After a 31-year career working in many facets of the Denver Public Schools system, Susana Cordova is rightfully full of mixed emotions as her days as superintendent come to a close.
It’s bittersweet to leave the district from which she and her kids graduated to embark on a new adventure as the deputy superintendent of leading and learning at the Dallas Independent School District in Texas. Denver Public Schools quite literally changed her life.
“I grew up in a hardworking family who loved me and really valued education, but my parents’ opportunities were really limited because of the time they grew up and their lack of access to education,” Cordova said in a parting interview with The Denver Post. “My life and children’s life is completely different, and the reality is that we do change lives.”
During her career, Cordova served as a bilingual secondary teacher, principal of a high-needs elementary school and an administrator before succeeding Tom Boasberg as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district. The board of education unanimously elected her to the position in 2018 because of her experience in the classroom and dedication to ensuring all students had the tools they needed to succeed, Carrie Olson, board president, said.
“Anyone in public education has a dedication beyond the paycheck. I saw that in Susana,” Olson said. “She has all these touch points to understand what it means to walk in our halls.”
That understanding proved useful during Cordova’s first weeks on the job when she helped resolve DPS’ first teacher strike in a quarter century. Cordova’s collaborative attitude was instrumental in negotiations, especially as she went to the table with many of her peers, Olson said.
Cordova’s legacy is cemented in the many strides DPS made toward diversity and inclusivity, said Sharon Bailey, the Denver school district’s senior adviser for equity initiatives. Under Cordova’s leadership, Denver schools adopted the Black Excellence and Know Justice, Know Peace resolutions, which focus on supporting Black student success and revising curriculums to include more historical and contemporary contributions of Black, Indigenous and Latino communities.
As DPS’ first Latina leader, Cordova also shifted the district’s perspective on second language acquisition to value and honor students who are multilingual, Olson said.
“She rose (equity) up so it became a cornerstone value of the district,” Bailey said. “She has really been a champion in creating a culture that makes educators and students of color feel like they belong.”
The biggest lesson Cordova takes away from her time in Denver Public Schools is the importance of having clear goals and being able to rally the community around them. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that no goal is too ambitious.
“Pre-pandemic, nobody would have thought that we could get laptops and internet to all kids. We had a plan around that and it was a multi-year, full bond initiative kind of plan. Then in the space of a couple months, we got out 55,000 Chromebooks, we got internet hotspots, we got broadband in homes,” Cordova said. “We needed to do this and we did it.”
Not every challenge was as successfully addressed. Decisions about whether to do in-person or remote learning in the fall were some of the most difficult to navigate as the pandemic evolved, she said. And looking back, Cordova admits she probably would have made different decisions based on what she now knows about the disease and how it spreads in schools.
Parents criticized Cordova and other district leaders for their response to the pandemic. Tim Kotowski went as far as to transfer his daughter, who is a freshman, out of the district in September when it became apparent she would not return to in-person learning. The superintendent’s departure in the middle of year mired by crisis is also disheartening, he said.
“This is a lost year for DPS students,” Kotowski said, “and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.”
It’s hard to gauge how profound an impact the pandemic will make on students’ academic and social-emotional well-being, Cordova said, but she expects addressing the effects will be part of her duties for years to come. In her new role in Dallas, Cordova will be working with the academic and innovation teams to develop school strategies and support teachers to meet these new student needs.
To her successor, Cordova advised getting to know the “amazing people in DPS,” setting a clear vision with the board of education of what it is they want to achieve and moving beyond ideological divides to do what’s best for students.
“I don’t know that there’s a more important job than superintendent of Denver Public Schools,” Cordova said. “Roll up your sleeves, jump in, look past labels and find it within yourself to truly listen to what people are saying and find the common ground. I think that’s the only way to move forward.”
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