As the search for Denver’s next school superintendent approaches a key juncture, support is mounting in some quarters for an internal candidate who many believe is likely a front-runner: Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.
At the same time, parents and other residents are calling on the board to name more than one finalist next week — preferably, three — and to give the community an opportunity to vet them. The chance for parents to provide feedback is especially important, they said, in a district with a poor reputation for transparency and what one mother called a “paternalistic pattern.”
“If we are only given one finalist, we will feel that the decision has already been made behind closed doors,” said another mother, Angela Tzul, who lives in the far northeast Montbello neighborhood, where tensions with the district are particularly high.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district and one known nationally for cultivating a “portfolio” of different school types, including independently run charter schools, and encouraging families to choose among them. The district serves nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black and come from low-income families.
This is the first time in 10 years the district has had to choose a new superintendent. Longtime leader Tom Boasberg, who was responsible for many of the reforms, stepped down last month. The school board is expected to name finalists next Monday and make a hire by Dec. 10.
The board has kept mum about how many finalists it is choosing — and who they are. When member Lisa Flores gave a public update on the search last week, she was careful to say “finalist/finalists.”
She did, however, provide a window into the search by revealing that the board interviewed seven candidates. They included two superintendents, two deputy superintendents, one state superintendent, and two non-traditional candidates, Flores said.
Any national search would likely extend to leaders of urban school districts with similar philosophies and student populations, such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and San Antonio. Here in Colorado, the administration of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is coming to an end in early January, and many top state administrators are likely looking for new jobs.
Cordova has said she’s interested in leading the district. She grew up in a Mexican-American family in Denver, graduated from high school here, returned after college to teach in the district, and worked her way up to principal, administrator, and now deputy superintendent. She served as acting superintendent for six months in 2016 while Boasberg was on sabbatical.
Fifty-six district principals, assistant principals, and program directors wrote a letter to school board members last week, urging them to choose Cordova. (Read the full letter below.) The school leaders called her “a hometown and homegrown exemplar” who has made the city proud and who “understands the nuances and complexities of our unique organization.”
“Her presence is calm and warm, yet urgent and motivating,” the letter says. “She understands the political climate of public education and is a fierce advocate for every child in Denver.”
Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, an elementary school in west Denver, was one of the school leaders who signed the letter.
“While we don’t know all the people (in the) running, we just wanted to voice our support for her to take the helm,” he wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.
Throughout August, September, and early October, the school board collected feedback from more than 4,500 people about the characteristics the next superintendent should have. In many ways, Cordova fits the bill. She is a person of color with both teaching and administrative experience, and a deep knowledge about the challenges facing Denver’s public schools.
She also has experience tackling those challenges, including the pervasive and persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families.
But her long track record is precisely why some people who are disillusioned with the district don’t want to see her promoted. They see the district’s failure to significantly close those gaps — or to hire more teachers of color, for instance — as her failures, too.
“Susana Cordova, I know you’re in here,” Montbello football coach Gabe Lindsay said at last week’s school board meeting during public comment. “We think you are going to be the next superintendent of DPS, which is concerning because Ms. Cordova does not have a track record of closing achievement gaps. She has the track record that this previous administration has.”
He cited a statistic that while 72 percent of white students were reading and writing on grade level last year, as determined by the state literacy test, just 28 percent of black students were.
If Cordova is selected, Lindsay said she needs to “come to the table with a plan to fix this district’s mindset that it is OK to leave students behind.”
Parents of students who attend charter schools have repeatedly said they’d like the next superintendent to be someone who values school choice — that is, making it easy for students to choose to attend a school that is not their assigned boundary school, such as a charter.
Other parents have railed against charter schools for draining students and money from traditional district-run schools. The teachers union has been critical, too, even trying to negotiate a moratorium on the publicly funded yet privately run schools into its latest contract.
Cordova’s entire teaching and administrative experience has been in district-run schools, but she hasn’t given any indication that she’d get rid of charter schools or the ability for families to use a single application to apply to any district-run or charter school.
“I’ve got kids in the district as well,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “Frequently, as I’m talking with friends who are parents or people in the neighborhood, they say, ‘It’s so much harder now. It was so much easier when you just went [to the school down the street].’ But the upsides are so much higher than any of the downsides, particularly when you get into the right fit for your kid.”
The school board is planning opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to meet the finalist or finalists and provide their input, though not many details have been announced besides the dates: Dec. 4 and 5. That’s less than week before the board is set to make its final decision.
This story has been updated to reflect that more principals signed the letter in support of Cordova.