Superintendent search

Four reasons why River Rouge’s Derrick Coleman might be Detroit’s next school boss—and four big reasons he won’t, including low scores

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman speaks with reporters following a 12-hour interview to become Detroit's next top school leader.

Derrick Coleman said goodbye to an administrative position with Detroit Public Schools in 2011. Now, the current leader of River Rouge schools said he hopes to come back to fulfill his “calling.”

“You can help a few in River Rouge, but to take the work done in River Rouge and bring that to Detroit and to bring it to scale, you’ll impact much more,” Coleman said Monday as he made his case for why he should be Detroit’s next superintendent.

The second of two finalists for the Detroit district’s top job met with teachers and students, labor and business leaders, parents and community members, and finally the school board over the course of 12 hours on Monday.

A Detroit Public Schools graduate, Coleman responded with brash confidence to questions about the city’s vexing education challenges. He said his track record proves he can make the improvements the city needs, although he did not bring data that he said would support his case, and he raised the possibility of having a personal stake in the district’s future.

“I would hope to” move my children from River Rouge to Detroit schools, Coleman said of daughters who will be in the fifth, 11th, and 12th grades next year. But, he added, “there is also an ex-wife and parenting arrangements so I’m going to do my best to convince her that this is what’s best for them.”

Now that formal interviews have been completed, a group of board members will travel to River Rouge and to Jacksonville, Florida, to see Coleman and Duval County schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who was in Detroit last week, in action.

We rounded up five reasons why Vitti might get the job — and three why he might not. Now, here’s our breakdown of what’s working in Coleman’s favor — and the big issues that could hold him back.

Four reasons why Coleman might get the job:

1. Coleman has experience growing enrollment – the number one thing Detroit needs to do to survive. Since school funding is based on the number of students a district can attract, the district’s declining numbers have devastated its finances. This is a problem River Rouge faced when Coleman came on. During his interviews Monday, he repeatedly cited the fact that he grew enrollment enough to close the $3.4 million deficit he inherited. (Nearly a third of River Rouge’s 1,750 students come over the border from Detroit.) He says he could do the same in his hometown and offered a three-pronged strategy: fixing the issues that cause families to leave, including overcrowding and inadequate teaching; offering busing to all students so they can get to the schools they choose; and “rebranding” the district. “If we don’t change the narrative, the lens through which we are viewed, we are not going to have any credibility with the community,” he said. He said River Rouge had added 24 school buses during his tenure but did not explain how Detroit could pay for additional busing.

2. He has local support, including River Rouge parents so loyal they came out to cheer him on. Renata Williams, a River Rouge resident and parent of two said she had taken her eldest son, a current high school senior, out of River Rouge schools seven years ago, but brought him back three years ago because of the improvements she was seeing with Coleman. “He was community-based, a father, a community leader, and was grounded,” she said of Coleman and her decision to re-enroll her child. “Do I want to see him go?” she asked. “No. But I support him 100 percent, because I know he’d support me.”

3. His approach to safety without metal detectors could appeal to Detroit families wary of prison-like schools. In River Rouge, Coleman said, he was able to lure Detroit families to his district by asking “How can we provide a suburban experience to urban students?” That meant making schools safe without using metal detectors, he said. “We don’t have metal detectors, nor are they needed — and we provide service to the exact same demographic” as Detroit schools, he said. He said he made River Rouge schools safer by addressing students’ social and emotional needs, creating a “trauma-sensitive environment,” and creating alternatives to suspensions for students who violate rules.

4. As a Detroit native and DPS grad, Coleman gets the challenges families in the city face — and that inspires him. “I’ve turned down overtures from other districts to apply,” he said. “I believe I’ve been the candidate of choice in many of those places” but he’s always felt drawn to Detroit. (He was turned down for Ypsilanti’s top spot in 2009.) “You can’t ignore your call,” he said, relating a story about once being offered a job in Pittsburgh and turning it down for one in Detroit. “What I told him was if I were an All-American coming out of college and I had a choice between the Lions and the Steelers, who do you think I’d want to play with? He said, ‘the Steelers,’ and I said ‘No, my job is to resurrect my hometown so I’m going back to Detroit.’”

Four reasons why Coleman might not get the job

1. He has never led a large school district. When Coleman was an assistant superintendent in Detroit from 2008-2011, his position had him in charge of only 29 schools — less than 25 percent of the district’s schools at the time. In his current role, Coleman is in charge of just four schools and around 2,000 students. (In contrast, Vitti runs a district more than three times to the size of DPSCD). Board member Sonya Mays summed up questions about his qualifications: Given that Coleman would be coming from a “district that has a significantly smaller student population that DPSCD does … what in your background gives us the confidence that it should be you?” she asked. Coleman’s answer: “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he said. He said River Rouge’s small size was actually an advantage because he did not have a big team helping him make improvements there. And he said the stakes would be high for him as well as for the district, which could be taken over again by the state if schools don’t improve. “I don’t have a safety net,” he said. Coming to Detroit schools would mean leaving a stable job with a school board that supports him, he said. “This is how I feed my family. If I’m not successful, where do I go from here? What has happened to the superintendents that have left here? I tried to do some research and they disappeared.”

2. Test scores in River Rouge remain low — and Coleman didn’t bring data he said would cast this fact in a kinder light. When one board member asked him about the fact that his district has test scores even lower than Detroit schools, he pointed to the the hundreds of new students who’ve enrolled in his district — likely including Detroit students he’s accused of poaching. “You know I probably should have, but if I brought you data, growth data showing the students that have been in my district for four years or longer … I can show that we’ve had significant growth,” he said. “For a ninth grader who comes into our school and they’re functioning at a third grade level, by the time they take the MSTEP, you know at the 11th grade, they’re not going to be proficient but I can show you great growth. … We’ve enrolled over the last two years over 600 new students and so our assessment data isn’t necessarily indicative of the work that we’ve done. It says ‘This student came to us at this entry point.’”

3. He already left the district once. Coleman faced questions about his characterization of the Detroit district’s culture as “toxic” when he left for River Rouge. What would be different this time? His answer: “I would be in charge,” he said, to cheers and laughter. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m a dreamer. I’m just a firm believer that children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can become incredible beings if they are able to walk into schools that are filled with those that care, that can help them believe that the impossible is possible.” When he worked previously for the district, he said, first under a superintendent, then under an emergency manager, his ideas were ignored. “I’m not going to stay in a relationship where I feel devalued, where I don’t have any influence or input, so it’s a different day because I’m allowed to create those conditions. With the previous administration, the frustration came about as a result of me having ideas that I knew would work that … they chose to ignore.”

4. He worked for controversial emergency managers. Coleman worked for both Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts, two of the state-appointed emergency managers who had tense relationships with teachers and unions. During the interview with labor and business leaders, teachers union interim president Ivy Bailey asked to address the “elephant in the room,” Coleman’s role with the state-appointed regime. “How would you create a culture and climate in the district where people could trust you, and have confidence in you and come to respect you?” she asked. Coleman was quick to point out that he was actually hired by Connie Calloway, the district’s last general superintendent, and attempted to quell any friction by pointing out he made the decision to leave DPS because he didn’t feel like the emergency managers were listening to his ideas. “My philosophy didn’t align with the national turnaround experts,” he said.

And one thing that could cut either way

1. Coleman is not connected to national education advocacy groups. Vitti faced repeated questions about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the state-run Education Achievement Authority and runs a superintendent training program that incorporates leadership strategies from the business world. Unlike Vitti, Coleman did not participate in that training — which means he lacks both the assets and liabilities that a Broad affiliation would bring. This appears to have made the difference for at least one influential Detroiter: At the end of the day, former interim superintendent John Telford threw his support to Coleman, saying he believed the former DPS assistant superintendent had knocked the interview “out the park.” Telford said he thought Vitti had done a good job but he was turned off by the Florida superintendent’s Broad ties.

Personnel file

Boasberg’s inner circle: The latest changes to Denver Public Schools’ top leadership team

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

The cabinet of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, one of the longest-serving urban superintendents in the country, is changing.

Boasberg’s inner circle has undergone several shifts in the eight years since he became superintendent in 2009, taking the helm after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Boasberg continued the reforms begun by Bennet and has built the state’s largest school district into one nationally known for embracing school choice and autonomy.

He enjoys the full backing of the seven-member school board, who support his “portfolio strategy.” But a group of challengers wants to change that in November, when four board seats are up for election. If candidates who disagree with Boasberg’s vision sweep the contest, they would have enough votes to change the course of the district.

The latest cabinet shifts involve Boasberg’s chief of staff and the head of community engagement. Eddie Koen, who served as chief of staff for a year, left DPS Sept. 20 for a job with the Mile High United Way. The district announced last month it had hired a replacement: Tameka Brigham, a former teacher and Teach for America official.

But last week, it announced that Brigham would be taking a different position instead: chief of family and community engagement. The person who previously held that job, former Aurora Public Schools chief communications director Georgia Duran, has been on leave recovering from injuries and decided not to return, according to district officials.

The district has hired an interim chief of staff while it conducts a job search. Read more about who will be filling that position, as well as the rest of Boasberg’s cabinet, below.

But first, some background on the superintendent.

Boasberg began working for DPS as the district’s chief operating officer in 2007. Before that, he served as vice president for corporate development at Broomfield-based multi-national telecommunications company Level 3 Communications.

His current salary is $236,220. He was the fifth highest paid superintendent in Colorado in 2016-17, according to state data.

Last year, Boasberg took six months of unpaid leave to live in Argentina with his wife, Carin, and their three children. The kids attended local schools, and he and his wife took Spanish language and literature classes. Already a speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, he said he wanted to improve his ability to communicate with the thousands of Spanish-speaking DPS families.

Here are the eight DPS officials who report directly to Boasberg, their duties as described by district human resources documents, their salaries and a bit about their backgrounds.

Susana Cordova

Susana Cordova, Deputy Superintendent
Salary: $200,212
Duties: Communicates to the superintendent the requirements and needs of the district as perceived by staff members; assists the superintendent in developing and recommending long-range plans to the school board; formulates and encourages innovative curricular programs to improve instruction; fosters professional growth and staff morale throughout the district; monitors and responds to legislation that may affect DPS programs or policies.
Her story: Cordova is a lifelong Denver resident and DPS graduate who has worked at nearly every level in the district, serving as a teacher, principal and administrator. She began her career as a bilingual teacher and has taught English as a second language. When Boasberg was on sabbatical last year, Cordova served as acting superintendent. She has two children: one is a DPS graduate and the other is a DPS high school student.

Jerome DeHerrera

Jerome DeHerrera, General Counsel
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Ensures DPS business practices, policies and dealings meet regulatory requirements to protect the organization from legal action; manages the organization’s defense and interpretation and preparation of legal documents; provides counsel on legal matters.
His story: DeHerrera, who grew up in Aurora, joined DPS in 2013. He was previously in private practice, where he specialized in education law. He also took cases pro bono, “including representing the plaintiffs in one of Colorado’s longest-running disputes over land grant rights established in the San Luis Valley during the 1850s,” according to his bio on the DPS website. He and his wife are the parents of two DPS elementary school students.

Nina Lopez, Interim Chief of Staff
Salary: To Be Announced
Duties: Serves as the principal aide to the superintendent and supports him in dealing with administrators, staff, students, the school board and the public; provides policy analysis and consultation on major issues affecting the district; interacts with industry, government, legislative interest groups and community officials regarding DPS’s strategic initiatives.
Her story: Lopez is a consultant with her own practice, advising foundations, nonprofits and government entities connected to K-12 education. Her clients include DPS, Jeffco Public Schools and the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund. She previously worked for the Colorado Education Initiative and as special assistant to the state education commissioner overseeing the initial rollout of a law that governs how teachers are evaluated.

Debbie Hearty

Debbie Hearty, Chief of Human Resources
Salary: $171,091
Duties: Leads the management and expansion of teacher and principal residency programs, performance management systems for feedback and growth, teacher leadership programs and performance-based compensation; oversees maintaining relationships with the district’s employee unions; supports efforts to attract, develop and retain educators.
Her story: Hearty has held many jobs within DPS, including math teacher, instructional coach, teacher training leader and assistant principal. Before taking her current position, she was head of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, where she led initiatives aimed at making DPS more inclusive. She and her husband have two elementary school-aged sons.

Tameka Brigham, Chief of Family and Community Engagement
Salary: To Be Announced

Tameka Brigham

Duties: Oversees an 80-person team responsible for engaging families and students proactively and to resolve disputes; provides leadership to a small team responsible for engaging communities affected by changes such as school turnaround; oversees development of culturally sensitive and results-driven strategies for outreach and communication.
Her story: Brigham was most recently managing director of research for Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income school districts. She is also a teacher, having taught at many different levels from kindergarten to college. In addition, she served as education chair of the Denver branch of the NAACP, an education outreach liaison for Great Education Colorado and an education specialist for the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. She has three boys who are in elementary, middle and high school.

Nancy Mitchell, Chief Communications Officer
Salary: $132,056
Duties: Directs all facets of media relations, responding to daily media inquiries; coordinates crisis communications during emergencies; leads the vision and management of the DPS homepage and intranet; leads the district’s internal communications efforts; leads the DPS office that serves families with a native language other than English.
Her story: Before joining DPS in 2014, Mitchell was a journalist who covered public education for many years, including a long stint at the now-closed Rocky Mountain News. She also worked for Education News Colorado, which was one of the online news organizations that merged to form Chalkbeat. After leaving journalism, she directed communications for the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Education Commission of the States.

Allen Smith

Allen Smith, Chief of the Culture, Equity and Leadership Team
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Provides vision and leadership to make the district a diverse, inclusive and equitable organization; develops strategic plans and measurable outcomes and reports on the status of that work to the district, the school board and the community; works with the Family and Community Engagement and Chief of Staff teams to ensure community voices are heard.
His story: Smith is a DPS graduate who became an educator and served as principal of three DPS schools, as well as executive director of a network of schools undergoing the district’s biggest turnaround effort in far northeast Denver. He left the city to take administrator positions in Charlotte, N.C. and Oakland, Calif. before returning to work in DPS last year.

David Suppes

David Suppes, Chief Operating Officer
Salary: $187,035
Duties: Develops objectives and performance goals for each operational department, such as budget, facilities and transportation; establishes, plans for and carries out district initiatives and priorities; evaluates effectiveness of operational policies and makes recommendations for revisions or new policies; works to improve services for schools, students and parents.
His story: Before joining DPS in 2009, Suppes worked in financial and business leadership positions at Staples and Level 3 Communications, where Boasberg also worked. Suppes has been a volunteer tutor in DPS for several years and served as board treasurer for Metro Caring. He was also a member of the Governor’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission.

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.