,000 a year. I was a hardworking "baby" teacher determined to push through the hardships of never owning a house, never buying a new car, and eating very frugally for weeks on end.  

Fast forward to 2018. I'm still an idealist, but the reality of just how poor the wages are for teachers has tempered my initial feelings. The starting teacher wages in my district currently hover around $30,000 a year. Who thinks it's acceptable for a teacher, a person responsible for the future of society, to make less than someone working in fast food?

My wife and I felt it would be financially irresponsible to have our own children. I still work three separate jobs to make ends meet and sustain a basic middle-class lifestyle, but I do catch myself wondering every now and then: Would I have been a good dad?  

-- Eric Eberhardt, sixth-grade language arts teacher, District 11

I am a first-grade teacher in Aurora Public Schools where I teach 28 high-energy, precocious, and curious 6-year-olds. Our classroom is a warm, welcoming place due to myself, parents, and friends who have funded it. But I cannot afford to buy or rent in my school community nor anywhere else in the Denver metro area. How can teachers be agents of change if they can't even afford to live with those we serve? I should not be put in the position of deciding between my own personal well-being and that of my students. Teachers need to be paid a living wage that supports them and the communities they serve

-- Koli Jamerson, first-grade teacher, Altura Elementary, Aurora Public Schools, Teach Plus Fellow

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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