parting ways

After voting down school closures, de Blasio appointee to education panel is out

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

After casting a deciding vote blocking the education department from closing two Queens schools last month, T. Elzora Cleveland resigned from the city’s education oversight board.

The February vote represented an embarrassing and unusual rebuke of the administration’s plans, since Mayor Bill de Blasio appoints the majority of the board’s members — including Cleveland. And while the reason for Cleveland’s departure after four years on the Panel for Educational Policy was not completely clear, the timing suggests she may have run up against the limits of City Hall’s patience for dissent on its school closure proposals.

City Hall confirmed on Friday that Cleveland had stepped down. Cleveland did not respond to requests for comment.

“After four years of serving on the PEP, Ms. Cleveland submitted her resignation this week and we are actively working to appoint a new panel member to fill her seat,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a City Hall spokeswoman. “We are grateful for her service and commitment to our city’s students.”

At the panel’s regular meeting last month, members were set to vote on 13 closure proposals — including eight struggling schools in de Blasio’s controversial Renewal turnaround program. It was the largest single round of proposed closures since de Blasio took office.

After more than seven hours of emotional testimony from hundreds of parents and elected officials, who had spent weeks lobbying against the closures, the panel narrowly blocked two of them: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam, both in Queens. The final vote on both proposals was 6-6; Cleveland was the only mayoral appointee who voted “no.” (Another mayoral appointee, Isaac Carmignani, abstained.)

In an interview, Carmignani said he abstained because the two Queens schools were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and had shown some improvements. City Hall did not try sway his vote, Carmignani said, and he did not face blowback after the meeting. “I wasn’t under a lot of pressure one way or the other,” he said.

Cleveland has served on the board since 2014, when de Blasio named his first batch of appointees. Established in 2002, the panel was created after the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, successfully lobbied for central control of the country’s largest school system.

Bloomberg didn’t hesitate to exert his control over the board, booting three members in one fell swoop when a proposal to change grade promotion requirements appeared doomed to fail — a move that was dubbed the Monday Night Massacre.

But de Blasio promised his tenure would be different. “We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens,” de Blasio said when he appointed his members.

De Blasio has attempted to close many fewer schools than Bloomberg did, and several other de Blasio proposals have been voted down. Still, Cleveland had been a less reliable vote than other members when it came to the administration’s plans.

In 2015, she was among four members who rejected a proposal to allow a Success Academy charter school to open in Brooklyn. At the time, it was only the second instance of the panel voting down a city proposal.

Months earlier, Cleveland was one of five dissenters who voted against locating a charter school in the same building as three district middle schools, all of which were in the city’s Renewal turnaround program. The proposal still passed.

Stephanie Soto, another mayoral appointee, was not at February’s meeting and is no longer listed on the panel’s website. Jose Davila was introduced as a new member at that meeting.

Meanwhile, the city’s new schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is expected to start April 2.

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument

Super Search

15 things to know about Denver superintendent finalist Susana Cordova and her record

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits a classroom at College View Elementary School in 2016.

The biggest criticism of Susana Cordova, the sole finalist for the Denver superintendent job, is also what some see as her greatest strength: The 52-year old deputy superintendent has spent her entire career working in Denver Public Schools.

Critics say she’s partly to blame for the district’s shortcomings, especially the wide test score gaps between students of color and white students. Supporters say her deep knowledge of the district, which goes back to childhood, is precisely what will help her make meaningful changes.

The school board is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to hire Cordova as superintendent. Before then, on Tuesday evening, the district has set a forum for the public to meet her and ask questions. Ahead of the forum, here are 15 things to know about Cordova.

1. She grew up in Denver during court-ordered busing, when the district was under a U.S. Supreme Court order to desegregate its schools. Cordova, who graduated from Abraham Lincoln High, said she benefited from attending integrated schools.

“It gave me access and opportunity to a world that didn’t exist in my neighborhood,” she said at a previous public forum Wednesday. “My mother grew up in Denver and went to the Denver public schools, as well. She didn’t have access to the kinds of classes I had access to.

“It leveled the playing field for minority kids like me.”

After the court order ended in the 1990s, many schools became segregated again. Cordova said she believes strongly in integration and in alternatives to mandatory busing. She pointed to what the San Antonio school district is doing, using students’ family income and other factors to create schools that are “diverse by design,” as an intriguing example.

About three-quarters of the nearly 93,000 students who attend Denver Public Schools are students of color, and two-thirds come from low-income families. More than one-third are learning English as a second language; the most common first language is Spanish.

2. Cordova is bilingual but didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.

“I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino.”

Instead, she said the message she heard was to leave her culture behind if she wanted to be successful. She began reconnecting with her heritage when she attended the University of Denver and ended up traveling to Mexico to study Spanish.

3. She was the first in her family to attend college. Cordova said she personally understands the test score gaps, often called achievement or opportunity gaps, because she is on one side of the gap, and family members are on the other.

If appointed superintendent, Cordova said she’d take a different approach to closing such gaps — one that’s more in line with what the Milwaukee school district is doing.

“They’ve approached from a perspective of saying, ‘Our kids have excellence in them and our job as a district is to bring that excellence out,’” she said at the forum. “That’s the reframing we really need to have.”

4. Cordova became a teacher in 1989 and has worked in Denver ever since. She taught bilingual language arts, drama, and social studies to middle and high school students.

In her first job as a principal in 1998, she led Denver’s Remington Elementary School, which she said was the lowest performing elementary school in Colorado at the time. That school was eventually closed, though not while she was principal. Still, Cordova said she knows how devastating the closure of a school can be for students, parents, and neighborhoods.

5. But she doesn’t believe closure should be completely off the table when schools are not improving despite extra money and help from the district. Closing a school, she said, “has to be one of the tools in our toolbox, but I would consider it the tool of last resort.”

6. Cordova has spent the majority of her career working in and supervising traditional district-run schools, not charter schools. She has been a teacher, principal, curriculum director, chief academic officer, chief schools officer, and now deputy superintendent. (For more on her duties in these roles, check out her resume here.)

The only time Cordova oversaw charter schools was when she served as acting superintendent for seven months in 2016 when then-superintendent Tom Boasberg was on sabbatical.

7. She is not, however, anti-charter school. Charter schools are funded by public dollars but operated independently by nonprofit boards of directors. They are controversial because some people see them as siphoning students and money from district-run schools.

She and her husband sent their two children to district-run schools but were “super impressed” by charter schools they also considered, she said. Their son has graduated and their daughter is a high school senior.

“You can believe in two things: You should have a great school down the street from you, and you should be able to choose a different school if you want to,” Cordova said in an interview.

8. Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is connected to charter schools. He is an investment banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. In 2015, he worked on a deal with Monarch Montessori, an elementary charter school in Denver.

Some critics see Duran’s work as a potential conflict of interest for Cordova. His company has said it won’t work with Denver Public Schools or any Denver charter schools if Cordova is hired as superintendent.

9. Cordova believes having charter and district-run schools share buildings can be beneficial. The arrangement, known as co-location, can lead to crowding and conflicts over the use of common spaces.

Cordova said at the forum that while sharing space can be challenging, it has also allowed for the incubation of small and innovative charter schools. She also pointed to shared arrangements with bigger, high-performing charter schools that have, in her words, “enriched our family of schools.”

10. Cordova has worked to ensure various options for low-performing schools, where students do poorly on state tests year after year.

In 2015, the school board passed a policy explicitly directing the district to close persistently low-performing schools or replace them with new schools.

In the past, the replacement schools had often been charters. Cordova said she believed district-run schools could serve that role just as well.

“We have incredibly talented and committed teachers and leaders who, given the right supports, can 100-percent provide a very high quality school option for our students,” she said in an interview.

After the school board voted in 2016 to replace two low-performing schools, Cordova’s team provided guidance to the district principals who won approval to restart those schools — in one case beating out a charter school that also wanted to serve as a replacement.

11. A big part of Cordova’s job has been to help struggling district-run schools improve before they get to the point of closure. The district provides extra money and training, and prioritizes the schools for things like getting a fresh coat of paint or help setting up email addresses. One recent analysis found the strategy is working.

12. Cordova has also led the district’s work to improve reading instruction for students in kindergarten through third grade, an initiative she said has led to higher test scores for the district’s youngest students.

In 2016, 32 percent of Denver third-graders met or exceeded expectations on the state literacy test. In 2018, 38 percent did. That’s still far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders be reading on grade level by 2020.

13. She has also played a leading role in Denver’s efforts to better serve English language learners. The district is under a federal court order to do so. When Cordova was promoted to chief academic officer in 2010 and took on oversight of English language acquisition, she said she realized drastic change was in order.

She said her team changed training for teachers and principals, as well as changed the way parents opt their children out of specialized classes. She said that has resulted in more English language learners getting services.

Cordova also supported the district to become one of the first in Colorado to offer a “seal of biliteracy” that certifies high school graduates are fluent in English and at least one other language as a way to recognize the value of being multilingual.

Denver’s English language learners regularly outpace statewide averages on state literacy and math tests: 29 percent met expectations in literacy last year, compared with 22 percent statewide, according to the district. However, big gaps remain between the scores of English language learners and native English speakers.

14. Cordova doesn’t think everything about Denver Public Schools is working.

At last week’s forum, she listed several things that need improvement. She said the district’s school rating system, called the School Performance Framework, is too complicated, has undergone too many changes, and fails to measure non-academic factors like school culture.

Also too complicated, according to Cordova, is the district’s pay-for-performance system, which makes it difficult for teachers to predict their pay.

“We need to be able to pay our teachers more,” she said. “It needs to be in base (salary), as well as in incentives. It needs to have some predictability and understandability in it.”

Cordova also said she would change how the district engages the community in its decision-making. “Frequently we have acted like engagement is telling people something,” she said. “That’s not real engagement. It’s really important when working with the community to be clear about what’s open for discussion and what isn’t.”

15. Cordova served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg was on sabbatical.

In that time, she oversaw the publication of a report that synthesized concerns about how black teachers and black students were treated in the district. Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it led to the creation of a task force that recommended ways the district could do better.

She also took responsibility for a bungled process to appoint a new member to the school board. Separately, she recommended the board approve the district’s first “innovation zone,” which granted charter-like freedoms to a group of district-run schools.

Cordova also called a snow day. While that may seem insignificant, Corey Kern, the deputy executive director of the Denver teachers union, said it’s one of two main things that union leaders are hearing from teachers since Cordova was named the sole finalist.

The first thing they’re hearing is a concern that Cordova will continue policies and practices that began under Boasberg and proved unpopular with union teachers, including approving more new charter schools.

The snow day, however, seems to be evidence that she’s different than Boasberg — at least when it comes to weather-related cancellations.

“It was like, ‘She gave us a snow day, and that’s something Tom would never do,’” Kern said.