A new school year usually guarantees changes for students — whether it’s a new teacher, a new subject, or a new friend.
But this school year is also guaranteeing changes for Denver Public Schools’ two most influential educators, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust and Susana Cordova. During summer break, Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced a reconfiguration of his cabinet that effectively made Whitehead-Bust and Cordova his top lieutenants when it comes to teaching and learning.
In their new roles (Whitehead-Bust is chief academic and innovation officer while Cordova is chief schools officer), no two people within the district’s bureaucracy will have more to do with what and how leaders lead, teachers teach, and students study.
Wanting to know more about their new roles, what they learned from last year, and what’s on their minds as a new school year starts, Chalkbeat reporters sat down with Whitehead-Bust and Cordova (and some chips and guacamole) earlier this month.
Kate Schimel: You guys worked together for a while now?
Alyssa Whitehead-Bust: We have.
Susana Cordova: You joined three years ago? It starts to feel like one really long school year.
KS: So then you know how to work with each other.
AWB: Yeah we’re getting to know each other. We’ve spent a lot of intentional time together. We spent several weeks together before you made a decision, talking about how do we want to work together? How do we want to be together?
SC: Alyssa’s going to be my work wife.
Nicholas Garcia: You two are close. We’ve established that. It’s interesting, Alyssa, that you said “before you made a decision.” What role did you have in this shift? Was this something Superintendent Tom Boasberg tasked you with, to kind of reimagine?
SC: Tom’s been grappling for a while. You know, we’ve made some really nice incremental gains. But when we look at the Denver Plan, incremental gains aren’t going to get us there. So he’s been really grappling with what is the right structure to help really accelerate the pace of reform.
AWB: I just want to add and I think this is really important. In my mind, organizational structure is contingent on the status of the organization. So I think the structure we formerly had served us really well for that moment in time. But we’ve come to a different place. We’ve evolved. We’ve got a new baseline. So to think about how we move from the current baseline to the expectations of the Denver Plan, now we need something different.
KS: So to make a comparison, for a school it might be the difference between “we don’t have systems in place” to “our staff’s on board. Let’s get ready to take the next big leap forward.”
AWB: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The theory is called contingency theory, that the structure that supports an organization is dependent on the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. One would imagine that as a learning organization, our strengths and weaknesses are different at different moments in time.
NG: That next leap forward for DPS is to 2020 and the Denver Plan.
AWB: Susana’s point is that we’ve been really successful in making several point gains every year and we’re nationally applauded for the fact that we’ve been on a positive trajectory for so many years because of Tom’s leadership, Michael’s leadership before him. And we know that that trajectory needs to look entirely different to meet the Denver Plan goals. So I think this is a very responsive move to think about how are we going to get where we need to be by 2020.
KS: If a parent were to wander up to you on the street and be like, “what do you and Susana do, each of your roles?” do you think you could give us that sort of understanding? Because we’re trying to wrap our head around it.
AWB: So my team is very much a service center, developing academic and innovation policy and practice. Susana’s team is very much about implementing those policies and practice. For them to be successful, we obviously need to be collaborating on both sides of that so I don’t want to suggest it’s a handing of a baton. It’s more like running alongside one another.
SC: We’re doing a lot of work from the support team side in terms of tiers of service, like what are the things you can just use as a school leader on your own and it’s on our website, it’s in a toolkit, you can access it, you can get at it. What are the things that need teams of people that go out and do coaching in your building or things like that.
NG: What was your big lesson learned last school year and how are you going to implement that learning into this coming school year?
SC: So I would say the concept of focus was really really critical for us. One of the places where we’ve seen some bright spots in terms of gains has been a couple areas where we saw very intense focus. So the progress of our English learners on TCAP, Lectura, and Access is one of the places where we saw really nice gains, nice movement.
(Editor’s note: Access assessments measure English proficiency levels of students identified as English language learners. Lectura is the Spanish language version of the reading test.)
It was an area of incredible focus on always setting up the right teacher training,making sure kids are in the right classrooms, making sure that we had the right structures, more than we’d had as a district in the 20-plus years I’ve been in the system for sure. And it definitely paid off in terms of that level of focus.
Another area, at least our early analysis is some really nice gains around math tutoring that was a really focus at some specific grade levels.
NG: So what are you going to be focusing on this year? How are you going to be applying that this year?
AWB: I think I would say what you heard me talk about earlier, the label “executional excellence,” focus is an enormous part of that. That is an enormous lesson learned for all of us. So I think the idea for this year is how do we really ensure some consistency and coherence around a whole variety of strategies — some as simple as using the same vocabulary.
KS: To take that down to the ground, what might be different about the experience of a teacher in a classroom this year?
SC: So things like LEAP (DPS’s teacher evaluation tool). We’ve got a really great framework and some really good systems for peer observers and principals to observe and give feedback to teachers. What we really want to work on this year is how are we getting into classrooms, how are we setting the expectations. So the focus this year is how do take what we’ve learned about observational feedback and turn it into these smaller, more manageable opportunities for teachers to focus, practice, get better and measure it.
KS: So that’s essentially going to be a change in the principal’s day. So they might go into a classroom for ten minutes, tell that teacher at lunch, “hey this is what I saw”—
SC: Or tomorrow at the latest.
KS: And come back the next week and see if it made a difference.
AWB: That’s exactly right.
NG: I want to get into a couple specific issues from last year that might turn into trends for the coming year. There were a lot of apparent changes happening to some pretty high-profile high school communities in late spring — changes at George Washington and at East and Manual. We heard some very vocal parent backlash. What are your takeaways?
SC: I was a DPS grad and have worked in DPS for my entire career. So I’m not really surprised by the kind of backlash that we experienced and will say — kind of humbly — that I don’t know that we always go into these large, really complicated situations, with all of the right information, with all of the right community engagement strategies.
I don’t know that we get all of the pieces right. What is pretty clear in the couple of examples that you talked about that we could have done a better job in how we do that.
What I will say is that where parents are, but not just where parents are but where communities are, schools are really important to people who have a long history in the community.
People are really committed and caring about the concept of what they believe their school has to offer. Whether or not the concept of what they believe the school can offer and what the school is actually offering is sometimes not well synced. And sometimes what it’s offering to some kids versus what it’s offering to other kids is also not always well synced.
AWB: One of the elements of the Denver Plan is that by 2020, 80 percent of schools in every neighborhood must provide a quality option to families who live in that neighborhood. fully concur that we have a lot of learning to do on how we engage in those conversations in a manner that leaves everybody feeling heard and respected and also allows us to push with urgency to make sure that all kids do have access to the kind of education they deserve.
NG: So on the East side, we had parents who were angry because there was change coming or apparent change coming, On the West side, we saw parents that were angry because they feel change isn’t happening fast enough.
SC: I know.
NG: Did you hear their message and if you did, what’s the game plan in southwest Denver?
SC: Yeah, you know, I was really engaged in the southwest Denver process and Alyssa’s team was for sure. It’s really clear we need to do a better job for our kids in southwest. It’s certainly the case at Kepner. We’re really hard at work in terms of trying to recruit a leader for the district-run school at Kepner, as well as thinking about the region and how we can do a better job for the kids that are there right now. And this is a place where I feel like we have to — it’s a moral imperative for us to learn from our colleagues in our charter schools. Because same kids, same region, much different performance. We have the obligation to learn from what is working in those place and replicate it. So that’s definitely one of the highest priorities that I have is how do I help our leaders, our teachers and the networks learn from what is working in other places.
NG: Is there a specific timeline or anything that you can share as a big next step for you?
SC: One of the things that I’m starting with is how can we set up a consultancy around what is happening currently in specifically some of those southwest Denver schools and inviting folks from Alyssa’s team, folks from our charter schools, to come listen to “here’s our approach to managing these schools. Here’s our problem. Let’s engage around what we’re getting right, what we’re getting wrong” so that we can really embrace that opportunity for conversation.
NG: We’ve talked a lot about the Denver Plan. A blue or green school in almost every neighborhood. Name your exemplar for the current district-run school that’s already or very closely meeting the goals of the Denver Plan.
AWB: I think McMeen Elementary has just consistently knocked it out of the park. They are incredibly diverse, serves a population of students for whom in other schools we are trying to get it right. And they get it right.
SC: There are like 100 different languages spoken at McMeen.
AWB: And they’ve been blue for years.
KS: Is there a story that folks should know about that they don’t know about, whether it’s about a school, whether that’s about a moment you had in a classroom?
AWB: I’d say there were a few. At Grant Beacon students there are really starting to own the school culture. The emphasis in that building has been on student leadership and seeing the influence that’s had on student culture and engagement and then on outcomes.
SC: A place some really great things are going on at the classroom level is Skinner Middle School and both around this idea of kids knowing and owning their data and their performance and their academic core classes. But I was in a Skinner Spanish class with seventh graders and I have a seventh grader myself in a Spanish class in our district and I was just so intrigued at what a great classroom culture this teacher had set up. Other teachers from other schools were there. They were watching, they were briefing her. It was just a fabulous example on multiple levels. What it did the for the kids, what it did for the school, what that teacher was doing for her teacher colleagues from around the city was great.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.