By Ben Hershelman
Jeffco Public Schools is one of the largest and most influential school districts in the country. To be successful here takes a special kind of leader that can handle the idea that their net is going to be cast wide and the significance of their decisions will be large. Despite its large size, our district often feels a bit like a small town, so when someone who has been around for a long time and has cast a wide net, the impact has been felt. It is difficult to find a corner of our school district that has not been touched by Dr. Blanche Kapushion, the current, but soon to be retired director of Gifted and Talented education. Dr. Kapushion has taught all over the district and held just about every type of teaching position there is. Additionally, Dr. K has also spent a good deal of her life advocating for the needs of GT learners. We sat down with Dr. K to gather some of her thoughts as she moves on to the next phase of her life.
Ben Hershelman: For those of us who are still staring down the road at a lot of years of work left, what is it like to wake up every morning and see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Blanche Kapushion: I think the real feeling is, is that I am headed toward the next opportunity. I am not done in education. I tell people I am not retiring from life; I am just retiring from Jeffco. It is only because other opportunities are aligning and my passions are broadening that I choose to retire at this time.
I will continue to be an advocate. I will continue to provide consulting and conversation with anyone who wants to listen to my thoughts or ideas. I will continue to do professional learning in gifted education as well as educational leadership. Some of this will come at the school implementation level. Some of it will come at the university level. I have been an adjunct professor at Regis University for over 10 years in the field of gifted education as well as educational leadership and educational research. That is where I will be feeding my passion for teaching and learning and I will continue to do that, no matter what.
I am looking at the next 10 years at a minimum, of influencing and being a part of education in Colorado, just in a different modality. Going back to your question, the part that I really think about is the freedom to influence education in a different way. I am not tied to one school district. I can look at education throughout the state of Colorado, nationally and internationally. I will be working with Dr. Betts and Dr. Carey in updating the Autonomous Learner Model. We will be conducting professional learning and development nationally and internationally. This is all just the next step. It is the freedom to do more at a different level.
BH: Before you gain your freedom, would you like to give us a rundown of all of the different Jeffco buildings you have worked in?
BK: My first couple of years in Jeffco, I was a substitute teacher because I did not know if I wanted to go into the education world, medical field, or food service and open up a restaurant. I love cooking, and I love people. If I was not an educator, I would be cooking and talking and loving on people in that way. In those first two years I learned that I really gained energy from working with kids. I started in a long term sub position at Russell Elementary. I finished out that year in Fremont Elementary, both in sixth grade.
I was then hired at Pleasant View Elementary in Golden where I taught fourth, fifth and sixth for four years. I went to Secrest Elementary and I taught sixth grade for a few years. After a few years with sixth graders, I taught third grade, which was a joyous year. I built the confidence to work with primary age kids.
Following my years at third grade, I tried first grade for a year – and that was the hardest job ever. Ever. I could not wait to get back to sixth grade! I was good at teaching first grade, I did it, I learned a lot, but teaching first grade taught me that where I belonged was with sixth graders. It was a full inclusion classroom, too. Teaching first grade was satisfying, gratifying, but I have never done anything harder. My next stop was at Swanson where I taught sixth grade for a while followed by a stop at Semper for more of the same.
After many years as a classroom teacher, I became the program coordinator for Windy Peak Outdoor Lab. One of the reasons I loved teaching sixth grade was I enjoyed going to outdoor lab. At that point I was working on my principal licensure and my PhD. When I dove into that program, it was not feasible for me to live in Bailey and driving to Denver to work on my program. So, at that point I accepted a position at Betty Adams as the Success for All Roots and Wings reading reform model facilitator. That role was somewhat like being an instructional coach. I used the data from four Jeffco schools for my dissertation. After Betty Adams I was the assistant principal at Mitchell in Golden, then on to Kyffin Elementary, which housed a GT Center, for 6.25 years. Finally, I wrapped up my Jeffco career as the director of Gifted and Talented for the last eight years.
BH: So who were some of the people who mentored you through your career?
BK: My very first years of teaching there was an educator named Robin Dodich. She taught sixth grade at Russell. I used to sub for her a lot. It was because of her that I got my long term sub position at Russell. She continued to be a confidant and a friend and a colleague until her passing. I learned a lot from her, especially in the area of classroom management. Likewise, at Russell there was a teacher named Gracie Ramirez who taught fifth grade, and she became my mentor on the spot.
At Pleasant View, John Johnson who taught third grade, helped me get my feet on the ground in a new building. Then, Dave Radovich, who was a master teacher, taught me the art of how to engage kids through questioning. He modeled and coached me in the “teacher as a facilitator mindset.” Finding out what kids, know, want to know and need through questioning was his way of thinking and teaching.
Another mentor, going back to student teaching was Paul Grull, a teacher at Foster Elementary. When I was in high school I would go into Mr. Grull’s classroom and complete student assistant hours. At that time I was certain I was going to go into the medical field. I just went to help out, but as time went on, watching the magic that he created and the connection he had with his students was inspiring. He was a very creative teacher. He did a lot of music and drama and integrated science. I thought that would be a really cool way to teach, but again, at this time, I was not going to be a teacher. To this day, I think about him when I visualize a master teacher.
Radovich and Grull also led a lot of adventure trips and I always went with them. They are the people I model our current Hawaii adventure trip after. They are always in the back of my mind when planning student adventure and travel. I know what it is like when kids are away from home and they have to hike for long distances, be self-reliant, be a member of a team and be dependent on each other. When you watch the personal growth that happens on an adventure trip, you know those young people will become successful adults. Whenever we can do adventure learning or student travel, I know that we are providing learners an opportunity to grow into confident adults, which is really important to me.
There was also an administrator who was my guiding light; her name was Pat Termin. She believed in me and hired me as the principal at Kyffin. She was my sounding board, my mentor, my sense maker. Pat is one of the reasons that I was a successful principal and educational leader.
BH: Drawing on all of your time in Jeffco, what is uniquely Jeffco? What do we only have in our school district?
BK: I think that there are a couple of things. I think the overarching umbrella of Jeffco’s magic is choice programming. Parents have the opportunity to find the learning environment that matches their child’s needs. When you think about the opportunity provided at outdoor lab, we have a common life changing experience extended to our sixth graders. When you think about the depth and complexity of our outdoor education program, it is one of the best in the country. The other one is what we do every day. It is our GT Center programs. Every day, we are providing kids with high cognitive potential the opportunity to be with like-minded peers. We are giving them the opportunity to thrive. That is unique to Colorado as well as our country as a whole. I think individualized instruction and seeing kids as individual learners is a piece of magic from Jeffco’s past that we will continue to see into the future. Jeffco is a pretty special school district.
BH: Is the magic what kept you here your whole career?
BK: I have been all over this country. Knowing what we have in Colorado and in Jeffco is pretty special and foundational. I love Colorado. I would never leave Colorado. If I did, it would have to be an exotic place like Tahiti in a grass hut, teaching kids on the beach.
BH: How has public education changed for the better throughout your career?
BK: That is not a fair question because I think that Federal legislation like NCLB was a travesty for public education. It raised the bar for some kids, and that is good, but it left the top quartile behind. I think having content standards is a good thing so that there is a foundational standard of what is being taught and expected to be learned. The problem though is that people see the standard as the norm, and not the floor. So now people are teaching to the floor and we have not raised enough kids above the standard. Teachers over the last twenty years have struggled with how to continue to infuse creativity and push kids beyond the standard. They have also struggled to see kids as individuals and individualize their learning. The pendulum is starting to shift back to starting to look at assessment and standards and laws differently.
I think the future of public education will be interesting and continue to evolve.
BH: Besides NCLB, is there anything else that you would like to be able to take back that you have witnessed in your career?
BK: I think that the emphasis on grades and grading should be reconsidered. I think there needs to be more feedback loops and letting kids learn as a cycle and not a one and done. I think that is the joy and art of lifelong learning. Our system is set up with time blocks and schedules and a lot of structures that I would like to see change. Kids do a ton of learning outside of school and I would like to see that learning be honored through competency and mastery evaluations.
BH: If you could write yourself a letter that your 25 year old self would read, what would you tell yourself?
BK: I think that the letter would tell me to be expecting the unexpected and to be ready to step through the doors that open. I had a career mindset. I thought I was going to be an elementary teacher for 35 years. I thought I was going to teach every grade level including kindergarten for five years and then retire. I learned when I taught first grade that I was not going lower. I was going back to the intermediate grades. I never planned to be a program coordinator, or in leadership or a director of gifted, but the doors opened. The opportunities were there. I had mentors who believed in me and what they saw in me, even when I didn’t see it in myself. I would tell myself to take the risk and listen to those encouraging voices.
BH: So if you were sitting here with a high school senior who was about to start down a path that would lead them to public education, what advice would you give to them?
BK: Find your passion. I would say find what grade level or content or topic you are passionate about and start there. Build on that passion. If you are a history buff and you love timelines, then use all means to teach that content with creativity and integration and passion. Integrate everything you need to know about that time in history and let kids dive into it. Let them feel your passion and create your own meaning
BH: What were some of the forces that pushed you from classroom to administration?
BK: People go into administration for one of two reasons. They want to right the wrongs they see or they have innate leadership ability. I found out that this was true. People I have worked with are motivated for those reasons. I think I had both. I did not know that I had leadership potential, but I had this strong sense of justice. I had this drive to correct some wrongs or injustices that I perceived. When I kept my focus on doing what is right for kids, being a servant leader and building a learning community, I knew I was an effective leader.
BH: In that vein, one of the things that you have excelled at is your ability to put together a team of people that will work well together to achieve a common goal. What are some of your theories around building a great team?
BK: The very first thing that I do is make sure that I have people who have passion and drive and that their passion and drive parallels or compliments my passion and drive. When I know that our department mission and vision is focused on providing the best educational opportunities for gifted and talented learners and I know that we have hurdles and barriers in meeting that mission and vision, I need to know that I have people who are committed to being problem solvers and solving big picture issues. I stoke my engine by surrounding myself with people who can match my energy and others that can slow me down when they need to. I think when we have a common mission, vision and goals there is some internal synergy and magic that happens when we are all looking in the same direction.
Blanche with two members of the GT team, Matt Wilkinson and Lindsey Reinert.
I believe in people. I think that is one of the things that I do. I am an optimistic person. I choose to see the positive in people. I give people the benefit of the doubt, almost to a fault. There have been times that I have been burned, but I have no regrets because I learn from every situation.
BH: What initially got you interested in working with gifted children?
BK: When I was the principal at Kyffin we had a GT Center program, this was my first exposure to a large population of significantly cognitively gifted kids. Those kids and their social emotional needs intrigued me. They were also very creative in their naughty behaviors, and that intrigued me more. So I began to not look just at their academic growth, but also at how and why they did things. What intrigued me the most was how they thought and acted and why they thought and acted the way they did. It became apparent to me that their social emotional intensities and needs had to be dealt with in a different way. I knew they would be successful with their academics, but if their affective needs were not addressed, some difficult challenges and life altering events would create some hurdles for all of us to address. There is a dark side to giftedness if the whole child is not addressed.
BH: What was it like to be a gifted kid before gifted education was really a thing?
BK: I never felt challenged in school. I always just floated along. I blended into the background. One of my most traumatic memories of elementary school was when I was finally energized about a piece of writing about Abraham Lincoln. I remember including poetry, different types of creative writing and stanzas. I remember my teacher looking at me in the eye and tearing it up right in front of me in front of my face because she thought there was no way that I wrote it. I just remember the devastation that I felt. I had finally found a passion. I had finally found a creative outlet. I was finally motivated to produce a piece of writing that connected and then to have an adult dismiss it and tear it up and give me an F was pretty devastating. This made me go back underground as a gifted girl. In middle school I just trotted along. I did not have passion for learning again until I went in to college. That is where I began to study literature and write again. When I became a classroom teacher, I swore I would never do humiliate someone or doubt creativity.
BH: In the world of GT Education, who are your heroes?
BK: My number one hero is Dr. George Betts, the co-creator of the Autonomous Learner Model. The reason I love the ALM over all over models of GT education is the whole child focus. We know that there is a cognitive domain, but the affective domains are addressed from the beginning of time to the end of time. He talks about lifelong learners, and feeding your passions your whole life; learning outside the classroom.
I also admire Dr. Joseph Renzulli. He would be my number two. He has an integrated approach through his enrichment models. He pushes a lot of critical thinking and discussion and creating meaning. It is wonderful.
To round off my top three, I admire in the world of GT Education is Dr. Jim Delisle. He is provocative and asks the tough questions. He challenges systems. He makes educators think.
Blanche and one of her heroes, Dr. George Betts.
BH: Looking at GT from the bird’s eye view of the director’s chair and the CAGT President’s chair, what has excited you most?
BK: When I think back to eight years ago and the progress we have made at the elementary and middle school level I am thrilled. We still have a ton to do to erase misconceptions at the secondary level, but we are getting there. We have come a long long way. Part of that is through legislation. We knew 9 years ago that if we wanted to make long lasting change we had to start not at the district level, but in the statehouse. So, through my advocacy work with CAGT, JAGC and The Academy we have influenced a lot of change in GT education legislation. I think that is the foundation, the bricks to the wall. School districts can build on that foundation. Some are doing so, reluctantly. Mostly because the majority of educational legislation are unfunded mandates. When schools embrace the needs of GT learners and understand the flexibility in the academic and social needs and the asynchronous development, the payoff is tenfold. I’m going to connect to a question from earlier- if we can de emphasize grades and look for competency and if we can understand the standards as the minimum of what is to be mastered and allow learning to exceed the “grade level” standard, and open the doors for all learning, we will all be better off.
BH: So would you agree that Colorado is a progressive state in terms of GT legislation?
BK: Yes, absolutely. We are in some ways leading the country. We are a very progressive state in this area. There are folks across the country that look at laws and structures in Colorado. In Jeffco we have a successful GT Center model that others look at and consider.Some schools and districts use the GT cluster model like ours which is also well known and successful. In some districts we have magnet schools; those are successful when done correctly. No matter where you are in Colorado, giftedness is accepted and addressed to some degree because of the legislation in place. There is an expectation that we, as a state, will meet the needs of GT learners. Not just in the academic realm, but in the social and emotional realm as well. To me that is 10 times more important than the academic needs. We need to take care of the asynchrony. If kids don’t feel safe, valued and heard, we can’t teach them to their greatest potential.
BH: Why do you think that some states have still not passed any mandated GT programming legislation?
BK: I think that it goes back to the myths around GT. There is this whole thing around elitism. If you have a cognitive gift and you are elevated, all those stereotypes come out. Smarty pants, brainiac, know it all. There are all of these negative images that are conjured up. If you have an athletic gift or a musical gift or an artistic gift, you are elevated and nurtured in an unbiased, non demeaning manner. It is all about myths and misconceptions.
BH: What are 3 things you would like to see change in the next five years in GT education?
BK: I would like there to be a common understanding around the academic and affective needs of advanced and gifted kids. They are so emotionally intense, they are misunderstood. That’s the first thing, the idea of seeing kids as individuals before we begin to teach them
The second thing I would like to see is to rethink the boxes that we put around our education system, those grade level or age lines should be erased or lightened so that kids can flex into the classes they need to continue to grow. They should be able to flex into a grade level, a content, or a school without being put in a box defined by age or grade.
The third thing I would like to see is some funding or money put into GT education. Until lawmakers, superintendents and principals understand the needs of GT learners and what they need to be successful in their educational experiences; we are not going to elevate them properly. When people do finally understand our best and brightest, outside of the school system, there is a benefit. When we allow kids to be innovative and experiment and engage, we benefit as a society. Our economy thrives. Our health systems grow. Our businesses have a better pool of workers to draw from. It is kind of this multi layered conundrum.
BH: If you were standing in front of a school board that was looking at some tough budgeting decisions, what would say about cutting funding to GT support?
BK: I would elevate that gifted learners are a special population, a recognized categorical population in our state accountability systems. Just like we look at populations of non-English speaking students that need support, just like we look at kids with deficits, GT kids need support. Kids who have cognitive and creative assets need special supports. All special populations have unique needs. Just because we have a system of meeting standards, and GT kids meet those standards more easily, they still need access to other means of gaining knowledge and learning. They need advanced curriculum. They need to grow at the rate and pace their brain desires and they need intellectual like-minded peers. Every population has a need. I would not wish to be the wielder of that sword and say that because you have gifts I am going to cut your lifeline off and spend it on someone else. There has to be a sense of understanding and equity of understanding in the needs of all special populations.
BH: If someone were sitting in front of you wrestling with whether or not to become a GT Center teacher, but was on the fence about it, what would you tell them is the best thing about being a GT Center teacher?
BK: The first thing that I do tell teachers that are considering entering a GT center classroom, is that if they think they are stepping into an easy classroom, they are mistaken. Their teaching skills will be challenged every day because gifted kids learn at a more rapid rate. The kids will question everything. They expect more. They need more. They have melt downs. Their perfectionism or underachievement behaviors will pop up at any moment and you have to be able to tap dance and be ready for whatever lands on your stage. Your differentiation skills must be strong. Your critical and creative thinking skills will be tested. You will need to be a master facilitator because the questions they are going to ask are going to be way above any curriculum guidelines you are going to be able to get your hands on. That is just the academic stuff.
If a GT kid with a high sense of social justice comes into your classroom and has read something that has kept them up all night, you better know how to stop everything you are doing and address it, or their day is done, and so is yours. If you think gifted kids are going to be compliant learners and sit in rows and answer your questions, this is probably not the job for you. You are going to be dancing like water on a hot cake griddle. I have seen some of the best teachers go into a GT classroom and end up in my office with their own meltdown because kids have pushed them so far. It is a humbling experience, not for the weak hearted.
BH: Since you will no doubt be speaking at state and national conferences, what to you makes a great conference?
BK: Conferences are exciting to me when he information is new and relevant. The ideas presented are new and cutting edge, kind of risky. I love out of the box thinking and structures. Traditional education platforms are in the past. Our kids are different. Our access to info is different. We have to be as innovative and willing to take risks as the kids are. When I go to a conference I am looking for something that is going to spark my interest and push my boundaries, thoughts and ideas on education.
BH: What else is on the horizon for you professionally?
BK: One thing that I have said over and over is that I am disappearing from the face of the earth; I am just retiring from Jeffco public schools. I will still be available to advocate for learners and their families. I will still be leading professional learning. I will continue to be a professor at Regis. Books will be submitted to publishers and I will be co-presenting at state and national conferences. All of that will be funneled through the business we have established, Global Education Enterprises LLC. I am ready for the next chapter. I am gonna go ignite some passion for the next generation of educators. For me, it’s on to the next adventure.