Outgoing Denver Public Schools Superintendent Reflects On Tenure — And Coronavirus

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova announces an extended spring break to protect students from COVID-19 on March 12, 2020.

In the final press conference of her two-year tenure, outgoing Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said that in order for the city’s schools to succeed, Denver’s education community has to move past labels.

Whether you support charter or neighborhood schools — or believe schools should be laser-focused on test scores over social and emotional development — Denver’s education community is fractured.

“As a parent of a recent DPS graduate I think it is a fallacy and a false notion that people either care about test scores or they care about their kids’ well-being,” she said. “They don’t have to come at the expense of one or another.”

Cordova’s decision to leave her post and take a job in Dallas has caused a flurry of accusations that she was pushed out by the school board. But in her comments Thursday, Cordova did not blame the board. Cordova said it’s easy to label something good or bad but that doesn’t help address the enormous complexities of the challenges facing schools.

“Roll up your sleeves, jump in, look past labels, find it within yourself to truly listen to what people are truly saying to find the common ground.”

Cordova, who was educated, taught, and had a number of leadership positions in Denver Public Schools, said she’s leaving with mixed emotions.

“My roots are really deep here,” she said.

She said the last two years were marked by significant challenges. She inherited a teacher’s strike from her predecessor, successfully negotiating — along with teachers union officials — pay raises after a three-day strike. Budget issues in the wake of the strike forced deep cuts to the district’s central office, followed by unprecedented challenges from a global pandemic, which she called “the greatest educational crisis” of our time.

Cordova pointed to some successes as well. Graduation rates will likely be the highest ever for the district when they are released in January. Last year’s graduates earned 54,000 college credits before going to college, saving families an estimated $8.7 million. She said big gains were also made in early literacy. Cordova said she regrets that more progress could not have been made in narrowing the decades-long wide achievement gap between students of color and white students.

“Our gaps are unacceptable,” she said, adding that efforts like the recent passage of the Black Excellence resolution are designed to improve education for Black students.

Cordova implored the Denver community to follow COVID-19 health guidance during the holidays so that children can return to school in January.

 “We have seen both here in Denver, in the Metro area, in the nation and the world very effective practices keeping schools open, if we follow those practices,” she said.

During the pandemic, she reassigned about 100 central office staff to permanent long-term substitute positions and expects that will continue, including classroom coverage, guest teaching, recess, playground duty, and covering teacher breaks. Cordova herself provided relief for preschool and first grade teachers at Bryant-Webster Elementary School when schools were in session.

“If you ever need a wonderful reminder of how important in-person learning it is, hang out at a playground,” she said.  

An interim superintendent, Dwight Jones, takes over DPS January 1. Jones was commissioner of education in Colorado from 2007 to 2010. The DPS Board of Education is leading a national search for Cordova's replacement.