Sunday, October 17, 2010

On the school-front: Principal Mary Lauer

Principal Mary Lauer talks with a student in her office. Lauer graduated from Colorado public schools. She has spent 30 years working as a teacher and administrator in the state.
Photo courtesy of Greeley Tribune

For Mary Lauer, the conversation about educational reform won't stop November 3rd. It isn't part of any stump speech she gives and it isn't something that can be summarized in a paragraph on her website. Lauer toils for educational reform year-round; it's her job.

"Colorado kids can't wait," said Lauer. "Big changes are coming and if we don't take a look at achievement, if we don't take a look at our teachers, they'll happen to us, not with us."

As principal of Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Lauer oversees more than 1,400 students and 100 teachers. Her principle duty - making sure all of them get better.

On Friday, Bear Creek students took a day off so Bear Creek teachers could get at the crux of the issue of student achievement gaps. Data from the Colorado Department of Education shows that poor students, minority students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who show a history of "needing to catch up" have not made "adequate growth" from 2009 to 2010 at Bear Creek.

Aside from spending 15 hours with her teachers this semester, looking at hard numbers and finding solutions for niche students' lack of proficiency, Lauer also requested that her staff go to the movies. Davis Guggenheim's documentary, "Waiting for Superman," will change the attitude about education reform in America, says Lauer. "Everybody needs to see this film. It's just that good."

A key component of the film rests on legislative interaction with teachers' unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers. When it comes to changing teachers' salaries or reevaluating teachers in the classroom, Guggenheim suggests that the union presents a difficult challenge for reformers. Lauer agrees. "Teachers should lose their non-probationary status if students are not growing," she said. "The union puts tenured teachers in holding tanks where they can't be fired, but are detrimental to have in classrooms. We have to be able to fire bad teachers."

The film spotlighted the result of this head butting in the New York public school system where teachers who have been deemed poor at their craft and those accused of sexual assault can't, by contract, be fired. These limbo teachers spend years in "the rubber room," a space with tables and chairs, magazines and playing cards, awaiting their disciplinary hearings. All while they make full salary.

"I got into this job for the kids," said Lauer. "Now I spend most of my time managing adults."

Colorado is leading the way in negotiations with the teachers' union and reassessing how teachers are paid. The goal is to compensate instructors based on performance in the classroom, not solely on years of experience. The state's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Lauer was at the premiere of "Waiting for Superman" where Guggenheim commended Colorado for taking on the tough changes, she said.

Another form of impending change could look like funding cuts as laid out in Amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101 on the ballot this November. The initiatives would cease grant funding, as well as cut property tax dollars that have traditionally gone to public schools.

"It's like we (public schools) took out a 30-year loan. Then the bank forces you to pay it back in 10," said Lauer of the potential new laws.

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