Appointed in December to the school district’s top job, new Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova has barely had time to pick new office drapes yet has walked into a labor situation that may well end in teachers walking off the job for the first time in a generation. It’s a situation Cordova does not want to see, not only because it’s her job to keep schools up and running but also because she’s walked in the proverbial shoes of a DPS student and those of a classroom teacher, as well.
The Denver native’s roots in DPS run long and deep. She began her educational odyssey at Barnum Elementary, moving from there to Kepner Junior High before graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School. After college---Cordova’s a University of Denver alum---she took her first teaching position at Horace Mann Middle School. It was followed by another faculty position at West High before transitioning into assistant principal and principal positions at Bryant Webster and Remington Elementary, respectively.
“I have tremendous regard for teachers,” said Cordova. “I know what they go through; how hard they work. But good people can share similar goals and values and still have different ideas of how to get there.” Still, getting ‘there’ is the challenge. DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing the district’s approximately 5,600 teachers, are looking at an $8 million chasm separating the two sides.
Currently a rank-and-file DPS teacher’s pay averages about $58,000 annually, slightly higher for those teaching special needs students. But the current salary structure in a city like Denver where rents and salaries are growing farther and farther apart, says DCTA, are just not keeping up.
A vote last November to provide $1.6 billion in new tax revenue for public education, including teachers’ salaries, might have impacted the current logjam. But Amendment 73 went down in flames.
While a strike looks like a good possibility, it’s also entirely possible it can also be averted. The state, as it did when then Governor Romer stepped in during the 1995 labor impasse, could once again intervene. If that happens, a strike could not take place until the state removes itself.
In the event of a teacher walkout, the district has contingency plans to ensure schools remain open. Still, finding and filling the city’s classrooms with enough qualified substitute teachers will be a challenge.
Despite the labor situation Cordova has inherited as superintendent, she remains fixed on her long-term goals for Denver’s students. As a product of the system as well as a parent of two students educated in the DPS she now oversees, she is both realistic and optimistic that a student coming out of DPS will be prepared for whatever direction he or she takes.
“How do we do that,” she asks. “We do it by creating a more collaborative environment.” Students, she said, can be taught effectively while feeling both good about themselves as well as respected.
“I want to hire and development great teachers and great leaders,” said Cordova. “Our teachers can all be great---and great for the kids---with the appropriate training and focus.”
Cordova wants something else for DPS students that, in her days as a student, was missing. “DPS does not have a great reputation for engaging in our community.” As a result, “we see a lot of passion and anger with a lack of authentic engagement.”
The timeline for Cordova from student to teacher to administrator in DPS has been a lifetime journey. But the journey has allowed her to examine this unique experience with a 360-degree perspective.
“It’s amazing to me that I could be sitting where I am,” she said. “I am in a very different place than my parents who were denied educational opportunity in DPS.” Cordova uses an early elementary school memory as motivation to better do her job.
She recalled how as a third-grader she invested so much into winning a seat on her school’s student council. She lost. It was, she said, “devastating.” But as she got older, her loss became an epiphany. All kids suffer setbacks, said the former classroom teacher. But they cannot define you.
Cordova, who remains close friends with scores of teachers still in the classroom as well as others who’ve retired or taken different paths, knows all eyes are on her while the current labor situation gets resolved. And while she will give it all the energy required to see it through, she also has the needs of the nearly 200,000 students to consider. “I hope every DPS student can unlock the educational opportunities that are there for them.” And, recalling her long ago third-grade student council heartbreaking moment, “I want them to know that disappointment is not defeat.”