Q&A

As a girl, she swept school floors. Now she leads family engagement for Denver Public Schools.

PHOTO: Courtesy Georgia Duran
Georgia Duran is head of DPS's Family and Community Engagement office.

The new chief of family engagement for Denver Public Schools has a personal connection to the job: She grew up in the city, attended the public schools and watched as her parents — who, like many current DPS parents, were native Spanish speakers — sometimes struggled to speak up on behalf of their children’s education, though they valued it highly.

Georgia Duran says she wants to ensure all families and community members have a voice. After serving as chief communications officer for Aurora Public Schools for more than a decade, Duran began last week as head of DPS’s Family and Community Engagement office.

We sat down with her to ask about her background and vision for the job.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about growing up in Denver.

I grew up in — we called it the west side. I went to Knapp Elementary School. I was bused to Lake Junior High School (in northwest Denver). That was a challenge because my friends went to Kepner Junior High School — many, many (of them) — and then some of us went to Lake. Many of us were reunited when we went to West High School.

What was busing like? Did you understand why you were being bused?

All we understood was we were going to be separated from our friends.

We walked home a lot. It was a long walk. What was beautiful for my friends and me at Lake (was) we got to know the city in a completely different way that a lot of middle school students wouldn’t. We had a lot of freedom to learn more practical things.

What do you remember about how your parents were treated by the schools?

Both of my parents are native Spanish speakers. Because they didn’t always know what education opportunities were there — none of us knew what college was — sometimes it was intimidating for them to advocate for us. They were raised to be very respectful of authority. There were times when I know that it was intimidating.

Do you remember a specific time when it was an issue?

When I was at West, the school did not have as many Advanced Placement courses (as other schools) and the (school leaders) wanted us to go to another school. But I, like many of my peers, worked and did not have the time to go to another school. We went to the school board — the students. My mom was a little concerned about us getting in trouble.

The school board did make a change and provided us more access at West. They were very responsive to student voice. I’m very, very grateful to DPS. There were struggles, definitely. But the people here created so many opportunities that changed my life and my family’s life.

My parents were always very supportive with whatever I was interested in or learned. They were always people who made education a priority. Their goal was for us to graduate from high school. They were very strict about that and about grades.

Tell me about being the first in your family to go to college.

Mrs. Bernier was my teacher in first grade. She changed my life. Sometimes I would do work and get ahead and I’d be restless. It wasn’t necessarily that I was being naughty, but I needed something different to read or study. She was the first one to put in my head that I could go to college and make a difference.

It’s an embarrassing story because when Mrs. Bernier told me about college, I thought it was like a state, a place you would move. I didn’t understand it was more schooling.

In eighth grade, Mrs. Bayer was a teacher who realized I had writing skills. She brought all these magazines in and ended up ordering college catalogs for me. That’s when I realized it was more schooling. I remember that moment when I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not like California. It’s not a state.’ That’s embarrassing!

What I had known about it was it would give me a chance to make a better living to help my family. That was important. My first job was with DPS. I was a custodian. They had a program where you could work at a school. My cousin and I were student sweepers at Knapp.

How old were you?

It was before I was 16 and could get other jobs. I swept the hallways. I was very conscious of a desire to help my family. I was conscious of finances.

You ended up going to Colorado State University. What was college like for you?

College was terrifying. I grew up on the west side of Denver. I had never been in an environment without so many Latinos. That was very different.

In some ways, I didn’t understand college until I did it. It was such an unknown concept. I remember being at West and applying and they asked for a ‘statement of purpose’ and I had no idea what that was. Some of those experiences were challenging.

How did you end up working in education?

I went to the University of California Santa Barbara to get my master’s degree. After that, I had all different communications positions. I ended up getting a position at … Santa Barbara City College, where I became a tenure-track professor.

There weren’t a lot of staff of color, so they asked some of us to help retain and recruit diverse students. That’s when I started to see that many of my students were not prepared for college. I became curious about the pipeline. Other than going to K-12, I knew nothing about education and K-12. So I decided I wanted a position in K-12.

I heard about Aurora. It had very similar demographics to what I grew up in and it was near Denver, so I jumped on the opportunity. … I worked in Aurora for 14 years and had an amazing experience leading communication efforts there and serving very diverse families similar to mine — some with much higher needs than my family had.

I didn’t think I was going to leave Aurora. It was a great place. … But when this opportunity came up — DPS changed my life. It changed my family’s life. The idea of serving and giving back to the community that raised me, I had to try.

It’s humbling. I think about pushing that little broom as a little girl. I wanted to be something in my life, but I didn’t know what that meant.

What do you mean when you say DPS changed your life?

Both of my parents went to Emily Griffith (the district’s technical college) and it changed their ability to find work and support us. … My father took automotive classes and got a job as a truck driver. My mom took all kinds of classes. Cosmetology — she cut our hair. Cake decorating — she had a little business. She’s very resourceful.

The fact that a few teachers believed in me to tell me about college, I went (to college) and ended up earning my doctorate. My brother went (to college) and just this year earned his doctorate. Several of our cousins, our nieces and nephews, have gone on and earned associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees.

Denver created a different narrative for us.

What is your vision for this job? And how will your personal experience influence that?

I have profound respect for families — parents, grandparents, guardians. My experiences will demand that I am a listener first and that we listen more than we talk. I understand many of the challenges that families face and I know what it’s like when people don’t believe in you and how that can interfere with a child’s success. I think I bring a lot of empathy and understanding.

DPS has been criticized for not seeking enough community input before making important decisions. Is that a fair criticism? If so, how will you work to change that?

I don’t think you ever get enough community input because there’s always so much more and so many people you are not able to access.

Denver is doing some really strong work with engagement. The superintendent parent forums, for example. Or the Center for Family Opportunity, which follows the two-generation approach where you’re providing support for families, parents and grandparents as well as for students and lifting the families up. Or our parent-teacher home visits.

But I think we can always look for ways to create more opportunities to listen and then reflect and adapt our work to better meet family and community needs. And we’ll be doing some of that in the community — going to the community, going to families.

We have also high objectives for our home visit program. This year, we know how important it is to go for a second visit, so we’ll be focusing on that.

What are your ultimate goals?

My top goal is to listen. And to understand how we can better serve family and community needs in areas where we need to rebuild trust and to work on building those relationships.

I’m here to serve so that we can increase the number of students who are successful, because I really believe in education. I’m living proof of the difference education can make for a family.

Movers and shakers

Berrick Abramson to lead education work at Colorado think tank, Keystone

Berrick Abramson (Courtesy Keystone)

Berrick Abramson, a national expert on school accountability and the teacher workforce, is joining the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center to lead its education work, the organization announced Tuesday.

Abramson, who lives in Jefferson County, joins Keystone after a long stint at TNTP, an education nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project. There, he managed state and federal policy research, among other responsibilities.

“Keystone has worked with teachers, students, and policymakers — from classrooms to state Capitols — to improve public education,” Keystone’s President and CEO Christine Scanlan said in a statement. “We’re excited to bring Berrick’s expertise to Keystone to accelerate this work and help us continue to inspire leaders to reach common higher ground addressing the challenges students, teachers, and families face today.”

Abramson has advised state policymakers on a variety of education hot topics such as educator licensure, evaluation and school turnaround work. Most recently, he’s been studying and writing about the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

“With ESSA granting states greater autonomy, and the pitched debates over education in recent years, now more than ever we need leaders to do the hard work of building bridges and consensus,” Abramson said in a statement. “Those leaders, in my experience, need partners to help them navigate the challenges and effectively engage stakeholders. Keystone has a clear history doing just that and I’m excited to build on their 40-plus years of leadership as we grow the education practice.”

Earlier this summer, Keystone released a statewide plan for Colorado for blended learning, which combines online and traditional classroom instruction. It also has helped Colorado, Louisiana and Massachusetts find better ways to prepare teachers for success in the classroom.

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.