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Out Of The Classroom, Into The Boardroom

Meet New DPS District 3 Representative Carrie Olson

For the first time in the school district’s 114-year history, women completely comprise the Board of Education for Denver Public Schools. From left: Barbara O’Brien, Lisa Flores, Jennifer Bacon, Allegra “Happy” Haynes, Carrie Olson, Angela Cobián and Anne Rowe. Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

Following the November elections, Park Hill now has two new directors who represent the neighborhood on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. Carrie Olson represents District 3, which includes all areas south of Montview Boulevard. Jennifer Bacon represents District 4, which includes all areas north of Montview.

Olson, a 33-year teacher, defeated incumbent Mike Johnson, and Bacon, a teacher, lawyer, and parent advocate, defeated incumbent Rachele Espiritu. This month Olson weighed in with answers to a few of our questions. (Next month, we hope to profile Bacon on her philosophy and goals as a new board member)

During her career, Olson has worked as an elementary teacher, a middle school teacher and more recently at West Leadership Academy on the West Campus. She is fluent in Spanish and much of her career has been devoted to teaching English Language Acquisition students.

After her election, Olson had to resign from her position due to a DPS policy that prohibits district employees from serving on the board, due to conflict of interest.  Olson can be reached at

Greater Park Hill News: Looking back at the campaign, what takeaways do you have about the journey?

Carrie Olson: First, never underestimate the power of a committed group of people! I think my campaign demonstrated the true power of grassroot activists. We did not have big money backing our campaign. What we did have were dedicated volunteers who came with a genuine interest and passion for improving public education. In addition, they cared about the people with whom they spoke and made personal connections. I think of the one volunteer who knocked on a door and discovered a grieving mother who had just lost her son. She asked my volunteer to sit with her and listen. They sat for over an hour remembering the life of her son. This is the type of outreach that won this campaign. Also, voters were interested in seeing someone with classroom experience who understands how school board policy impacts the students and their teachers, families, and communities. Furthermore, they did not approve of out-of-state super PAC money coming into our local school board races and agreed that the school board should be under the control of local communities rather than corporate interests who stand to gain financially from the board’s decisions.

GPHN: How do you think the changing demographics in Denver and Park Hill are going to affect schooling in the area?

Olson: I think we’ll see more proposals like the enrollment zones from DPS as the neighborhoods change. I look forward to many conversations from the families, students, teachers, support staff, and the community to think about what makes sense in their eyes to create schools that match the needs of what they desire for public education.

GPHN: In Park Hill, we have schools listed as red, yellow, orange and green, according to DPS’ School Performance Framework. What steps should DPS take to help those schools better perform in that rating system?

Olson: Because so many decisions in the District are driven by the SPF ratings, I believe we need to re-examine the SPF weights and metrics. Many educators and many civic organizations are concerned that the SPF does not give an accurate picture of what is happening in our schools. Secondly, because the mission of DPS is to educate children, I would encourage meaningful supports for both students and teachers so DPS can live up to its core value of students first. The SPF shouldn’t be about colors and punishment in a flawed rating system. It should be about ways to help students learn what they need to be successful adults.

GPHN: What do you think are teachers’ biggest challenges right now?

Olson: Many decisions are being made by individuals who have little or no background in education. These decisions affect the students and teachers learning and teaching environment. With so much emphasis on the data-driven business model, it often seems the value of real education is lost. We need to listen to our teaching professionals and refocus on supporting and elevating those dedicated individuals. More focus on a collaborative environment and less focus on competition would be a good place to start.

Workload – as the negative factor increases and schools lack funding, teachers are left picking up the slack. Essential support staff continue to get cut, along with electives. The result is larger class sizes with less support. Meanwhile the pressure grows on high stakes testing; districts and administrators feel they must micromanage teachers’ planning time to meet the demands of these high-stakes tests.

Salary – Often the salaries we pay teachers are not enough for us to live on in the long-term.

Teacher “accountability” – In an era of “accountability,” we continue to introduce measures and standards that we feel will hold teachers accountable and encourage good performance. Unfortunately, rather than holding teachers accountable to their own performance, we are usually holding them accountable for the difficult issues we face in our society such as income inequality and racial disparities in academic achievement. When we look at test scores, we are even holding teachers accountable for lack of funding and mismanagement of schools and districts. Teachers can also be made victim to subjective evaluations and broken evaluation systems.

The blame game of accountability systems and low salaries to compensate an unmanageable workload. I hear lots of teachers say, “They shouldn’t be able to take advantage of the fact that I care so much about my students. But they do. Why else would I put up with this?” Ultimately, the biggest challenges facing teachers are also impacting students. They have overworked teachers who do not have time to prepare engaging, creative lessons or give them personal attention. They lose incredible teachers who are not making enough money to continue in the career or who can not manage the added stress of evaluation systems and high-stakes testing.

GPHN: Thinking of your own schooling, which teacher made the biggest impression on you and why?

Olson: It’s hard to select just one teacher because I have had so many outstanding teachers, from my elementary school years through my years working on my PhD. The first teacher who made an impression on me was my third grade teacher Mrs. Pepelnjak. I wasn’t a very good student when I was younger. Then, I missed almost a month of school due to surgery for appendicitis. She came to the hospital to visit me and came to my house. She brought me a little flower in a vase (which I still have) and cards from my classmates. When I came back to school, I was behind in my work and she went out of her way to help me get caught up. I remember clearly how she let me give the weekly spelling test one Friday instead of taking it because I didn’t know how to spell very well.  I felt so smart. I knew she believed in me even though I didn’t always do well in school.  I have carried that lesson from her to the classrooms I have taught in since 1985. I always remember that students, no matter what their age, need to know that I care for them.  Four years ago at Christmas Eve services, I ran into her at church and thanked her for all she did for me in 1972! It was a very meaningful moment.

Lynn Kalinauskas is education chair of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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