Q&A: Former UnidosUS Staffer
Callie Kozlak Talks about Helping Latino Students and Els as AZ’s Associate Superintendent of Policy and Government Relations

An English learner in a Tucson school practices his written English. Photo by Julienne Gage.

UnidosUS Consultant Rae Jung conducted this interview and edited it for clarity. 

A few weeks after the 2018 midterm elections, Callie Kozlak, then UnidosUS’s Field Campaign Manager for the Education Policy Project, shared the stage with State Superintendent-elect of Arizona Kathy Hoffman at UnidosUS’s Education Summit in Phoenix. This gathering presented an opportunity to align UnidosUS’s advocacy with the state’s upcoming education platform, especially since Latinos make up 46% of Arizona’s K-12 student population, and many of them are among the state’s 75,000 English learners. During her campaign, Hoffman had vowed to work toward closing the achievement gap for students like these, and a few weeks after she stepped into her new role, Kozlak joined her as her Associate Superintendent of Policy and Government Relations. This month, Kozlak spoke with Progress Report to learn more about that work.

Q: You’ve been at the ADE for just over a year. How have you transitioned from managing state education policy campaigns for UnidosUS to working inside the government? How have you applied your experiences from UnidosUS to inform and influence the conversation about Latino students Arizona?

Callie Kozlak.

A:  It is very different working inside the government than in an advocacy role. A part of our agency’s role is carrying out state statutes and federal law, which are important parameters to what we do. But, I have carried out the spirit of UnidosUS, by advocating for Latino students through our different communications platforms. We help raise awareness and relay policy ideas in the legislature. Another important role is helping stakeholders navigate the technicalities of government, like clarifying jurisdiction. We share with folks what we know, so they can become more effective and better advocates. Our superintendent Kathy Hoffman also uses her bully pulpit to speak to and meet with stakeholders, including Latinos and other groups focused on that community’s academic achievement and wellness. Plus, I partner with the superintendent to engage the network of people I’ve met through UnidosUS.

Q: Last year, UnidosUS sponsored legislation in Arizona to give voters a chance to repeal the state’s restrictive policies on instruction for English learners and to adopt dual language programs. The legislation has been reintroduced in 2020. How is the Arizona Department of Education playing a role in this potential change in policy? How has the conversation in the state developed around that topic over the last year?

A: It is exciting legislation! It was exciting to see the bipartisan support it had last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t cross the finish line. But there is a lot of momentum and support behind it this year. Polling data last year showed Republican and Democratic voters in all age groups really supported it, which really helped shop it in the legislature. Polling data last year showed Republican and Democrat voters in all age groups really supported it. In fact, it had the approval of six out of ten voters, which really helped shop it in the legislature.The superintendent has used her communications platforms to draw attention to it, including in her State of Education speech given to the legislature in February. We’ve answered people’s technical questions about the law, helped people navigate the policy pieces, and put out information to sustain the momentum and support needed from both the stakeholders and legislators. This includes distributing a FAQ about its impacts. Because of the superintendent’s call-to-action, we also have seen the business community support this as part of their agenda.

Q: Half of Arizona’s K-12 students are Latino. How are you working to close the opportunity gap for Latino students and English learners?

A: Latino students are the majority in Arizona schools. As a core part of our student population, they are impacted by all the department’s policies. To speak about what these students need, our Latinx Advisory Committee brings together outside voices from these communities and recommends ways to better serve them. This includes increasing access to dual enrollment courses, so students can access rigorous college level courses at an earlier age and have an important pathway to post-secondary education. We also have heard from superintendents, including those serving large Latino student populations, that Career Technical Educational (CTE) programs offer important educational opportunities. Historically, there’s been concern with tracking in CTE programs, but I think, in Arizona, CTE programs are integrated into the high school experience, so students experience a traditional academic side, while also exploring hands-on learning.

Following legislation passed last year, the Department’s Office of Language Acquisition has worked with the state board and outside experts to develop an evidence-based framework that districts are required to use to support English learner students. Districts also identify various models they want to use. This evidence-based change from an English as a first language approach gives districts more opportunity and flexibility to implement more dual language programs.

Q: We know that access to quality early childhood education (ECE) is a factor in setting students up for success, so we’re curious to know what work the Arizona Department of Education might be doing on this topic. Is there a push to incorporate universal pre-K, for example? What impact would improvements to early learning have to K-12 achievement in Arizona?

A: Unfortunately, the state is not making a comprehensive investment in ECE now. Some schools don’t even have full day education. A lot don’t have dedicated funding for kindergarten. At the state level, no targeted funding for pre-school exists, so there is a lot of work to be done. To those ends, the department is involved with a voter approved initiative from 2006 called First Things First that funds scholarships for early childhood care for low-income families. It also measures the quality of service providers which overlaps with ECE.

The U.S. Department of Education gave Arizona a Pre-School Development Grant to improve early childhood systems and to create slots, additional spaces in kindergarten classes for students. Unfortunately, that funding—80 million dollars over four years—ended in 2018. Arizona House Bill 2806 has proposed $20 million a year to help restore those kindergarten slots, but with its big price tag, it’s unclear if it will pass.

I feel like ECE lives just in little pockets across the state in terms of responsibility and funding. To support ECE advocates, we want to create an asset map showing where ECE related funding exists and to call out those gaps, so we can better figure out the right levels of state investment to develop ECE more comprehensively.

Q: The Arizona Department of Education has created an equity officer position. What is their role and what advice would you give advocates to move the needle on education equity in Arizona?

A: We were very excited to be the first state education agency to have this type of leadership position. Since this role is unprecedented, the team is still defining how it can serve key issues. Our Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Erica Maxwell is looking throughout the department to ensure we work through an equity lens and see where we can innovate. She also convenes stakeholders and others working on equity issues to hear what interests them. I collaborate with her to amplify the best policy ideas.

Our Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan seeks to measure how well different schools serve students academically and on equity, including looking at absenteeism and which schools offer after school programs. Such indicators turn broad equity concepts into concrete policy concerns. Stakeholders also care about discipline, but, statewide, we don’t have great data. Whether through legislation or another mechanism, we want good data on what is driving decision making on discipline. Hearing various voices at our policy meeting on our Drop-Out Recovery Programs will also help us shape better policy, expand access, and improve outcomes.

Arizona has many different communities, not just ethnically and racially, but some schools are in very remote areas, some are in more rural, or urban, or suburban areas. Depending on the communities, we want data to drive appropriate policy solutions and recommendations specific to their resources.