If you scan a room of first graders in any large city’s public schools, you will see the faces of children who are well-fed, well-dressed and ready-to-learn. You will also see, among them, a smattering who display none of these qualities or characteristics. But, each has potential and for teachers, the charge is to get the best out of each child and hope that a life-long curiosity and thirst for knowledge is instilled.
But for Denver native and life-long educator Susana Cordova, it’s not just one classroom of students she wants these things for. It’s hundreds of classrooms and thousands of students!
Cordova has been selected to serve as interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools during the absence of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Boasberg recently announced he’s taking a six-month leave of absence to travel with his family.
In a between-meetings phone conversation, Cordova spoke about the challenges that await as she drove back to Denver from an early morning appointment in Colorado Springs. “There is not a lot of time,” she says. “We have big work this semester,” she says as she details a checklist of tasks that await. “We’re getting into our heavy time of year; working on leadership in schools, recruiting strong principals. There is work to do with our teachers,” all of which qualify as white-hot priorities. And then, there are those other things that await, none of which could be called ‘incidental.’
Cordova will oversee a new DPS teachers’ contract negotiations` and sign off on which schools to close---an issue that almost certainly will inspire the ire of parents who don’t want their children switching schools. She will also be heavily involved in asking voters to approve tax hikes next November that will be used to pay for school renovations.
Cordova’s history with DPS began at Barnum Elementary School. “I walked to school every day,” she recalled. “I always loved school. I loved reading, learning and just had a phenomenal teacher in fourth grade, Mrs. Jeannie Vander Wyst, who just believed in me and my friends.”
From kindergarten to today, Cordova’s odyssey with DPS has spanned a lifetime. And now she sits atop the DPS ladder hoping for its students the same amazing journey as the one she has had.
Graduating with honors from Denver’s Lincoln High School, she went on to receive her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver and, later, her Masters from the University of Colorado.
Cordova began her career in education as a classroom teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School before moving on to West High. In each school, she taught in both English and Spanish. Later, she served as principal at Remington Elementary before moving into DPS administration. Her current position, Chief of Schools, makes her the number two ranking official in the district.
The Denver native says the journey from Horace Mann to DPS chief has been achieved only because of education, which she refers to as ‘the great equalizer.’ She jokes that her goal as a freshly minted bilingual teacher back then was just “to make it to the end of the day.” But she is dead serious about the goals she has set for herself and the district’s 90-plus thousand students which make up a potpourri of ethnicities, cultures and challenges. Some things, she knows, will be easier and more doable than others.
As an example, there is not a lot she can do about the economics of the district’s students. DPS says that nearly 70 percent of its students live below the U.S. poverty guideline. But with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, Cordova has set her sights on boosting DPS graduation rates from its current 62 percent levels.
To move in that direction, Cordova has the support of a school board that was unanimous in selecting her to take the district’s reins and move it forward.
“I actually supported her for selfish reasons,” says DPS school board Vice President and former Colorado Lieutenant Governor, Barbara O’Brien. “We’ve worked really closely together, she has been a principal and she was a very good instructional leader and someone who could really help us meet our Denver 2020 plan.” The 2020 plan is the board’s blueprint for closing achievement gaps, increasing graduation rates and boosting the number of high-performing schools by the year 2020.
“I have no intention of wasting my next six months on autopilot. I want to make sure that everyone has their foot on the pedal and not let up for a second,” said O’Brien.
In a school district that is nearly 60 percent Hispanic, Cordova’s appointment is also symbolic. While that will certainly be a plus, says O’Brien, “that is not why we picked her.” O’Brien says Cordova was selected because “we thought she was the best fit and set of brains to help us do a better job.”
Another DPS board member, Rosemary Rodriguez, says Cordova’s selection was based on a number of factors and not just her resumé and skill set to do the job. “Susana is DPS,” says Rodriguez, whose own resumé and Rolodex are legendary across the city. “She’s a graduate, a former teacher and a former principal,” who has worked hard in every job she has held. “We are better because Susana had dedicated her career to DPS.”
While there is no indication that Boasberg will not return, Cordova’s six-month tenure will be a quasi-audition for the job in the event he has a change of heart. “We will be deciding that all along the pathway,” says O’Brien. “We know what our benchmarks are and are not waiting until July.”
Cordova says it will take a lot of hard work to meet her goals. But she is inspired by a number of people who have also been faced with enormous challenges and found a way to overcome them. She names the names of former DPS education giants, including the district’s first Hispanic woman superintendent, Bernadette Romero Seick, Bernie Valdez and former superintendent Patti Baca and political leader and organizer, Paul Sandoval. All, she says, have inspired her.
“I get what they did to make it possible for me to be here today and see how important they were,” says Cordova. “Everyone has someone to pave the way for them.”
The career educator says she also has another charge. In taking this position, she automatically becomes a role model, a commodity that was not in abundance when she began her own journey. “I appreciate the work that came before me,” she says. “We all have an obligation to reach out and bring people up.”
Cordova is married to Denver financier, Eric Duran. They have two children, including a daughter who attends DPS and son who is in college.