DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg testified in favor of Johnston's proposal. The bill, he says, "moved the ball very far forward on a couple of very important fronts." For one thing, it did away with the binary choice districts now face regarding teacher tenure: either fire a teacher after a probationary period of three years or give the teacher tenure and, in Boasberg's words, "a lifetime of employment." The superintendent also liked how the bill provided a way to retract tenure if a teacher is doing poorly.

After hours and hours of debate that reduced some lawmakers to tears, Johnston's bill, now carrying a multitude of amendments to make it more palatable to the unions, passed on the last day of the legislative session, and Ritter signed it into law three weeks ago. It gives the Governor's Council for Educator Effectiveness, which Ritter created back in January to devise a "high-quality educator evaluation system," until March 2011 to make its recommendations, and calls for a new system to be in place by the fall of 2013.

Although the new law could earn Colorado extra points in Race to the Top, which grades states' applications on a 500-point system that heavily values plans to foster "great teachers," that wasn't the motivation behind his proposal, Johnston says. "I believe the most important way for us to close the achievement gap and make sure all kids graduate high school ready for college and careers is to make sure you have the greatest number of great teachers and leaders as you can," he explains. "That being said, do I think it increases our chances to win Race to the Top?

Many parents requested Miss P as their children's first-grade teacher.
Mark Manger
Many parents requested Miss P as their children's first-grade teacher.


Mary Pishney often refers to her classroom as her own little microcosm of positivity, her "sandcastle of happiness." The walls are a soft blue and decorated with characters she painted herself: birds with yellow feet taped to the cabinets, an alien wearing running shoes tacked to the bulletin board. Before she left this past winter, Pishney could often be found at the front of the room, sitting in a director's chair the shape of SpongeBob SquarePants.

At the start of every school year, Pishney takes the time to get to know her students — and to make sure they know her, too. "I tell my kids a lot of stories about my childhood: happy, funny stories about burying carrot cakes in the garden and getting caught with a mountain lion in the mountains and panicking, which you shouldn't do," she says. "It makes the kids realize you're a human being, and it develops this kind of family feeling. They have more trust in you. They come up and say, 'You know, Miss P, I really don't understand this,' and you go, 'Hey! Not a problem! We can survive this.'"

So the students know all about Sweet Pea, Pishney's talkative, long-tailed Alexandrine parakeet, who parrots back her compliments for him, including, "You're a good little toot!" They recognize her blue Volkswagen Beetle. And they become interested in the fate of her alma mater's football team, which she refers to as the "blessed Buckeyes."

"I have such an emotional tie with my kids," Pishney says. It's something she always wanted — but didn't always have — with her own teachers when she was a child.

"I remember as a kid thinking a teacher really cared," she recalls. "And then the next year, I was in somebody else's room and it was, 'Oh, you're last year's newspaper.' And that doesn't feel right. There should be that true, sincere interest that transcends the year."

Pishney grew up on twenty acres of farmland outside Columbus, Ohio. Her father had his own electronics business, and her mother stayed home. As a girl, she loved tending her family's ducks, chickens, goats and horses. The second of four children, she also helped care for her younger brother and sister and ran a booming babysitting business on the side. "I think that's where I got my love of working with kids," she says.

In fact, Pishney came to realize that she sometimes preferred children's company to that of adults. "With kids, you see the essence of the innocence," she says. "There's not biases. You can have such wonderful conversations...because they're so pure in heart."

After graduating high school, Pishney headed to Ohio State University, where she majored in elementary education. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college, and soon found a job teaching first grade at a high-performing school in Columbus. "I was about 23 when I got that job," Pishney remembers. "I loved it, loved my kids." The parents called her Mary Poppins because of the kind way she interacted with her students.

And then busing came. The school's population shrank as white families fearful of forced integration fled to the suburbs, and Pishney, still a new teacher, was transferred to an inner-city school. The building was filled with roaches. There was a brothel across the street, and the children often came to school without shoes. One day, two men who'd spent time in jail after the principal caught them selling drugs to students returned to the school and threatened the faculty. Pishney quit soon after. "I would have stuck it out and tried my best," she explains, "but when your physical safety is involved, I say, 'Time to go.'"

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