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 forced 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.