After navigating leadership change at City Hall, New Visions prepares for one of its own

PHOTO: New Visions for Public Schools/Julienne Schaer
New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes is moving to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he will oversee K-12 education strategy.

When incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio needed a schools chancellor, the name Robert Hughes was quickly floated.

That’s because Hughes, as president of the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools for the past 15 years, has often resembled a big-city schools chief. Under him, the organization helped open 99 district schools and seven charters, and has trained teachers and provided data-crunching tools to dozens of others.

Hughes didn’t become chancellor. But he did position New Visions to continue to play a prominent role in the new administration — a remarkable feat, considering that the group was closely associated with the previous administration’s tactic of replacing struggling schools with new ones, which de Blasio has rejected.

Now, the 25-year-old organization is preparing to weather yet another major transition as Hughes moves to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the often-controversial philanthropy that has bankrolled some of New Visions’ key initiatives. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat shares a board member with New Visions, and receives funding from the Gates Foundation.)

With city contracts and private grants in place for the next several years, Hughes said he’s leaving the institution he helped build in good shape.

“Now is a good time to go, when it’s clear the next three or four years are strong and lots of good things are going to continue to happen,” he said in an interview this week. “New Visions has never been stronger.”

The nonprofit, which has maintained a low profile among non-educators, occupies a perch in the rare middle ground of today’s polarized educational terrain.

Its close attention to the nuts and bolts of instruction and efforts to involve parents has led to partnerships with the city teachers union (whose chief sits on New Visions’ board) and parent-organizing groups. New Visions launched a civic-activism training program for parents last year, and is working with the teachers union to distribute New Visions-made teaching materials and tests.

At the same time, its creation of new schools and emphasis on data analysis appealed to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who clashed bitterly with the union, and to other groups pushing dramatic, data-driven changes. Those interested in New Visions’ work included the Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into often-controversial education initiatives such as the new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, and charter schools.

New Visions has “been able to thread the needle between school reformers,” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, “and educators who are not viewed as part of the reform camp.”

The connection between the Gates Foundation and New Visions has been strong for years.

Gates has contributed $14.6 million to New Visions’ efforts to help teachers transition to the Common Core, through coaching and custom-made curriculum materials.

The foundation also largely financed the work that New Visions is best known for: the scores of small schools it opened beginning in the early 2000s. The foundation gave each new school a $400,000 start-up grant before it pivoted away from small schools.

More recently, the foundation encouraged New Visions to design its own charter high schools using the lessons it learned opening district schools, according to New Visions founder and chairman Richard Beattie, who said the group is aiming to establish 12 charter schools over time.

All told, Gates has given $76 million to New Visions projects under Hughes, including $56.5 million for school creation, according to a New Visions spokesman.

“If one were to imagine where Bob Hughes would be going based on New Visions’ history, Gates is a pretty obvious destination,” Pallas said.

New Visions recently navigated another leadership change — the one at City Hall. Even with its ties to de Blasio’s close ally, the teachers union, it was still unclear two years ago how the group would fare under the de Blasio administration.

The small schools it designed were essential to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing large, low-performing high schools — a tactic despised by many parents and educators, and condemned by de Blasio. De Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, expressed skepticism about a multiyear study that found that students who enrolled at the small schools were more likely to graduate and attend college than peers who ended up at other high schools.

When Fariña was preparing to overhaul Bloomberg’s school-support system, New Visions board members grew so concerned that they met with a top official at City Hall to argue for a continuing role under the new structure.

In the end, they were successful. New Visions has a five-year, $20 million school-support contract with the city that continues through 2018, an education department spokesman said, which involves 70 schools.

The education department also recently signed a $2 million contract with the group to share data tools it created with an additional 130 schools. The tools use Google’s online software to compile student information from several unwieldy databases into easy-to-use spreadsheets, allowing the schools to analyze absences or determine whether students are on track to graduate.

“The chancellor doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the small high schools record,” said Beattie, New Visions’ founder. “But she certainly appreciates the help we do with data analysis.”

Hughes will begin at Gates in June, where he will oversee their K-12 education strategy. He said he will focus particularly on schools’ implementation of the Common Core standards and on efforts to improve teacher effectiveness.

In the meantime, New Visions’ board will form a search committee to find a new president. Beattie said it will be hard to replace Hughes, but that the team and partnerships Hughes cultivated would outlast him.

“New Visions will be in good shape because they do well what anyone in education has to do well: which is, they learn,” said Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, adding, “I will miss Bob terribly.”

Mirza Sánchez-Medina, the principal of Manhattan Bridges High School, a small school with an above-average graduation rate that serves many recent immigrants, said New Visions had helped her recruit teachers, provide staff training, refine curriculum, and analyze data. She said Hughes often stopped by the school to visit classes and ask her about any challenges — support she believes will continue after he leaves.

“I’m sad to see Bob go,” she said, “but I’m not concerned it’s going to fall apart.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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