By Melanie Asmar
Less than two years after being appointed superintendent of the school district where she was once a student, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova announced she is leaving the district and her home city to take a job in Texas.
She will be the deputy superintendent of leading and learning in the Dallas Independent School District, according to an email sent to district families Friday afternoon.
“As the child of Mexican-American parents and a first-generation college graduate, I know that I owe a debt of gratitude to DPS, and I have been honored to spend the past 31 years as a member of Team DPS,” said Cordova, who started as a teacher in the district in 1989.
“I want you to know that Denver will forever be home to me.”
Cordova does not have a firm departure date, but she said she would work with the district “over the coming weeks to ensure a smooth transition.” School board Vice President Jennifer Bacon said the board will first select an interim superintendent and then build a timeline for hiring a permanent replacement, hopefully by next school year.
Cordova said she wasn’t actively looking for another position but rather was approached about the job in Dallas, a city she said “reminds me a lot of the Denver I grew up in.” She said she admires and respects the Dallas superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, and is excited for the challenge of working in a new community.
The past two years in Denver Public Schools have been tumultuous, partly due to long-simmering disputes. About a month after Cordova took the helm in January 2019, the teachers union went on strike. Cordova was at the bargaining table for every session and took part in an all-night negotiation that ended the strike after three days.
Last November saw a contentious school board election in which control of the seven-member board “flipped” for the first time to members backed by the teachers union.
The union had long opposed the education reforms shepherded by Cordova’s predecessor, Tom Boasberg, including the expansion of independent charter schools. Cordova served as a deputy superintendent under Boasberg, overseeing district-run schools.
Her departure gives the board an opportunity to select a superintendent who could shift the district even further away from some of those remaining reform policies.
For the past eight months, Cordova has led the 92,000-student district through the COVID-19 pandemic. In consultation with public health officials, she decided to close schools, then partially reopen them, a move some teachers feel is unsafe. As schools have experienced staffing shortages, Cordova herself has helped to fill in at a district elementary school one day a week.
Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), said in a statement that union members thank Cordova and “wish her well in her journey.”
“We understand that students and educators may be feeling a sense of uncertainty with the sudden structural change within the district,” she continued. “The health of our students and staff is still DCTA’s top priority during these uncertain times.”
Some district observers believe Cordova’s relationship with the school board played a role in her departure.
Van Schoales of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado described Cordova’s leaving as “tragic” for the district.
But he also pointed to her complicated relationship with the new union-backed board. On a whole range of issues, from budgeting to police in schools to the district’s controversial school rating system to support for learning pods, Schoales said he saw board members working more directly with the community than with Cordova.
“The board should have a superintendent and a superintendent should have a board that are on the same page,” Schoales said. “Some people are going to say she’s leaving in a pandemic, and I don’t think people realize all the challenges she’s had to manage.”
Even the process by which Cordova became superintendent was controversial, with some community members objecting to the selection of a single finalist and concerned she would lead in the same manner as Boasberg. Advocates for education reform, meanwhile, worried she would not be as supportive of charter schools or school accountability.
Cordova strived to build bridges and find common ground. She leveraged her long history in the district and her classroom experience to build connections, often beginning anecdotes with “When I was a teacher …” and she converted some critics into allies.
Cordova made equity her top priority, and she cited the concept frequently, especially as she guided the district through constantly changing reopening plans. She instituted training for educators in culturally responsive education, supported ethnic studies classes, and held regular Facebook Live briefings for parents in Spanish.
Cordova is bilingual, having learned Spanish as an adult. As the district’s chief academic officer starting in 2010, she oversaw English language acquisition programs in a district that has spent decades under a court order that governs how English language learners are educated. While large gaps remain, Denver’s English language learners regularly outpace statewide averages on state literacy and math tests.
Vernon Jones, executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone and an education activist, said in an emailed statement that Cordova “represented us” and that the district should have tried harder to learn from her lived experience. Instead, he said, she paid the price for unresolved tensions from the Boasberg era.
Cordova, however, said she believes conflict is healthy in an organization the size of Denver Public Schools — and also important to democracy.
“I have not shied away from engaging in difficult conversations,” Cordova said. “But I think it’s also really important to acknowledge that difficult conversations don’t mean that we are difficult people. If we always are just agreeing with each other, we’re probably not talking about the real issues.
“And I think that’s really important.”
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