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Details of Denver's Morey Middle School in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in this 2017 file photo. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

When Katy Anthes was plucked from the ranks of Colorado’s education bureaucracy to become the state’s top education official, she was the fourth person to hold the job in 18 months.

Colorado Department of Education employees were stressed, worn out by revolving leadership and working to put in place pivotal reforms in teacher performance, new education standards and statewide testing.

Anthes hadn’t even applied; in fact, quite the opposite. She had resigned as the agency’s chief of staff a few days before the bipartisan State Board of Education asked her to consider becoming Colorado’s education commissioner.

Now, two and a half years later, Anthes’ supporters credit her for restoring a sense of calm, as well as respectful public discourse, to the department and the bipartisan board. The first woman to hold the position in 65 years, Anthes is known as a collaborator and a listener, and she scored high marks — in the 80th percentile — in an annual survey of Colorado school superintendents about her job performance sent to the legislature this month.

In another sign of a new era, Anthes, unlike the two commissioners before her, was invited by Gov. John Hickenlooper to join his cabinet. In Colorado, whether the education commissioner is part of the governor’s inner circle is up to the governor, and sometimes related to how the governor gets along the elected State Board of Education.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes was the fourth person to hold the job in 18 months when she was appointed by the State Board of Education in 2016. (Colorado Department of Education)

Previous commissioners Rich Crandall, who resigned after four months citing personal reasons, and Elliott Asp, who was interim commissioner before Crandall, did not serve in Hickenlooper’s cabinet. Robert Hammond, education commissioner from 2011 to 2015, served in the Cabinet at the beginning of his term but not by the end.

Gov.-elect Jared Polis — once a member of the State Board of Education — has not announced whether Anthes is invited to cabinet meetings, but she said “all signs point toward a really positive working relationship.” She was at the Capitol this month to help lawmakers and Hickenlooper announce a long-term vision for education, a plan developed after Hickenlooper’s Education Leadership Council surveyed more than 6,000 people and held 70 stakeholder conversations.

Anthes, who serves at the pleasure of the state school board with no set term, sat down with The Colorado Sun last week to talk about her goals.

On her top two priorities

After she was offered the commissioner position, Anthes “had to do some real reflecting” on whether she was equipped and could make a difference, she said. What she had, she realized, was the ability to “bring people together again rather than splitting people apart.” That became priority No. 1 of her administration.

“Anytime you are talking about a local school, there is a lot of passion and energy and emotion in that,” she said. “We did a lot of work with our board. They did a lot of work. I want to give them credit. It’s OK to disagree and that’s important, but we do that with an open mind and that actually enriches the dialogue.”

Anthes’ respectful-discourse agenda was put to the test right away. The start of her tenure coincided with the end of the school “accountability clock” — meaning several schools that were under a time limit to improve or face closure ran out of time.

It was tested again last month when the state board voted that the troubled Adams 14 district must turn over operations to an external manager. Anthes said she was pleased with the level of respect between state and district leaders during contentious meetings.

“There is more common ground in education than the politics and the swirl make it out to be,” she said.

Goal No. 2 was to revamp the department’s strategic plan, replacing a “tactical” one grounded in reforms that were several years in the past. Moving beyond teacher effectiveness and statewide assessments, Anthes’ plan zeroes in on closing the achievement gap. Her mantra is “all means all.”

The same theme runs throughout the plan released Dec. 18 by the governor’s Education Leadership Council, which Anthes co-chaired.

“We talk a lot about the achievement gap and when you back that up a little bit, it can be the opportunity gap,” Anthes said. “Sometimes our rural communities can struggle with that because they are not as central to all of the programs and they may not have access to an AP physics teacher,” for example.

On her leadership style

Anthes, who prior to becoming commissioner was tasked with implementing Colorado’s controversial teacher evaluation system passed by the legislature, doesn’t think of herself as political. She’s the person who tries to get people to make the best of a policy, even if they hate it.

“I am not a policymaker, I am an administrator of public laws,” Anthes said. “I will be an honest broker of whatever public laws are passed, whether those are passed by the governor, the legislature or our state board. In our implementation, we will listen to all sides and find the best path forward.”

In her relationships at the Capitol and with school superintendents across Colorado, she is direct.

“I’m very honest and transparent with the governor, with legislators. I tell them, ‘I can’t promise you what my board is going to do on this. They are very individual people with individual opinions and then we have to come together for a vote.’”

On mental health and school safety

Similar to other state agencies, including child welfare and youth corrections, Anthes is looking at two-generational approaches to improving educational outcomes for kids. Instead of focusing only on a student who is struggling, schools should work on reaching that student’s parents, too, to create “much tighter, more meaningful family connections to schools” that go far beyond the twice-annual parent-teacher conference, she said.

Schools should develop partnerships with housing and transportation programs, and offer links to assistance for families in need, she said.

“The opportunity gap starts way before school,” Anthes said. “It starts with a lot of issues that come up with poverty. Do you have safe housing? Are you well fed? Is your family reading to you?

“We need to make sure the whole community is in on this. There is a lot of work to do there, and I ponder it a lot.”

Deeper connections between schools and local communities also will help educators in their efforts to prevent suicide, improve students’ mental health and guard against school violence, Anthes said. Communities tend to blame schools, or look to schools for help when tragedy strikes, but “we need to do better thinking about a community approach,” she said.

“We tend to put a lot on schools,” Anthes said, noting schools are dealing with everything from students’ mental health to school safety concerns to electronic cigarettes. “I don’t think schools can completely solve these problems alone.”

On the future

When the legislature resumes work in January, Anthes expects lawmakers will focus on school finance reform and early literacy programs. The governor-elect wants full-day kindergarten for all kids, which would require new funding but not necessarily any new laws.

What parents want, the commissioner said, is opportunity for their students — computer science programs, the option to earn college credit while still in high school, and to use a phrase Anthes said she hears regularly, “the same opportunities that Cherry Creek has.”

Fixing the way education dollars are distributed across Colorado schools is important reform, but not necessarily a solution to the opportunity gap, she said.

“There is no quick fix on that,” she said. “It’s not that if you fixed one, you would fix the other. Resources matter and how those resources are deployed in systems matters.”

    Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...