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A woman uses her hands to demonstrate a point while sitting at a table
Katy Anthes meets with The Colorado Sun to discuss her tenure as Colorado's education commissioner June 16 at the Colorado Department of Education in Denver. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Death threats that landed in Katy Anthes’ email inbox near the height of the pandemic only sharpened the education commissioner’s sense of danger while she tried to help protect more than 900,000 public school students from a deadly virus.

Those threats came from people lashing out as their frustration over Colorado schools’ responses to COVID-19 crescendoed, said Anthes, who this week is wrapping up nearly seven years of leading Colorado’s 178 school districts after announcing plans in December to leave her post.

“People felt very strongly whether we should shut down or not shut down,” she told The Colorado Sun. “And people also don’t know what my role and authority was. So I think a lot of people thought I had more authority than I do to direct districts to do one thing or the other.”

As debates over school closings and mask mandates devolved into verbal brawls, Anthes was forced to come to terms with the one thing she knew for certain.

“In this moment, in this crisis, we’re not going to make everybody happy,” she said. “We’re going to try to follow the science as best we can. We’re going to try to give as much flexibility as we can within the parameters of the science, and we’re going to try to explain what we did. And that’s what we did.”

Nearly half of Anthes’ time at the helm of the state education department was defined and dictated by the pandemic. Her last official day overseeing Colorado’s public education system is Friday, but she’ll stay on for two more weeks to help incoming education commissioner Susana Córdova learn how to shift from leading a school district to guiding statewide education. Anthes, who spent most of her childhood in Boulder, is leaving at a time Colorado schools are weighed down by long-standing challenges, many of which only worsened with the pandemic: Many students are struggling to meet grade-level academic benchmarks, particularly in math. Widespread mental health issues continue to make it hard for kids and teachers to cope. And teacher and staff shortages across schools have spiraled, with Colorado facing its highest number of unfilled positions in education in “many, many years,” Anthes, 48, said.

Her memory of the early days of the pandemic has turned “mushy,” but she recalls information about the coronavirus flying furiously across agencies and a shared assumption that schools would be disrupted for three weeks — not three years.

A woman raises her hand to emphasize a point while sitting at a table. The glass of the table reflects her image.
Katy Anthes has been working for the education department since 2011 and has led the department as education commissioner for the past seven years. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Once it became clear that normalcy was a long way off, Anthes would begin each morning with a 7 a.m. meeting when the state epidemiologist would update her and other state agency leaders with the latest developments on the virus. She had to swiftly reorganize the state education department and delegate new priorities among staff members as the department distributed federal relief dollars across districts, pulled together health and safety guidance for schools, coordinated efforts between school nurses and the state’s health care agency, and organized virtual town hall meetings for districts.

“We had to give ourselves grace around what can we do in this moment to help?” Anthes said. “What do districts need right now? And sometimes it was just focusing on those very basics and telling them, ‘You guys gotta do the best you can, but if you don’t have teachers and all your teachers are out sick, then you gotta cancel school. There’s nothing else to do.’”

Anthes steered schools through the uncertainty of the pandemic with a deep sense of empathy for parents and kids as well as for teachers, said Mark Sass, Teach Plus executive director for Colorado.

“This was certainly just a shock to the entire system, and it was a shift that she had to make from fairly technocratic kind of policy down to, how do we feed our kids now that we can’t feed them through schools?” Sass said. “And for her … that was her priority, her goal when the pandemic hit, was how do we take care of these kids’ basic needs? And she just jumped into that and made sure that it was the focus of the work that they were doing, and then everything else just kind of fell behind that.”

Even as the worst of the pandemic has receded, Anthes worries about the future of Colorado schools, particularly as educators have grown weary of trying to catch up students after major learning disruptions while many have also fielded criticism for their approaches to teaching controversial topics related to history and gender identity.

“(Teachers) just can’t take it anymore,” she said. “They’re already not paid I think as much as they should be for what they’re doing, and then you add on the politicization, you add on these very challenging board meetings that they’re hearing. Sometimes parents coming directly to them and being inappropriate. You add that on, and the country will have to come to a reckoning if they don’t have people to teach their kids.”

When pressed on whether the state could have done more to address teacher recruitment and retention during her tenure, Anthes said Colorado has already “done a huge amount.” She is proud of that work, but it needs more time to spur concrete changes to the educator pipeline, she added. 

She has seen districts bump up teacher salaries “little by little.” She said the Colorado Department of Education is developing more recruitment programs through a partnership with Teach Colorado — a statewide group of districts, educator preparation programs, state agencies and nonprofits that coach prospective teachers through the process of becoming licensed. And she helped stand up a first-of-its-kind recruitment office at CDE so that the department could play a more active role in districts’ efforts to hire more educators — a responsibility that it hasn’t historically owned.

“A lot of things are just starting, but we certainly haven’t seen the impact of those things yet,” Anthes said.

Grappling with far more than a pandemic

Schools need more time before they will see policy changes and new programs translate into sizable shifts, whether schools are trying to draw new teachers or help students make academic strides.

But time is short for schools facing debilitating staff shortages and for students slipping behind in classes, both up against dire consequences. That’s especially true with Colorado’s decadelong focus on improving student literacy, made a top priority by the legislature, which has funneled $319 million into helping young students who struggle with reading reach grade level by third grade.

It became clear five years ago that the state interventions under the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act weren’t working, with a greater number of students performing so far behind their peers that they were at risk of never learning to read. 

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, at the time called the READ Act a “failing” initiative while a state education official said it was producing only “incremental improvements.”

Lawmakers in 2019 again stepped in to modify the READ Act, mandating training on reading instruction for all educators in grades K-3 and more tracking on how districts use state funding, Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

A woman poses for a picture while at a table.
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes sits for a portrait. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Anthes acknowledged that Colorado has not improved literacy among students to the degree state officials wanted to but added that the state just finished training the majority of teachers under the new requirements in August, a “monumental” development she hopes will lead to progress in the classroom.

“Policy outcomes take a long time, and I know that’s very frustrating for all of us because we want to see outcomes immediately,” Anthes said. “The legislature wants to see outcomes immediately, but sometimes the implementation of policies takes time. Then we had COVID in the middle of that, and so of course we saw across the nation students slide backwards. The thing I’m still encouraged about is Colorado students didn’t slide as far backwards in reading.”

Anthes, who joined CDE in 2011 with a background in research and policy rather than in teaching and then became commissioner in 2016, said she has also focused much of her leadership on expanding the ways high schoolers can get a jump-start on their plans after graduating. That has included opening up more opportunities for concurrent enrollment — through which students can gain college credits while still in high school — as well as for work-based learning and apprenticeships.

One of her other key priorities: figuring out what to do with underperforming schools that had been under state watch on its so-called “accountability clock” and were for the first time ever nearing the end of the timeframe the state had granted them to demonstrate improvements.

That included bringing struggling districts in front of Colorado’s State Board of Education for hearings and helping those districts create plans to map out how they intended to boost student achievement.

A white board with lots of phrases written on it.
A whiteboard in the office of Education Commissioner Katy Anthes reflects guiding words for educators. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Most of those districts that we started with are off the clock now,” Anthes said. “And now there’s still some that are lingering and we’re still working with them and we’re going through the process, but for the most part we’ve seen some really good successes in supporting our districts to improve to the point where they’re no longer on our watch.”

Anthes inherited a state education system in which “things were in complete disarray,” and she was “the right person at the right time,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at Keystone Policy Center.

The high note of her career as commissioner, he said, was her management of school improvement — a success that is often overshadowed by long-running, high-profile conflicts between low-performing school districts and the state, Schoales said.

“CDE under Katy said, ‘Hey, we’re going to get together a wonderful suite of improvement strategies and resources. We’re going to support you if you have school leaders or other district staff that want to go through … professional development to get better. We’re going to give you some money, and we’re going to provide you with other stuff and a network to learn from one another in other parts of the state,’” he said.

Districts that recognized they had a problem and took advantage of state resources made progress, Schoales noted. 

He added that he wishes the department under Anthes’ leadership would have pushed harder for more transparency about what’s happening in schools and districts so that parents and policymakers could have a clearer sense of whether kids are getting a quality education.

Meanwhile, what’s next for the longtime education leader?

A lakeside break at a cabin in Michigan and time to contemplate where her career in education will take her next. Anthes has a particular interest in helping communities figure out how to talk through diverging viewpoints and escalating tensions.

“We’re not going to get out of it by continuing to scream at each other louder and louder and louder,” Anthes said. “And one thing I’ve learned in this job working with conservatives and progressives is there are real issues on both sides of these divisions, and by just pointing fingers and saying you hate the other side is not going to help us. There actually are ways to navigate through high-conflict situations and find some common ground if people are willing.”

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...