New acting Denver superintendent Susana Cordova on how her DPS education transformed her life

Susana Cordova has a long history with Denver Public Schools. She’s been a student, teacher, principal, parent and senior administrator. Today, she starts her newest role: acting superintendent.

Cordova, 49, will serve in the district’s top spot until July, when longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg is expected to return from six months of unpaid leave. Boasberg is taking time off to live and travel in Latin America with his wife and three kids.

In light of Cordova’s new position, we spoke with her about what inspired her as a student, why she became a bilingual teacher, her thoughts on school turnaround and school choice, and how she intends to approach the job of leading the state’s largest school district.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about your background. How has it informed your work?

I grew up in Denver. I went to three schools: Barnum Elementary, Kepner — at that time — Junior High School, and I graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School.

My mother was a school secretary in the district the entire time I was growing up. DPS had a really big influence on my personal life and my professional life as a result. …

I was in DPS under desegregation and I felt like I got a really strong education. … And it definitely opened my mind to experiences that I very much would not have been able to have in my neighborhood or just through my family.

That has always been very impactful for me, to realize what kind of doors can be opened through school. That’s played a big role in my experience as an educator.

Can you tell me about an experience you wouldn’t have had but for DPS?

When I was in school, I was very motivated by the arts. My family didn’t grow up going to the theater or have a lot of experience with the arts. I got a lot of exposure through school. … I feel like it gave me a lot of concrete skills and a lot of confidence.

Did you act in plays?

At the time when I was in school, we had a program called Summer Theater. It was citywide. In the summertime, kids from all over the city came together to have sort of like variety show experiences. It was all completely in the arts.

In high school, it turned into musical theater. I did lots of theater in my school and I always participated in Summer Theater. I met kids from all over the city that way. Some of my longest lasting friendships came out of that. … In addition to learning the craft of theater and reading lots of plays, I also met kids from very, very different walks of life.

The district, at that point, didn’t have school choice. That was probably the closest thing to what I think our students are able to get now through choice — the opportunity to learn in an environment with kids who are motivated by a common interest. …

I loved it growing up. … It’s why I’m such a great believer in choice.

What was your favorite role?

We did a high school production of Gypsy. I played Mama Rose. That was a lot of fun.

After college, you returned to DPS to work as a bilingual teacher. Did you grow up bilingual?

I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college.

In honesty, I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time. I didn’t embrace that when I was in school, nor did it feel like that was a pathway to success, unfortunately.

I studied French in high school and minored in French in college (at the University of Denver). My senior year of college, I went through this big soul-searching and introspection around the role of culture in education and came out of it on the other side (with the understanding) that I had been really successful in school but it was in spite of negative messages I’d received rather than because of positive messages I’d received. There were too many kids from my neighborhood who weren’t successful, who bought into those negative messages.

I didn’t want our schools to be places like that. I went to Mexico and I did intensive Spanish language classes. I started working in a bilingual program: I taught English as a second language and Spanish as a second language — what would be dual language today.

The district was beginning some really dramatic demographic changes. When I was in high school, maybe less than 10 percent of students were English learners. … Then it dramatically, dramatically increased. It began in regions of the city and the longer I stayed in the district, the more widespread that shift became. The more kids we had and the greater the need.

When you were in school, where were those negative messages coming from?

I don’t know if it was intentional on the part of educators or not, but a lot of the message I heard growing up was that the way to be successful in school is to leave your culture behind and embrace a different culture, a culture of academics. The way to success is to get up and get out. …

I wanted to be the kind of educator who said to kids, “You can be successful, you can have choices and you don’t need to leave your community to do that.” It’s important for kids of all backgrounds to see (people) who look like them and who are successful. We need more diversity in our workforce and we need those messages to be really strong for kids.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned as a teacher?

The power of teams. It was not a huge emphasis in the district at the time. My first few years teaching, I was enthusiastic but probably not very great. I didn’t really have a strong team around me. It wasn’t until I found a team of teachers — for support but also the opportunity to plan together and work on units together and do more of that type of work — when it felt like my teaching got a lot better.

As a DPS teacher and principal, you worked at Remington Elementary School, Horace Mann Middle School and West High School — three schools that the district has closed or reinvented. How have those experiences influenced how you think about turnaround?

I grew up in west Denver. My mom attended West High and my mom is still involved there. … I have deep roots in the community. What we need to always be vigilant about is, how do we make sure students have access to the highest quality schools?

Schools play an important role in the community, but the level of quality has always got to trump an attachment to the nostalgia of a previous experience. I think it’s really important the role that schools play but if a school is not serving kids well, it’s not playing that role anyway. The memory of an experience attaches people to it. When we do go through turnaround efforts, we need to make sure that nostalgia is around the current conditions, not the memory of a condition. So we need to make sure students are learning and growing.

There are times when people do have attachments, particularly in high schools. It’s a big deal for people to think about, “What’s the legacy of the Thunderbolts?” or “What does it mean to be a Cowboy?” There are ways to preserve those aspects but also to say the level of education isn’t good enough and our kids deserve more.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the district?

Definitely it’s our emphasis on choice. I know that in particular, turnaround gets a lot of attention. We’re a dramatically different district because of choice. Turnaround is a result of choice: people realize they have more and more choices and they begin to vote with their feet. That’s a really important indicator of school health: how many people want to go to the school? We see really quickly when there are strong choices in a neighborhood and a lower performing school, that’s the lowest on the choice list. It’s important information for us when we’re running the schools.

It’s a really good thing for families to say, “This is a better school for my kid.” Sometimes when you’ve got equally strong performance, it’s a better school because of the model.

I’ve got kids in the district as well. 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.

How will you approach the acting superintendent position? I’ve heard you say that you want to keep the district on the same path, but you’re a different person than Tom. How will things be different when you’re in that job?

I have a 15-year-old daughter and one of her favorite things to tell me is, “You do you, Mom.” That’s probably the best advice I’m going to get.

The good news is our plans are well underway. So it’s not like we’re at a point where we’re trying to figure out what the work is. There are going to be daily decisions that come up, and I’m going to try as much as possible to use the mentoring that I’ve received from Tom along the way.

We’ve got a really strong team of people. … But at the end of the day, I gotta do me.

What does that look like?

I’m a huge believer in teams. I’m a huge believer in collaboration.

I can remember really clearly back to something that happened when I was a principal. I had spent a lot of time working on a budget proposal and I came up with what my best idea was. I presented it to the team — we had teachers and we had parents on the (collaborative school committee) — and a teacher came up with this other way of looking at it. I was like, “Oh, wow. I have never thought of that and that is a much better way.”

It was an important moment for me to realize that it’s important to come up with your best thinking but it’s equally important to have some space so others’ great thinking has a place at the table so you can make better decisions. I approach my work in that way. …

I don’t know if that’s dramatically different than the way Tom approaches things but it’s something I put a lot of emphasis on.

DPS has undertaken drastic reforms over the past ten years. Which reform is working best? Which reforms should the district move away from or tweak?

Both the reform movement of innovation, as well as what the board is doing around a coherent Denver Plan with an emphasis around schools as the unit of change, is the most important reform that we’ve undertaken. Largely because innovation, when it works well, is really about the people. It’s about having strong leaders and strong teams of teachers who are highly bought into a school plan and who then rally around their educational cause to help support student achievement.

What about a reform that’s not working as well?

All of our reforms have undergone tweaks and adjustments and changes. Turnaround is one of the things we’ve engaged in quite aggressively. Some of our examples have been much stronger than others. That’s a place where we’re constantly trying to figure out, what can we do to maximize opportunities for success because the stakes are so high?

This year, we introduced the Year Zero concept to try to have a school community with a leader to fully flesh out the plan, staff it, prepare staff and implement it. … In the past, I think, in that balance of urgency against thoughtful planning, we tipped over on the urgency side.

DPS remains committed to tying teacher evaluations to student performance as measured by test scores. But it seems public opinion is turning away from that somewhat. Do you believe those two things should be tied together? Why?

I believe it’s really important for us to be using measures of student growth with our teachers as we think about how well they’re doing. This year (because of changes in state tests), it’s all based on measures teachers develop in their classrooms. The whole idea is it’s important for every professional, including teachers, to be setting goals and monitoring progress toward meeting those goals and for that to be part of an overall statement of how a teacher is doing.

Do those measures have to be standardized tests?

When we feel like tests have valid information, it should definitely feed into it. It shouldn’t be the only thing that feeds into it. It’s important for us to use evidence of how well teachers are doing from observations, how well they’re doing in terms of professional practice, how well they plan — especially things that give us the ability to see a little bit more of the context that sometimes when you only look at test scores, you just don’t see.

That’s another reason why it’s important for it to be about growth and not just about status. Because if it were just about what’s the end result of a test, I think we could all predict based on where you live whether or not you’re going to, on the whole, have high test scores or low test scores. And that’s not what it’s about. It’s about, what are you doing to grow your students?

How did you first learn that you were being considered for the acting superintendent position? What did you think?

I had some time set up with Tom and we were doing a bunch of other stuff and at the end of it, he said, “Hey, now I want to talk to you about something else,” and he brought it up with me.

The truth is, I was really quite surprised. And incredibly honored and super intimidated. Largely because Tom has been a really strong superintendent and the idea of even trying to live up to that in some ways is incredibly intimidating. It’s a big district, it’s a lot of people — there’s definitely that part of it. There’s another part of me that feels like I absolutely know the district really deeply and really well and I’m really committed to our success and our mutual success…

I live in the city, my kids are in the district … I’m really honored and really excited for the challenge. And I’m really glad that I do have the experience I’ve had inside the district, but I also have colleagues throughout the nation who I feel I can rely on and learn from.

What does the future hold for you?

Denver is my home and it’s definitely where my heart is. I have a daughter who is in her first year of high school (at the Denver Center for International Studies … Cordova’s son graduated from DCIS in 2012 and is now in college.) I’m not super anxious to go someplace right away. It’ll be a nice six months for me to get a taste of what it’s like to be a superintendent, and I’ll be in a much better position to say what I want to do at the end of that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

I really have been reflecting on — my dad didn’t graduate from high school. My mom didn’t go to college. Both of them, their first language was Spanish. My life is complete evidence of the power of education to change lives. It would have been no easier for me to envision myself in a position like this in third grade than it would have been to think of myself landing on the moon. And it truly is because of the opportunities I had because of my education. I think that’s such a powerful message for our students and one I try to communicate every time I’m with kids.

You just don’t know where you’re going to end up, and school is going to take you there.