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Dr. Katy Anthes, state commissioner of education, makes a point during a news conference about the increase in COVID-19 cases and how parents need to enroll their children in school during the pandemic Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado’s chief education leader, Katy Anthes, announced Tuesday she will leave the state education department in July, saying the state could benefit from “new ideas” as it adjusts to a newly expanded state board of education.

Anthes, 48, has been Colorado’s education commissioner since May 2016 when she was named interim commissioner by the state board, the first woman to hold the position in 65 years.

She took over the job permanently in December 2016 and since then has steered the state’s 178 school districts through nearly three turbulent years of pandemic-driven classroom disruptions, growing concerns about students overcoming learning deficits and political spats across school boards.

In a phone interview with The Colorado Sun on Tuesday, Anthes said the state education department and state board are in the midst of “a natural transition” with the board adding two board members for a total of nine.

“It’s time for someone with new energy, new ideas to take the helm (of the department),” Anthes said, noting that she is also mentally and emotionally ready for a break and wants to pause to reflect on how to spend her time in the future.

“I’m happy that I don’t have a prescribed next step right now,” she said, adding that she’ll likely continue to work in education and public policy.

Anthes has been with the state education department since 2011, working as chief of staff, interim associate commissioner for achievement and strategy, and executive director of educator effectiveness. She previously founded a consulting organization focused on education, The Third Mile Group, that worked with many national organizations, including the Council for Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, The National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future, and American Institutes for Research, according to the state education department’s website.

Her career in education has spanned about 25 years, and she was initially pulled toward education with an interest in civil rights issues, women’s issues and environmental issues, among others.

“I realized that the core of all of those issues is that if we can improve public education and have a really strong education system, that’s the proactive side of dealing with all of those other issues,” Anthes said.

She described her role as education commissioner as “the honor of my life” in a statement released by the state education department.

It has also been one of the most demanding challenges of her life, particularly throughout the pandemic as schools first shuttered and many later on continued to bounce between in-person, remote and hybrid learning.

Anthes recalls working “around the clock” for more than two years as she and her staff stayed vigilant of health updates and collaborated with other state agencies to make the best decisions for schools in the moment.

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)

“It was concerning because we knew that students were struggling during that time, and we knew they weren’t getting the instruction that is most effective,” she said, “And toward the end of the pandemic, we knew that there were a lot of mental health challenges that we were seeing.”

At the time same, schools were contending with public controversy creeping into classrooms as political tensions overtook school board meetings across the state. Educators, parents and community members disagreed on what should be taught in schools and how — with discord swirling around how race and gender identity are broached in the classroom and criticisms of the ways that districts dealt with pandemic protocols.

Anthes has navigated the rancor by approaching debates with curiosity rather than contempt and drawing attention back to “the most important piece, which is, how does this impact students?”

“You really have to work hard to de-escalate on highly passionate issues,” she added. “I can’t say we’re always 100% successful, but that is something I work hard on every single day.”

Despite all the stress, she said she is glad she was able to step up in a critical moment when “the state needed stable, consistent, known leadership” and when she already had a few years on the job and had built trust with superintendents, lawmakers, Gov. Jared Polis’ office, the state board and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

And she is proud of the department’s progress under her leadership, pointing to success in tackling the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and putting together a plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Additionally, under her watch, schools and districts that were on the state’s accountability clock for poor performance reached the end of that clock, with most of those schools improving their status.

Anthes said she is also encouraged by the steps the state has taken to strengthen kids’ literacy skills with the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act. She is particularly proud that Colorado teachers are trained in the science of reading, noting, “I think we’re going to see some great results because of that.”

And she is equally optimistic about the future of high school across districts as many reimagine the best ways to educate students in the final years of their K-12 experience, turning to more work-based learning opportunities and more opportunities to gain college credit. The state has incentivized districts to expand the ways students explore careers while still in high school with grants, Anthes said.

The state board will begin the process of finding a new commissioner to replace Anthes early next year, according to the statement. 

“Many of the districts that came before the board are now seeing positive trends, and I credit Katy for these outcomes because she understands that we can go farther when we listen to each other and work together respectfully to support students,” State Board of Education Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder said in the department’s statement.

Meanwhile, as Anthes wraps up her last months as the state’s chief education official, she said she will focus on making sure federal pandemic relief dollars are spent effectively in the effort to help students recover from pandemic learning disruptions. She also aims to smooth out operations within the department, including developing new data systems, and support the board in finding the state’s next commissioner.

And she will continue championing educators, she said, praising them for staying the course in helping students catch up on learning in a heated political climate. She knows that many teachers are exhausted.

“We need all of them,” Anthes said, “and we need new teachers, new folks with new energy coming into the field.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...