Susana Cordova, former Denver superintendent, named finalist for Colorado education commissioner

Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.
Former Denver superintendent Susana Cordova could return to Colorado to lead the state Department of Education. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova is the sole finalist to be Colorado’s next education commissioner.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously to name Cordova their preferred candidate at a brief meeting Tuesday morning. By law, the State Board must wait at least 14 days before voting to hire Cordova. The next scheduled board meeting is June 14. 

“Her extensive experience working in schools and districts along with her thoughtful and caring approach to addressing the issues facing students and educators will be a tremendous asset to the state of Colorado,” board Chair Rebecca McClellan said. 

The selection of Cordova drew praise from education advocates across the political spectrum. Groups that represent superintendents and educators said they appreciate that Cordova would bring a wealth of classroom and district experience to the job. Groups that favor education reform said they appreciate that she worked for the Denver district during a time when that district had its own school accountability system and embraced school choice and charters

“This was an excellent choice for Colorado particularly at this moment in time,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center. “Susana has a remarkable background, having been a successful teacher, school leader, district leader, and she knows how to drive student achievement, particularly for low-income kids and English learners.” 

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes announced in December that she would be stepping down in July. The State Board hired the search firm McPherson and Jacobson to help find a replacement. The board received 23 applications. It interviewed six candidates — four women and two men — in closed-door meetings Wednesday and Thursday. 

The board discussed candidates in closed session for more than four hours on Friday before adjourning without a vote. The board reconvened for about 30 minutes Tuesday before announcing Cordova would be the only finalist. 

Cordova was a career Denver educator, working as a bilingual teacher and principal before rising to lead the district where she was once a student herself. Her tenure included a teachers strike, a political sea change on the school board, and COVID-related school closures. She worked hard to find common ground and win over critics.

Cordova announced in November 2020 that she was leaving Denver to take a job as deputy superintendent of leading and learning in the Dallas Independent School District. Though Cordova said she was leaving Denver to pursue an exciting opportunity, many in the community blamed dysfunction on the Denver school board for driving her away. 

Cordova left the Dallas district in August after another candidate, Stephanie Elizalde, was chosen to replace retiring Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. Since then, Cordova has been the superintendent in residence for the education nonprofit Transcend. 

McClellan said the State Board was looking for a candidate with a history of leading by example and closing gaps between student groups, someone with good people skills who would represent a positive image for the department. 

Unlike other states where the education commissioner is appointed by the governor or elected, Colorado’s education commissioner is hired by the independently elected State Board of Education. 

Anthes, the departing commissioner, has led the department since May 2016 and. During her tenure, Colorado implemented a school accountability system that allows state intervention in struggling school districts, adopted new academic standards, and stepped up efforts to improve reading instruction in the early grades and career learning opportunities for high school students. 

“The Colorado commissioner is somewhat unique in that the power the commissioner has is limited because of local control,” Schoales said. “It requires a combination of carrots and sticks, and the commissioner has to be very thoughtful and artful to bring people along.” 

The next commissioner will serve a larger nine-member board with an expanded Democratic majority, some of whom are more skeptical of the accountability system and state intervention in school districts. 

“We have a divided State Board and a larger State Board,” said Brenda Dickhoner, president and CEO of the conservative education group Ready Colorado. “The commissioner plays a role in taking all the different signals from the State Board and synthesizing those and transmitting those to schools and districts and families.”

The next commissioner will have to deal with ongoing pandemic recovery, efforts to improve math and reading instruction, teacher shortages, and the challenges that come with declining enrollment in many parts of the state. 

Colorado also is about to convene a task force that will recommend changes to the accountability system — a process welcomed by many education advocacy groups but one that will force difficult conversations.

Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said his membership’s top priority was having as commissioner “someone who knew the day-to-day struggles as much as the policy.” Every law and policy has to be turned into rules that superintendents, principals, and teachers can put into action, Miles said, and Cordova’s background means she is well-positioned to approach those decisions with care.

Dickhoner said she was glad to see a finalist who understands “how choice is part of our education ecosystem” and brings experience working in Denver Public Schools when that district was considered a national model for education reform.

“Her track record in DPS, demonstrating that she’s been able to work with families who attend schools of choice, that she worked in a system that valued accountability and high expectations for all schools, regardless of where you fall on the specific policy recommendations, having that familiarity will benefit her and Colorado,” Dickhoner said.

Jen Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, was chief of staff in Denver when Cordova was chief academic officer.

“She was the most consistent, even member of the leadership team,” Walmer said. “She is always focused on the work, student-focused. She listens before she speaks. She has an ability to build bridges and bring people together, and I think that’s exactly what Colorado needs.” 

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, said she is hopeful that Cordova’s background as a classroom teacher will lead her to lift up and center educator perspectives on how to solve long-standing education problems.

Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, executive director of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators, said she was “thrilled” with Cordova’s selection and hopes that Cordova promotes biliteracy, bilingual education, and diverse and inclusive approaches. 

“Our children need not just her leadership, but her advocacy as well,” she wrote in an email.

Gov. Jared Polis praised the choice in a press release and said he looks forward to working with Cordova.

“Her prior work boosting academic progress and improving access to high-quality education for learners of all backgrounds as Superintendent of Denver Public Schools is sure to benefit students across the state as she brings this passion and experience to this new role,” he said.

This story has been updated throughout with additional comments and interviews.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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