Teacher Cathy Epps to devise peer-coaching plan

New program will change how four districts' educators are evaluated and mentored

The Colorado Legislature has changed the way educators in the state will be evaluated, and local school districts are out in front of the change.

Senate Bill 191, passed in 2010, requires annual evaluations for all teachers and principles, based on statewide professional quality standards. Non-probationary status - the new equivalent of tenure - is earned after three years of demonstrated effectiveness but can be lost after two consecutive years of poor evaluations. The bill specified that all Colorado districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services must implement evaluations systems that align with the quality standards by July 2013.

Boards of Cooperative Educational Services were created by the Colorado Legislature in 1965 to provide shared educational programs and services to geographical groups of school districts. San Juan BOCES, which in 2010 incorporated Southwest BOCES and the local school districts, applied for grants to fund the transition and pulled in money to assist its nine districts.

Current research shows that the most positive impact on improving teacher professional practices comes when teachers observe, coach and evaluate one another," said Re-6 Superintendent Brian Hanson.

So, with the goal of establishing a peer review system, the four school districts in Montezuma and Dolores counties - Mancos, Dolores, Dove Creek and Cortez - began collaborating to create two positions called "district integrations liaisons." Those liaisons, one for the elementary schools in the four districts and another for the secondary schools, were envisioned as "teacher leaders' who would develop the peer coaching portion of the teacher evaluation process required by SB 191.

The districts applied for a grant from the Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Colorado Department of Education, and worked together to fund those two positions for the 2013-14 school year. This spring, the positions were advertised, and Mancos Elementary teacher Cathy Epps was chosen to lead the elementary effort. Jim Parr, currently the lead teacher at Lewis-Arriola Elementary School northwest of Cortez, will be the middle and high school liaison.

"We really want this to be teacher driven," Hanson said last week. "We want them to have a huge voice in what this looks like."

"This is a great opportunity for our teachers. Great work will come out of this."

Epps was involved in peer coaching when she taught in Flagstaff, Ariz., she said.

"That was the most powerful professional development I had as a teacher. I learned from that, grew from that."

Now she's enthusiastic about teaching others how peer coaching works. At the end of this school year, she will leave her combination third- and fourth-grade classroom to begin working with teachers in the four districts to devise a system of peer evaluation and mentoring, but she has already begun brainstorming and cheerleading for the change.

"This is a really big opportunity for all four districts," she said, and she clearly considers it a wonderful prospect for herself as well.

"I have the opportunity to work with all these phenomenal teachers to put this together. It's a big career move for me, a positive one."

The process of evaluation mandated by SB 191 has not been developed for rural areas, Epps said. She and Parr will visit other districts to see different models, cherry-picking the best parts of each and incorporate them in a system that other districts, in turn, will want to emulate.

Then they will spend the fall semester writing a comprehensive plan for observation, evaluation and improvement. They will launch a pilot program after Christmas, and then, they hope, the program will be self-sustaining.

"We'll be going out into the schools working with teachers to build the peer coaching system," Epps said. "Teachers will be trained on the process for effective implementation."

"We want the process of peer evaluation to be so embedded in the system that they'll support each other in that way without being reminded."

"It will take a teacher to get them to that point," Hanson said, "and we couldn't have selected a better teacher leader."

The ultimate goal is to give the teachers the support they need to progress professionally.

"They need a system in place that will tell them where they need to grow," Hanson said, and their peers are the people best able to evaluate them accurately and fairly. "Then the superintendents need to find opportunities for that growth."

"This will be positive for the whole area," Epps said, because teachers in the four districts will be able to share professional development opportunities. "Collaborations will be able to happen across boundaries - my colleagues are really excited about the collaboration opportunities.

"Good things are going to happen."