Susana Cordova, a former teacher and principal who currently works as one of Denver Public Schools’ senior administrators, will be acting superintendent from January to July, when top boss Tom Boasberg is on a six-month unpaid leave.
Cordova currently serves as chief of schools. In that role, she’s in charge of traditional district-run schools and innovation schools, which have more autonomy when it comes to things such as hiring teachers and setting the school calendar. (Another administrator, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, is in charge of charter schools.) Cordova oversees the leaders of district-run and innovation schools, including the principals, and helps put policy into practice.
The seven-member school board voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint her acting superintendent.
“She’s an extraordinary leader,” Boasberg said, “and she truly represents the best of the Denver Public Schools. She is so thoughtful and innovative and courageous and caring and passionate.”
“I’ve been so impressed in the time that I’ve been on this board with Susana’s knowledge of everything that goes on in this district at every level,” said board member Mike Johnson. “She’s so incredibly hardworking. She’s so honest and she’s patient and gets along with people extremely well.”
Cordova said she is humbled and excited.
“This is not a chance for us to pause,” she said. DPS students only have one shot at the grade they’re in, Cordova added. “It’s full speed ahead.”
Cordova is expected to lead the district through several big issues next year, including teacher contract negotiations, contentious decisions about which schools to close and which to open, and preparations for asking voters in November to approve tax increases, in the form of a bond and mill levy, to improve school buildings and pay for additional programming.
Cordova and Boasberg mentioned other priorities as well, including continuing to work on teacher training and early literacy efforts and continuing to provide individual schools more flexibility when it comes to decisions such as which curriculum and tests to use.
Boasberg announced last month that he plans to take six months off to live and travel in Latin America with his wife Carin and three kids: Nola, 15; Ella,13; and Calvin, 11.
In a letter to DPS staff on November 16, he explained that his family hopes “to learn to speak Spanish well, to learn about different cultures and to spend a lot more time together as a family than I have been able to spend over these years as superintendent.” The family lives in Boulder.
The board voted on Tuesday to amend Boasberg’s contract to allow him to take the unpaid leave. The contract amendment says Boasberg will be gone from January 4 through no later than July 15, and that he won’t receive compensation during that time. His contract goes through 2017.
The board also approved a contract for Cordova. It says she will be paid an additional $1,666.66 for every month she serves as acting superintendent. Cordova’s current annual salary is $196,000.
In addition, the board members elected Anne Rowe to serve as board president. Rowe was previously vice president.
“We all have a role to play,” Rowe said, “and I am surrounded by leaders.”
Rowe will take over from Happy Haynes, who was president for the past two years. Haynes narrowly won re-election last month, edging out a competitor critical of the district’s direction to hold on to her at-large board seat.
Before the election, the Denver Board of Ethics recommended that if Haynes were re-elected, she abstain from continuing to serve as an officer. Haynes sought the ethics board’s opinion after Mayor Michael Hancock appointed her head of the city’s parks and recreation department in September.
“The demands on your time and energies in your dual roles…would appear to make this a prudent choice that you are in the best position to ultimately evaluate,” the board opined.
However, on Tuesday, Haynes was elected secretary of the board. Board member Rosemary Rodriguez was also nominated but she declined, explaining that the next year would be busy for her.
Board member Barbara O’Brien, who served as lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011 before being elected to the DPS board in 2013, was chosen as vice president. Johnson was elected board treasurer.
Rowe, who represents southeast Denver, easily won her re-election campaign last month. New board member Lisa Flores also won an open seat to represent west and northwest Denver.
Their victories ensured that all seven board seats are occupied by members who are supportive of Boasberg’s efforts to reform DPS. Under Boasberg, the district’s strategies have included closing underperforming schools, paying teachers based partly on how their students do on tests, and authorizing a mix of new charter schools and traditional district-run schools.
But those reforms have produced mixed results. Enrollment has grown to more than 90,000 students and those kids are showing improvement on state tests compared to their peers
However, scores from tests taken in the spring of 2014 showed that just 60 percent of DPS third-graders were proficient in reading and math. And achievement gaps between white and minority students are large and widening. While black and Latino students are making gains, white students are improving at a faster rate. District- and school-level results from new standardized tests taken in the spring of 2015 are due to be released later this month.
Cordova is a Denver native and a graduate of Lincoln High School. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver and has a master’s degree in education administration, and curriculum and instruction, from the University of Colorado.
She started her teaching career at Horace Mann Middle School in northwest Denver, where she taught English and Spanish in a dual-language program. She went on to teach English and English as a Second Language at West High School and eventually became the principal of the now-shuttered Remington Elementary School, also in northwest Denver.
Her biography on the DPS website notes that students at Remington made gains on state reading tests during her tenure, which ended in 2002. The school was closed in 2008 due to low enrollment and performance. The academic programs at West and Horace Mann have since been reinvented for similar reasons.
Cordova joined the DPS administration in 2002, first serving as the district’s literacy director. Over the past 13 years, she has worked on several key projects, including the design of ProComp, the pay-for-performance program for teachers; the creation of LEAP and LEAD, the systems that measure the effectiveness of teachers and principals; and the redevelopment of the district’s approach to educating English language learners.
She began her current position, as chief of schools, in 2014. Cordova said her duties will likely be split between other staff members while she’s serving as acting superintendent.
Editor’s note: DPS board president Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. Frank Rowe’s position is not part of Chalkbeat’s news operation.