American Education Week profile: how Jennie Schmaltz combined learning for students, professionals into school success

A statewide teacher shortage is causing Colorado school districts to relook at how they attract a new teacher to enter the classroom and stay for many years. Teacher Jennie Schmaltz has been a fixture at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary for 10 years, and she’s on a mission to keep her fellow teachers motivated to stay by focusing on their professional learning.

“There’s a lot of professional development out there that’s sort of fluffy, that doesn’t address the real needs, that talks about issues on a surface level. Effective professional development needs to dig deeper,” said Schmaltz, a member of Aurora Education Association. “Teachers need something that they can take back into the classroom and see results. Teachers need buy-in and they need to understand why this learning is the most effective use of their time.”

Schmaltz typically spends half of her day teaching students with the other half devoted to her colleagues, helping develop their classroom practice as a district ‘teaching partner.’ She strives to deliver what she calls “incredibly focused and incredibly purposeful” professional learning, and she saw very encouraging signs that her work was making a difference in the 2015 TELL Colorado Survey, a biannual polling of teachers on many areas of job satisfaction. Elkhart teachers reported much higher satisfaction in all 13 survey questions posed on professional development, compared with statewide teacher results.

Elkhart’s commitment to professional learning is correlating with dramatic improvements in student success, breathing life into the school slogan Every Kid Can. “Elkhart has had a really unique story because for the last four years, we’ve been improving at a rate that is not often attributed to a school with demographics like ours,” said Schmaltz, noting 72 percent of the school’s students are English language learners and 94 percent receive free or reduced lunch. “Last year we really broke the ceiling, our growth rates are just amazing.”

In fact, when Schmaltz first heard of a surprise school assembly at Elkhart, Oct. 26, she assumed the Colorado Department of Education was honoring her principal, Ron Schumacher, with special recognition “because he’s done such amazing things, not just for the school, but for the community and the district too. So it was a complete surprise when they called my name.”

Schmaltz won the Milken Educator Award that day from the Milken Foundation, a philanthropy organization with a philosophy that children are the future and the future goes to the educated. “It’s very closely aligned with my educational philosophy,” Schmaltz explained. “These children will grow up to be the voters, the leaders, the business owners – particularly bilingual children in a community like mine because these kids have such grit and resilience. These are the kids who are going to come up and be true leaders in future society.”

Schmaltz said she is impressed the Milken Foundation seeks to highlight educators who are in their early to mid-careers. “This isn’t a lifetime achievement award. It’s really a promise for me to go out and do more.

“I’m very honored to be a member of this club of Milken educators. More than that, I’m honored to be a member of this school,” Schmaltz added. “I say repeatedly that I simply would not be who I am without the mentorship and leadership of my administration and everything that I’ve learned from our teachers. Any of the teachers here at Elkhart could’ve won that award easily, and so I’m very humble that it was me.”

Early career plans pointed to sports broadcasting, but Schmaltz said she stumbled into her calling after talking with mother, a retired teacher, and soon found teaching “is the work that I am made to do.” In this position, she continues to experience the delight in seeing her students gain knowledge and progress, but she can also expand her reach and bring her experience into more classrooms. “Instead of just me, one teacher, being able to have that impact, now I have fifteen teachers that I’m working with, changing their practices and their understandings and their beliefs, so that they can have that impact. It just is exponentially greater.”

Schmaltz said she’s most often asked what she’s going to do with the award’s $25,000 prize. Her initial instinct was to help her school, but said the Foundation was insistent that award winners personally spend the money “because teaching comes at a financial sacrifice.” So she’s planning a first-time family trip to Scotland to explore her heritage after her husband, a Colorado Army National Guardsman, returns from a training school.

The Colorado Education Association is proud to celebrate accomplishments of Jennie Schmaltz during American Education Week. Observed this year Nov. 14-18, #AEW2016 is a week to honor teachers and education support professionals for all they do to support children.