Pivot

Deputy education commissioner to join Haslam’s senior policy team

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

Deputy Education Commissioner Stephen Smith is Gov. Bill Haslam’s new senior adviser for policy and strategy, Haslam announced Monday.

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith

As deputy commissioner, Smith was the Tennessee Department of Education’s liaison with the administration and General Assembly on policy and legislative and legal issues — experience that Haslam said was key to his appointment.

“Given our focus on education, Stephen has already been integrally involved with our office on a number of initiatives and issues over the past six years. I’ve always appreciated his professionalism, grasp of the issues, and relationships with the legislature and stakeholders throughout the state,” Haslam said in a press release.

In six years at the department, Smith, 41, helped develop several education policies that have defined Haslam’s tenure, including changes to the state’s education accountability system, reforming teacher tenure, expanding school choice options, and this year, updating the state’s funding formula for education known as the Basic Education Program.

“I have been very fortunate these past six years to work in the Tennessee Department of Education and be part of Governor Haslam’s successful efforts to improve student achievement in this state,” Smith said.

Smith will join the governor’s office August 2.

comings and goings

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has a new education leader

Sandra Liu Huang speaks onstage during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference at Monarch Beach Resort on November 14, 2017 in Dana Point, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Fortune)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education work has a new leader: Sandra Liu Huang, who has worked as the organization’s head of product and technology.

Huang now holds one of the most influential jobs in education: overseeing how CZI — which has already spent more than $300 million on education and is set to receive Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune — tries to influence schools and classrooms.

Huang takes over for Jim Shelton, the former deputy education secretary under President Obama. Unlike Shelton, her background is in technology, and she ran product teams at Quora, Facebook, and Google before moving to CZI in 2017.

There, she oversaw the education team’s partnership with the Summit Learning platform, the personalized learning program that Facebook engineers helped build and is now supported by CZI. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative also supports Chalkbeat.)

CZI announced the hire Tuesday.

“With her deep background in managing complex, interdisciplinary teams and building tools and products that help people learn, Sandra Liu Huang is the ideal leader to carry forward our vision for what’s possible in education,” Priscilla Chan, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s co-founder, said in a statement.

Huang’s appointment ties CZI’s education work even more closely to Summit, which CZI says is now used in 380 schools nationwide. Offered free to schools, Summit has emerged as a poster child for the personalized learning approach — and attracted some backlash from students and parents, too.

CZI says its education mission remains the same, and Summit is a key part of its work.

“Since my tours at Google and then at Facebook, I’ve essentially been on a pursuit to build the products and platforms that I see as inevitable — the Jetsons world is at hand,” Huang said in a 2015 interview with the website Brit + Co describing her career. “I’m inspired by how technology massively accelerates knowledge sharing, but I also think the web can be more than ways to pass time.”

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.