"We’ve Got This"

August 22, 2017

Colorado Champion for Public Education Receives Recognition

August 22, 2017

Elliott AspCEI Senior Partner Elliott Asp received the esteemed CASEY Award during the 48th Annual CASE (Colorado Association of School Executives) Convention, held in late July in Breckenridge. The annual CASEY Award honors a current non-educator who has made a significant contribution to education by furthering the mission and vision of CASE in a substantial and/or continuous manner. Asp addressed the audience with a moving acceptance speech, sharing his thoughts on the promise and power of public education in Colorado. Here’s what Asp had to say.

First, let me say how honored and humbled I am to receive this award and have my name added to the list of previous CASEY recipients who have done so much for education in Colorado. I want to share a secret with you – just between us.  I am not a native, I am a “want-to-be” Coloradoan. Like John Denver, I came home to a place I had never been before- he did it at 27 and I arrived here at 14. My dad was a career Air Force Officer which is something I am very proud of.  But that meant we were transferred often and I went to five different elementary schools and two junior highs before my dad was transferred to Colorado Springs in 1964, in the summer before I entered 9th grade. I attended East Jr High and am a proud graduate of Wasson High School. And just like John Denver and many of you, I fell in love with Colorado and it became the home I never had. So, to receive this award for service to Colorado, the state that adopted me, is very special indeed.

I want to thank CASE for this award and especially my good friend and long-time colleague, Lisa Escarcega, for nominating me. And thank you Lisa, Holly, Steve and Katy for your kind words. They mean a lot to me.

I also want to thank my family for their support. Although I wasn’t born here, our kids are the 4th generation of my wife Kathy’s family to be born in Colorado – their great grandmother was born in Cripple Creek in the early 1900s and their great-great grandfather was a gold miner who died in an accident in the Independence Mine near Victor. Our oldest daughter Kelsey works with young children in a preschool in Highlands Ranch and makes a difference in their lives every day. Our younger daughter Hillary is working on her Ph.D. at the University of MA, Amherst where she is helping undergrads, K-12 students, teachers, law enforcement and other government officials understand how to navigate the intersection of gender, race, sexual orientation in order to help all kids feel emotionally and academically safe at school. I am very proud of them. They have helped me to grow as an educator and become a better man.

I also want to thank my wife of 37 years, Kathy Montague. Kathy has been educator for 40+ years –  as an elementary and middle school teacher and for the last 10 years an instructional coach and mentor teacher. She cares enough to listen to the ideas I think will transform education in Colorado, has the courage to challenge them (even if I don’t like it) and has the insight to ask the tough questions that help me clarify my thinking. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner and better friend. Thanks Kath, for everything.

I also want to thank all of you.  What you (and those you represent) do every day is inspiring to me and it has been my pleasure to work directly with many of you – either as colleagues in Air Academy 20, LPS, Aurora, BOCES, Douglas County and Cherry Creek School Districts or at the Department of Education or on many state committees through CASE, CASB, CDE and other organizations. I am glad to say that I will have the opportunity to continue these relationships in my new role as Senior Partner at the Colorado  Education Initiative.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about education in Colorado and I want to share a crazy idea with you. Those of you who know me well are not at all surprised by this!  This idea originated from an experience I had in Cherry Creek, but it could have occurred in any district. Let me describe the area where this story starts.  If you take Arapahoe Road east of I-25, in about a mile or so you come to Dayton Street. At the intersection of Dayton and Arapahoe are a number of rental apartment buildings that are in the Cherry Creek School District. But as you travel north on Dayton you soon leave these apartment buildings behind and enter a well-established upscale neighborhood and eventually you end Cherry Creek High School.

One day when I made this drive, I noticed big banners hung on several of the apartment buildings that proudly said “Cherry Creek Schools.” Why were these there? It was clearly a marketing tool, letting potential renters know that if you lived here your children would go to Cherry Creek Schools. That is, your kids would get the same outstanding education and opportunities, encouragement and support to succeed as those kids who lived in the big houses farther up the street. Well, you know what, the banners worked. Many of the people in those apartment buildings were Cherry Creek parents, often working two and sometimes three jobs or sharing apartments with other families so their kids could go to Cherry Creek schools and have options in their lives that their parents never did.  What struck me was that this banner represents an implicit promise that the Board and staff made to every parent when they enrolled their kids in Cherry Creek schools.

Every district in this state has a similar pact and implicit promise with its parents. This doesn’t mean that we can always deliver on that promise, some kids will struggle despite our best efforts. But it does mean we never give up and we always try to get better. That is why Harry Bull and others in Cherry Creek are willing to talk about the relationship between race and student achievement and the impact of systemic racism, even if it makes adults uncomfortable. It is why Holyoke rightfully celebrates the award they won for their work in closing the achievement gap in the district or why George Welch implemented a new literacy program in Center in the face of staff resistance. It is why Westminster and Mesa 51 are implementing a competency-based system and are working hard to bring their communities along. It is why DPS is willing to close some ineffective schools in the face of strong parent opposition or Stacy Hauser closed Aguilar’s only school and reopened it with a new look and some new staff. It is why Bruce Hankins initiated a “shadow your students” program in Dove Creek to understand how students view school.  It is why districts in the San Juan and Santa Fe Trail BOCES are working closely with my new employer, CEI to transform education in the southwest corner of our state and in the Arkansas Valley. It is why Scott Cooper found a way to open a child care center in his district in Delores so teachers would be able to balance work and family and he could keep high-quality teachers in the district. It is why some rural districts led by Buena Vista and Lisa Yates developed the Student-Centered Accountability Project. It is why Ken Haptonstall initiated “AP” for all in Parachute. It is why Taylor Labato and her family took on the state of Colorado in effort to bring adequate resources to all schools in Colorado. And, it is why you do what you are doing in your district to meet the needs of ALL kids.

So, here is my crazy idea. I envision a time when we have huge banners with the words “COLORADO PUBLIC SCHOOLS” hung on those iconic “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs that you see when first cross the border. So, whether you enter Colorado through Kanorado on I-70 or are going south from Cheyenne or coming north over Raton Pass or heading east to Mack after crossing the Utah border, you will see the sign. That banner would be saying to parents that if they put their kids in Colorado Public Schools they will get the same “world class” education, the same opportunities, and support – no matter where they go to school. It won’t matter where they live; in Aspen or Agate, Grand Junction or Granada, Center or Centennial, Lake City or Loveland, Commerce City or Cherry Creek.

It won’t matter if they are white or black, Latino, Asian or American Indian or some combination of those. It won’t matter whether they are poor or have unique needs and strengths or don’t speak English. It won’t matter if they are gay or straight or trying figure out who they are. In short, we would be saying to all families, “WE’VE GOT THIS.”  Just get your kids to a Colorado Public School and they will be fine. In Colorado, we take care of our own.

Frankly, we’ve already made this promise in our constitution where we call for the establishment of a thorough and uniform system of education in Colorado. Now it is up to all of us to live up to that promise.

I know it will take additional resources to make this happen. And we need our legislators and other policymakers to work with us to clarify that vision and find a way to fund it. We are fortunate that legislators like Bob Rankin, Dave Young, and Millie Hamner continue to push for that. But it will also take additional skill and will on our part. The good news is that we know a lot about teaching and learning and we are open and willing to learn how to do things better, as evidenced by your attendance at this convention. And, I know we have the will, even if at times we must dig deep to find it. One of the most poignant demonstrations of that was a presentation by a group of teachers from a small elementary school on Grand Mesa who were describing their work in literacy at a West Superintendent meeting that I attended a while back. They described how they had learned new skills and reorganized their school to provide additional literacy support (the group included the PE teacher) and they shared data that showed how effective that work had been in helping kids to learn to read. But instead of being satisfied with their obvious success – at the end of the presentation, they cried in frustration. Why? In their minds, they had only been partially successful – some students didn’t make as much progress as they had hoped. They didn’t blame the children, they didn’t blame themselves, they didn’t blame the parents, they just rolled up their sleeves and went back to work.

I know that creating these banners and hanging them on those “Welcome to Colorado” signs is a crazy idea, but as John Lennon put it – “I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” I am in good company. You are dreamers too.  I think it is possible to do this because of what I have seen you do for kids, educators, and communities across this state every day. I know we can keep our promise. Thank you so much for this award and your dedication to the kids of Colorado. I am proud to count you as colleagues and friends.

Now, let’s go hang some banners.