Susana Cordova named sole finalist for Colorado Commissioner of Education

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Contract negotiations restarted briefly Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. The session, held in a packed room at the DPS campus on South Acoma Street, ended when DCTA members rejected the school district’s latest offer. DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova watches as DCTA members walk out after the district’s latest offer.

Susana Cordova, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, has been named the sole finalist to become Colorado Commissioner of Education.

The nine-member state Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to advance Cordova, who is currently a superintendent-in-residence for the nonprofit Transcend. She was formerly deputy superintendent of the Dallas public school district. 

Cordova's hiring appears to make her the state’s first Latina education commissioner. About one-third of Colorado’s 883,264 students are Latino and 46 percent are students of color.

The board must wait two weeks to take a formal vote on the selection. Its next meeting is June 14. Twenty-three people applied and the board selected six pre-finalist candidates.

“We are thrilled to welcome Susana Cordova as Colorado’s next Commissioner of Education,” said Governor Jared Polis in a statement. “Her prior work boosting academic progress and improving access to high-quality education for learners of all backgrounds as Superintendent of Denver Public Schools is sure to benefit students across the state as she brings this passion and experience to this new role.” 

The cabinet-level position interfaces with state board members, educators, students and leaders from other state departments, such as higher education, workforce development and early childhood education. 

Cordova will replace current commissioner Katy Anthes, who announced last December that she would step down in July. She led the department for six years.

Cordova left DPS in 2020 after two years to become deputy superintendent of leading and learning in the Dallas Independent School district. She said the job was a new opportunity, but many education advocates believed Cordova was pushed to leave by a board majority that was at odds with her on a number of issues, including the district budget, school accountability, and school management. 

The child of Mexican-American parents and a first-generation college graduate, Cordova was educated in Denver Public Schools and spent 31 years working in the district. She spent time as a classroom teacher, a principal, chief academic officer and chief schools officer.

During her tenure leading DPS, Cordova led negotiations for the district during a turbulent teacher strike, helped the district weather a “bomb cyclone” snowstorm, budget cuts and reorganizations, and a global pandemic. She made equity front and center.

Board chair Rebecca McClellan said the board wanted a candidate who demonstrates personal and professional leadership success, and deep knowledge of education policy and content. They were especially focused on finding someone with a history of identifying or narrowing achievement gaps. The ideal candidate was someone strongly committed to including a “student-focused philosophy” in all decisions.

“[Cordova’s] extensive experience working in schools and districts, along with her thoughtful and caring approach to addressing the issues facing students and educators, will be a tremendous asset to the state of Colorado,” said McClellan. 

School districts in Colorado are in charge of their own curriculum and manage their own budgets. But the school board and commissioner play oversight roles for all 178 districts in the state. 

The new commissioner will continue to monitor the school districts’ post-pandemic recovery, including the statewide teacher shortage. She will also continue efforts to expand career and technical opportunities for students and supervise teacher licensure and grant programs.

As commissioner, Cordova will take over the state’s accountability system, which measures academic progress and outcomes and places struggling districts and schools on improvement plans. That will include monitoring a state-ordered reorganization of the Commerce-City based Adams 14 school district. The district has battled persistently low-test scores for more than a decade and was wracked with turnover and multiple superintendents. Those issues could result in boundary changes or a new way of governing or managing the district.

When outgoing commissioner Anthes announced her departure, she said the pandemic took a toll and that it was the right time for new leadership. She held several executive positions at the department prior to becoming commissioner.  

Anthes was applauded by many for her collaborative leadership style, respect for differing opinions and perspectives and search for consensus. When she took the reins in 2016, she stabilized the department after a period of resignations and turnover.

Board members credited Anthes for guiding the department and the board through multiple challenges, from helping spur improvements in low-performing districts to guiding school districts through the pandemic.

Cordova’s selection has drawn enthusiastic reaction

Since Anthes announced her resignation, the most common comment from superintendents across the state has been the desire for a commissioner with “K-12 experience and a deep understanding of the day-to-day pressures and realities of leading schools at this time,” said Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association for School Executives.

“Having a former CASE member like Susana is welcome news,” he said. “Many of our members know her and are excited to have her back in Colorado. We look forward to getting started on the many pressing policy issues coming before CDE that impact districts, schools and students.”

The Colorado Education Association, the union that represents 39,000 educators, said it’s encouraged by Cordova’s selection because of her extensive experience as an educator, including as a paraprofessional (which is similar to a classroom aide) and a language arts teacher.

“We are hopeful that given her educator background, she will be uniquely suited to center educators’ voices in our collective pursuit to build the public schools our students need and deserve,” said president and high school counselor Amie Baca-Oehlert. 

Milo Marquez, chair of the Latino Education Coalition, said Cordova’s bilingualism and her extensive experience in two major cities working with marginalized communities shows her dedication to equitable education.

“Given the significant impact public education has on our students of color, particularly our Latinos and English language learners, Susana's understanding of these issues is critical,” he said. “Having somebody that understands our community is what we need…I think people are happy that she's back home.”

DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero also congratulated his predecessor in a statement.

“As many of you have heard her proudly say, Susana was “born and raised” in Denver and our DPS family is so proud of Susana,” he said in a message to the DPS community. “We know she’ll excel in this next chapter of her extraordinary career. We look forward to working with Susana closely going forward to build on the progress and momentum we have here in Denver Public Schools.”