A high-ranking administrator who began her career as a teacher in Denver is the sole finalist to lead Denver Public Schools. Susana Cordova, who has served as deputy superintendent for the past two years, will more than likely be the next superintendent.
The seven-member Denver school board made the announcement late Thursday afternoon after a four-month national search, but the decision was not unanimous.
Parents, teachers, and community members repeatedly called for the board to name multiple finalists. But board President Anne Rowe explained that two of the three candidates who got a second interview ended up withdrawing their candidacy, one because of confidentiality concerns and another for personal reasons.
Board member Carrie Olson said she could not support moving forward with a single finalist, even as she noted many reasons why Cordova is qualified. Board member Jennifer Bacon joined her in voting no. The other five board members voted yes.
The board plans to hold several public meetings with Cordova before making its final decision, which is scheduled to take place Dec. 17. Multiple board members said this needs to be an interview process, not an acceptance process.
“We will be listening to you,” board member Happy Haynes said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Cordova said after the announcement that she’s “incredibly grateful” to be named the finalist and is looking forward to having “the opportunity to share more about who I am, and what I believe in, and what I hope to achieve in our district.”
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district with nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black, and come from low-income families. This is the first time in 10 years that the district has had to choose a new superintendent.
The school board had originally promised to announce finalists for the position on Monday. Board members did not explain the reason for the delay.
However, several of them referenced the withdrawals of the other candidates, which left Cordova the sole finalist. They said they too had hoped to have multiple finalists.
“This is not something that she asked for,” Bacon said, referring to Cordova. “This is not something that we asked for.”
The board held numerous public meetings during its search to solicit feedback on the characteristics and qualities community members wanted in the next superintendent.
In many ways, Cordova, 52, fits the bill: She is Latina, bilingual, and has spent her entire career as an educator, including as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Furthermore, she knows Denver and the school district well: She grew up here, graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in the southwest part of the city, and sent her own children to school in the district.
“Susana is a homegrown girl,” board member Lisa Flores said.
“It’s meaningful that she’s a woman, it’s meaningful that she’s bilingual, bicultural (and) comes from the Latino community,” said board Vice President Barbara O’Brien. “It’s a chance we have to have multiple perspectives combined in one candidate.”
“She is a person of integrity, incredible talent, and she has spent her entire life caring deeply about the children of Denver,” Rowe added.
But parents, teachers, and residents who disagree with the district’s methods for improving schools — which include closing and replacing struggling schools — don’t want Cordova to be superintendent. They see the district’s failures to significantly raise the test scores of black and Latino students, and those from low-income families, as her failures, too.
Cordova said the process of applying to become superintendent has caused her to reflect on what the district has done well — and what it hasn’t.
“I think we need to do a better job of listening to our critics and finding more opportunities to stake out common goals,” she said.
“I am from Denver and I have such deep roots here. I understand what happens to a community when a school is both low-performing and when we undertake significant interventions — and both of those things can be devastating.
“What we need to be able to do,” Cordova added, “is grapple with both of those issues much more authentically with our communities around pathways forward.”
Cordova said that although she served as deputy superintendent under former leader Tom Boasberg, who stepped down last month, her style is different than his.
“I’m a far more collaborative leader,” she said. “I really enjoyed working with Tom and learned a lot from him, but I’m really not him.”