The Denver school board has chosen Alex Marrero, a school district administrator from suburban New York, as the next superintendent to lead Colorado’s largest district as it recovers from the pandemic.
Denver Public Schools board members flanked by community members announced their decision at a press conference Wednesday outside South High School. Board President Carrie Olson said Marrero emerged as the top candidate by demonstrating an ability to listen and interact with the community and bring together people.
”Dr. Marrero rose to the top as the best leader for the students, staff, and community of Denver Public Schools,” Olson said.
Marrero, 38, served as interim superintendent of the City School District of New Rochelle for the past eight months after the previous superintendent resigned. He was previously the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in New Rochelle and before that an assistant superintendent in East Ramapo, New York.
He joked that leading a district through a pandemic is worth 10 years of normal experience.
Marrero described growing up with hair that fell into his eyes because his family couldn’t afford trips to the barber shop and because his bangs served as a barrier between himself and a New York City school system where he felt like a burden to others.
“Little Alexi is now Dr. Marrero because of the hard work of those who were in front of me and also what I had to overcome,” he said. “Imagine a world in which a student doesn’t have to figure it out for themselves. That’s what I’m working towards. I feel like my life experiences and my practical professional experiences have prepared me to be here in Denver.”
Marrero and the seven-member board are in contract negotiations but have reached agreement on key terms. The board is expected to vote on the hire June 3.
Marrero was chosen from among three finalists. The other two superintendent finalists were Andre Wright, the chief academic officer for nearby Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, and Stephanie Soliven, the assistant superintendent for secondary leading and learning in Brevard Public Schools in Florida. A total of 37 candidates applied for the job, according to Alma Advisory Group, the search firm hired by the board.
Before Marrero was announced as the sole finalist, a coalition of Latino leaders in Denver asked the school board to reopen the superintendent search because they questioned whether any of the three finalists had the right experience to lead Denver Public Schools.
Remarks from board members and community leaders at the press conference seemed aimed at reassuring the skeptics.
Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon said Marrero shares much in common with many of the district’s students, educators, and leaders. She said he has the ability to unify and strengthen the school system.
“Dr. Marrero has shown himself as a leader who is responsive and respects all voices,” Bacon said. “He is prepared to listen and prioritize interactions with families and students, teachers and administrators, community members and partners.”
Leaders also said repeatedly that the success of Denver students depends on Marrero’s success and urged the community to support him.
“We need to give him a fair shake,” Olson said. “We need to lift up our hopes and dreams and bring out the possibilities for our students as we emerge from the pandemic.”
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that helped elect the current board majority, issued a statement in support of Marrero’s selection.
The announcement came as a surprise because school board members for weeks have said they planned to make a decision in June. Marrero also was a finalist for the superintendent position in New Rochelle. That district on Wednesday announced it had selected the other finalist, Jonathan Raymond, to be its next superintendent.
In making the announcement now, Olson said Denver board members wanted to be transparent and fair to the other candidates.
The next superintendent in Denver will take the helm of a district recovering from pandemic learning disruptions. The district also is experiencing declining enrollment and a shift in the way it approaches school improvement. The school board, which sets policy for the district, has moved away from past education reform strategies such as closing schools with low test scores, and has asked tough questions of the district’s independent charter schools.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, with about 90,000 students this year. More than half of all students — 52% — are Hispanic, 14% are Black, and 26% are white, according to district data. A little less than two-thirds of students qualify for subsidized school meals, and about 30% are learning English as a new language.
The previous superintendent, Susana Cordova, resigned in November to take a job in the Dallas school district. In surveys and meetings, parents, teachers, students, and community members said they wanted the board to hire a superintendent of color who has experience as an educator, knowledge of Denver education issues, and a demonstrated commitment to equity.
Marrero was the first Latino administrator to lead the New Rochelle district in New York, which is about one-ninth the size of Denver, with 10,400 students. The demographics are similar to Denver: 49% of New Rochelle students are Hispanic, 20% are Black, and 25% are white, and more than half come from families who qualify for economic assistance, according to the New York State Education Department. The percentage of students who are English language learners in New Rochelle is smaller than in Denver at 12%.
Marrero speaks English and Spanish, which many Denver community members said was important for the next district leader. His biography on the Denver Public Schools website says he is the child of a Cuban refugee and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
Marrero has a daughter who will be entering kindergarten in Denver in the fall and a younger son.
The Latino Education Coalition, the group that wanted to reopen the search, was particularly concerned with whether the finalists had track records of successfully educating English language learners or if they understood the Mexican American and Chicano culture of many Denver students. The district has for years been under a court-ordered consent decree that requires it to better serve English language learners.
In a pair of public interviews conducted by Denver students and community members earlier this month, Marrero said he was an English language learner as a child. He said that while he may not share the same cultural background as many of the students in Denver, he has an appreciation for it. Two of his mentors are Mexican American and Chicano, he said.
“Being Latino, I acknowledge that we are all different in terms of Latinos, Latinas, and Latinx. We are not monoliths,” Marrero said. “So embracing and celebrating culture — that means custom, cuisine, dialects — is critical, and we have to come with an awareness.”
Marrero said that the Denver district needs to “build on the consent decree” in terms of how it educates its English language learners.
At the press conference, Marrero said he welcomes questions and criticisms and that they sharpen his thinking. He said listening and learning — in the form of listening tours and deep data analysis — will be his priority in his first 100 days.
At the same time, he asked critics to consider his own experiences as a child who arrived at school not knowing English and as the principal of a Bronx high school that saw students enter not speaking English and go on to graduate with honors.
Ron Cabrera, a longtime Colorado educator who served as Denver’s interim superintendent in 2018, said he knows Marrero from his work with the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents and has complete confidence in him.
“I know the importance, backed by research, of finding a champion for our underserved students, a leader who can be a role model for all our students, our parents, and our educational colleagues,” Cabrera said. “I believe Dr. Alex Marrero is that champion for us.”
Reviewing Denver schools’ Black excellence plans and preparing for “re-entry” after a disrupted school year will also be top priorities, he said.
Marrero said his core belief is that every student deserves intellectual, social, and emotional respect, and he committed to working to close academic gaps in Denver schools.
A former guidance counselor, Marrero said he wants to disrupt 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.
As the press conference wrapped up, Marrero took a few minutes to talk with students at South High School. One asked the most critical question: What’s your philosophy on snow days?
Many districts, including Denver, have asked students to log into classes this year instead of taking the day off when it snows.
Marrero avoided a direct answer but promised to talk to students — and not let his daughter sway him too much.
“Are we going to have snow days where you stay home and enjoy hot chocolate and snow angels and snow ball fights?” Marrero said. “Or are we going to have synchronous and asynchronous instruction and not lose that day? That’s a strong argument on both. We’re exploring that.”