Former STEM teachers air concerns

School leader says license not always top criteria for charter teachers

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Katie Sullivan, who taught at STEM School and Academy for two months in in the fall of 2013, wasn’t licensed or qualified for her computer programming post.

“I warned them I wasn’t highly qualified in my subject area,” said Sullivan, whose 13 years of prior teaching experience focused on elementary-level computer technology but no programming.

“The principal told me that wasn’t a problem. They said, `That’s OK, you can learn how to do it and then teach it.’ So I gave it a shot.”

Frustrated, Sullivan took early retirement just two months into the job.

“I felt like I was letting the kids down because I wasn’t on top of my topic,” she said. “A lot of the kids are really pretty advanced. Some would just work on their own and teach themselves. When it came to the more average kids who needed help, I was sort of at a loss to help them.”

It wasn’t just the kids Sullivan felt deserved better.

“I think a parent sending their child to a STEM school would expect to have some high-level computer classes, (not) to have an elementary computer teacher teaching high school programming,” she said.

But STEM didn’t necessarily err in hiring Sullivan.

Unlike their public school counterparts, Colorado charter school teachers aren’t required to have licenses. And STEM board president Matthew Smith said the best teachers aren’t necessarily licensed or subject experts.

“Licensed teachers and especially experienced teachers often bring skill sets and credentials to your team you wouldn’t otherwise have, but we don’t require that. State law doesn’t require it,” he said, adding that most of STEM’s teachers hold licenses.

“Character and integrity are just as much a criteria for hiring as capability,” he said. “Sometimes you end up hiring people you believe have the basic character and values you want, and you try to train them to execute a skill maybe you can’t hire just because of the timing and availability of those resources on the market.”

Smith said the school also reserves the right to fire those who aren’t ultimately compatible with the school or its needs.

Former Spanish teacher Christine Henze was surprised when her position with STEM was terminated in early January.

“Charters are like a one-man band,” said Henze, who like Sullivan did not have a teaching license when she started working there in August 2013. “They’re not subject to any kind of scrutiny.”

Henze said the school insisted on full-immersion foreign language education, which left students without the foreign language foundation needed for STEM’s project-based learning approach. Other teachers there were intimidated by the administration, she claims, and parents sometimes exerted excessive control.

Smith acknowledged a termination is “highly emotional,” but said procedures resulting in Henze’s dismissal were followed properly.

STEM is working to find a balance between its teachers and philosophy, he said.

“Building a school is a long-term journey. Teachers are a huge part of that,” he said.

Smith, vice president of engineering for United Launch Alliance, believes his presence is part of that balance.

“One of the reasons we try to have some non-parent board members like myself is the ability to really look long-term at the overall organizational health and strategy,” he said.

“We are human beings. When we have students involved, we tend to see the whole world through their eyes and experience. That’s a valid perspective, but it can be a narrow one.”