The three finalists for the job of Denver Public Schools superintendent fielded questions from students, parents, and community members Thursday in back-to-back public interviews that touched on topics ranging from charter schools to dress codes to how to empower Denver’s more than 92,000 students to help shape the district’s direction.
The Denver district has been searching for a new superintendent since former superintendent Susana Cordova left in December after nearly two years at the helm. The seven-member school board whittled a pool of 38 applicants down to three finalists. They are:
Stephanie Soliven, an assistant superintendent in Brevard Public Schools in Florida
Andre Wright, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools in Colorado
Alex Marrero, interim superintendent for the City School District of New Rochelle in New York
The next superintendent will take the helm of a district recovering from pandemic learning disruptions. The school board is also grappling with the financial implications of declining enrollment and the need to write a new strategic plan for the district, which may differ significantly from a previous plan that expired in 2020. The board has shifted away from past education reform strategies such as closing schools with low test scores, and has asked tough questions of autonomous district-run schools and independent charter schools.
Here is a summary of what finalists said Thursday in an interview led by Denver high school students and one by parents and community members.
On how they would give students more decision-making power in the district
Soliven: “I’ve been known to go into a lot of student assemblies and tell kids to be angry, to speak up and demand what they’re entitled to,” she said.
Soliven said she’d work with students on drafting district policies and writing the procedures that schools must follow to put those policies into action. But she said policies are not enough; Soliven said she’d work to empower teachers to give students a voice at the school level.
Wright: He pledged to communicate both formally and informally with students. Wright said students could expect to see him at football games and school plays. But he said he’d also want to create a student advisory council with representation from across the district.
“You’re going to hear me say, ‘Don’t just bring me the problem. …. Bring me some solutions so that we can make this a productive conversation,’” Wright said.
Marrero: He said would continue his practice of meeting with an advisory council of students every other Friday to discuss topics ranging from whether teachers should assign remote schoolwork on snow days to whether high schools should get rid of class rankings.
“I get teased,” he said. “When I have a cabinet meeting and there’s a hot topic, folks say, ‘Well, we have to wait until Dr. Marrero speaks to the students.’”
On what they wish they could go back and change about their own education
Soliven: A former history teacher, Soliven said, “I first want to go back to students and apologize for giving them an incomplete education,” especially on racism and the history of the United States. “Then I want to go further back and express my anger to those who gave me an incomplete education,” she said. “That cycle is going to stop here with me.”
Wright: “I would pay more attention to the opportunities provided for me and not dismiss those as something extra,” he said. As a superintendent, Wright said he’d want to make sure students have opportunities to participate in activities in which they already excel and “lean them into areas they may be uncomfortable with so they don’t miss out.”
Marrero: An introverted student, Marrero said teachers overlooked him because he lived on what was perceived as the wrong side of the neighborhood. He said he didn’t feel empowered to use his voice. If he could go back, he said he’d do what the students at the interview were doing: “personifying courageous leadership as a young scholar.”
On school dress codes
Soliven: She said she’s not concerned with what students wear to school or whether they have body piercings or the length of their hems. What’s important to her, she said, is that students are excited to come to school and are greeted warmly when they arrive.
Wright: While he wouldn’t want to stifle students’ ability to express themselves, he said students and administrators should talk about limits. “How do you bring all parties together to have that conversation and then settle on, ‘Here’s what we want our school to be,’” he said.
Marrero: He said he’s in favor of students expressing their individuality, but that students’ school attire should be clean and show respect to their teachers and classmates. The line, he said, is when a student’s clothing disrupts others’ learning.
On whether school principals should have autonomy in how they run their schools, which previous Denver superintendents believed would help schools improve
Soliven: “There is a part of it that concerns me,” she said.
Soliven said she believes the district needs to play a key role in making sure schools are following best practices, especially when it comes to legal and equity issues, including ensuring schools are spending money to benefit their most vulnerable students.
“I know that can be criticized as micromanagement or a lack of trust,” Soliven said. “It’s absolutely not. It’s just that our jobs are so serious.”
Wright: Even if principals have autonomy, he said they still shouldn’t make decisions alone. Wright said it should be a joint effort that includes teachers and students too.
“It’s not an individual who moves a school,” he said. “I don’t buy that. It’s a collective.”
Wright said some decisions related to running a school should be “tight,” while others can be flexible. Communicating the non-negotiables up front is important, he said.
Marrero: He said he had autonomy as a principal and believes in it. Marrero said having that kind of flexibility helped him make needed changes when he was leading a school in the Bronx. But he said accountability should be paired with “coherence”: each school should have goals that tie back to the district’s goals and its strategic plan, he said.
On independently run charter schools and autonomous district-run innovation schools, and how the finalists would prioritize student learning over arguments about whether charter and innovation schools are good or bad
Soliven: She said she’s in favor of giving families options, but she said she wants a family’s decision to leave their neighborhood school to be “really, really difficult.”
“I am never going to take a parent’s choice away,” Soliven said. But she added that “I’m going to fight for our neighborhood schools to be that exceptional opportunity.”
Wright: Aurora Public Schools has the same types of schools that Denver does, but there are fewer of them because Aurora is a smaller district, Wright said. What’s important to him, he said, is understanding how those schools are serving children.
Wright talked about doing “school quality reviews” that entail observing teachers, speaking with students, and reviewing academic data to understand how schools are providing “a wholesome experience for our children.” Community members should be trained to go into schools and do some of that observation, he said.
Marrero: He said he is in favor of giving families options of where to send their children. But he said it’s unfair if some schools have more resources or a “fancy facade” to attract students.
“I want to empower the competition, but it needs to be healthy,” Marrero said.
He floated the idea of forming groups of different kinds of schools — a traditional district-run school, an innovation school, and a charter school — that would share best practices and push each other to improve. But he said they should not try to recruit each others’ students.
On making sure students are not criminalized at school
Soliven: While she’s seen some school police officers build positive relationships with students, Soliven said the criminalization of what she called “common school behaviors” happens too often. She said that while she believes schools need safety personnel on campus, it doesn’t have to be a police officer with the authority to arrest students.
Wright: In his past roles, especially as an assistant principal in charge of discipline, Wright said he had to make sure his school wasn’t suspending some students — especially students of color — more than others. His approach, he said, was to try to get to the root of whatever had caused a student’s behavior and resolve the issue rather than dole out punishment.
Marrero: A former guidance counselor, Marrero said he believes in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of sending students into the criminal justice system, he said he favors having students perform “civil duty” to make up for any harm they’ve caused.
“The magic of second chances are remarkable,” he said.