‘Without it being a fight’: In her first year, Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova tried to find common ground in a divided district

Susana Cordova’s first year as superintendent of Denver schools was marked by what one observer called a “torrent of change.” A month after she took office last January, the Denver teachers union went on strike for the first time in a quarter century.

To pay for the raises teachers won, Cordova in March slashed more than 200 positions from the district’s central office. And a historic election in November delivered her a new boss: a school board controlled for the first time by union-backed members.

Cordova, 53, weathered the changes. Her style, which combines deep listening with a disarming yearn for collaboration, was viewed by many as a refreshing change from years past.

“I feel like our lines of communication are very open,” said Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which historically had a contentious relationship with the district.

But when it comes to whether Cordova is leading the district in a better direction, many supporters and critics alike are taking a wait-and-see approach. With 93,000 students and more than 10,000 full-time employees, Denver Public Schools is, proverbially, a big ship to turn.

“They’re willing to sit down and talk and hear what we want,” said Brandon Pryor, a parent and fierce district critic. “Their willingness to execute and do what we want — that’s the question.”

A year in, he said, “there’s been little progress.”

The district still suffers from yawning academic gaps between white students and students of color. There is still resentment among teachers over past closures of struggling schools, and distrust among families. And though Denver’s test scores and graduation rates have risen steadily, fewer than half of all students are reading on grade level.

Cordova recognizes the monumental task ahead of her. But she said she’s proud of the work she did this past year “creating a different environment” in which to tackle it.

“We have big, big work to do,” she said. “One of my goals was to try to create space for work to happen without it being a fight.”

Making connections

Cordova is good at building relationships. The fact that she grew up in Denver, graduated from its public schools, and spent her entire career working in them makes it easy for her to find common ground with the people she interacts with every day.

When she walks into a school for a visit, she can talk to the secretary about how her own mother was a Denver school secretary for 28 years. She knows what it’s like to be a teacher stressed about testing or a principal worried about declining enrollment.

Cordova is also the first Latina to lead the Denver district, which is notable given that more than half of Denver students are Hispanic, and she speaks both English and Spanish. She and her husband sent their own children to Denver Public Schools; their youngest graduated last spring.

Cordova leverages these experiences to make connections, peppering her interactions with anecdotes that begin, “When I was a teacher…” Making connections has been a focus this year, and a main reason she’s been visiting schools in every part of the city.

What makes these visits different is that she often doesn’t have an agenda other than to listen. At PREP Academy last week, the principal led her to a student lounge, where a half-dozen teenagers sat on couches and stools. Each had been expelled from their previous high school before coming to PREP, one of the district’s schools for students who’ve struggled elsewhere.

The teenagers wanted to talk to Cordova about the district’s expulsion policy, which they were studying as part of a student leadership project. They had particular concerns about the expulsion hearing, at which a hearing officer listens to testimony and makes a recommendation.

“I feel the hearing is unfair,” a student named Anna said. “They have a paper. They read it. Then you say your side. They’ll tell you, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but it’s not on this paper.’”

A student named Jacky said her hearing officer warned her about PREP Academy. “I got told this was a school filled with criminals and to watch my back,” Jacky said.

“What’s been your experience?” Cordova asked.

“I love it,” Jacky said. “You feel welcomed.”

The students had another concern, too. They recently learned that because of their expulsions, a red flag shows up next to their names in the district’s student data management system, Infinite Campus. The students said the flag made them feel stigmatized, labeled as “bad kids.”

Cordova listened, alternately writing in a notepad and chewing on her pen cap. A few hours later, she was working through lunch at district headquarters, eating a salad as five administrators gave her updates.

It came up that principals were asking for more information about students transferring into their schools midyear — especially students who had been flagged in Infinite Campus, so they could have the proper support in place before a student arrives.

Cordova interjected, making a connection to what she’d heard at PREP earlier that day. The students, she said, “believe it is a flag about their behavior. Not a flag of, ‘Pay attention to the needs of this child,’ but a flag of, ‘This child is a threat.’”

The administrators nodded, taking notes.

“If anything,” Cordova said, “we need to make sure people understand the purpose of it.”

Equity as a cornerstone

To improve Denver Public Schools, Cordova has three “cornerstones:” collaborative teamwork, instructional excellence, and equity. The last one is nothing new; equity — or the idea that schools should strive to meet each student’s individual needs, rather than treat them all the same — has been one of the district’s core values for years.

But Cordova wants to take it even further, infusing equity into everything the district does. For too long, she said, the district’s approach to equity has been bifurcated: It’s not only about finding the right books to spark students’ curiosity. It’s also about creating an environment where teachers start by seeing students’ assets, not their challenges.

“You can’t talk about what quality math instruction looks like, and then on a different day or with different people talk about what does it mean to create greater equity,” Cordova said. “You have to talk about them together. It can’t feel like separate work or else it becomes competing work.”

Her reorganization of the district’s central office, which included cutting those 200 jobs, was meant to both free up money for teacher pay raises and remake the administration into a leaner machine focused on equity and the other cornerstones.

But Cordova said one of her regrets from her first year was not doing enough to support the central office staff who remained. She thought that with a new school year approaching, the slimmed-down team would quickly adapt to the new structure.

“It was a lot harder,” she said. “I don’t think we spent enough time rebuilding a strong culture.”

There were other missteps on her watch, too, including when a district human resources staffer sent an email warning immigrant teachers on visas that they would be reported to authorities if they went on strike. Cordova apologized for the email, saying it “was wrong.”

One of the most ubiquitous criticisms of Cordova is that, as a top administrator under previous superintendent Tom Boasberg, she shares the blame for the district’s problems. Some critics doubt she’s any different, while others want to give her a chance but fear she’ll continue to promote unpopular practices like school closure.

“She still has work to do to differentiate herself,” said school board President Carrie Olson, a union-backed member who is also a former teacher.

“It’s not just, ‘Is she Tom or isn’t she?’” Olson said. “It’s, ‘How is she becoming Susana?’”

Van Schoales, CEO of education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, predicted Cordova’s biggest test yet will be how she works with the new school board: “What does the new board want to do and how does that connect with Susana?”

The board is meeting with Cordova next week to talk about that. Thus far, Olson said she has been impressed with Cordova’s “willing to show up in a place where people are disgruntled to talk” and with her willingness to solicit feedback.

One example: Cordova started a teacher advisory council to hear teachers’ thoughts on a long list of issues they themselves identified, from class size to budgeting to burnout.

Last week’s council meeting was about testing, specifically the interim tests the district gives several times a year to check students’ comprehension. In an elementary school library, over crudites and cans of bubbly water, Cordova sat with a group of teachers and listened to their concerns about everything from the rigor of the tests to the seeming relentlessness.

“It’s like you’re constantly in this never-ending race,” said teacher Mario Galvan.

Galvan teaches third grade at Barnum Elementary, the school Cordova attended as a child. He’s been teaching for a decade, and is himself a Denver Public Schools graduate. He said he joined the council to be a voice for teachers who for years felt silenced by district leaders.

While that dynamic hasn’t completely changed, Galvan said, efforts like the council help.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.