State’s Largest School District Superintendent On Assessing Pandemic Learning Gap, Masking, Inclusivity

July 28, 2021
Dr. Alex Marrero, who was chosen by Denver Public Schools to be its new superintendent, speaks at a press conference announcing his appointment on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.Dr. Alex Marrero, who was chosen by Denver Public Schools to be its new superintendent, speaks at a press conference announcing his appointment on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Dr. Alex Marrero, who was chosen by Denver Public Schools to be its new superintendent, speaks at a press conference announcing his appointment on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

The first day of school is just around the corner. It's Aug. 23 for the state's largest district, Denver. And DPS has a new superintendent. Alex Marrero arrived earlier this month and already finds himself with a full schedule of subjects. The pandemic and academic performance chief among them.  

Read the Transcript:

Ryan Warner:  Superintendent, thank you for being with us.

Alex Marerro:  You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

RW:  And let's begin with COVID-19 and the Delta variant. The CDC recommending now everyone at school, regardless of vaccination status, mask up. Now before that announcement, a neighboring district, Aurora Public Schools, also quite sizeable, they announced last week that they’ll require unvaccinated staff to wear masks and strongly is recommending them for un-vaccinated students. Of course we know that's anyone basically under 12. Masks certainly came up when we asked listeners for questions:

Recorded Question from Allan Cogill:  My name is Allan Cogill, I live in Denver. And my question for Dr. Marrero is if DPS will follow the guidance of the American Academy of Pediatrics to have universal masking for everyone, age two plus, regardless of vaccination status. I think the American Academy of Pediatrics is kind of considered the gold standard by a lot of parents to keep kids healthy. So I was curious about that.

AM:  Would you like me to respond?

RW:  Yeah, you hear his daughter in the background there, superintendent, they were on a hike. I’ll just say that the AAP indeed recommends quote, that all staff and students who are two or older wear face masks, unless they can't for medical reasons. So what is DPS' approach?

AM:  Well we're still in deep deliberation Ryan, for several reasons, right? Because of the new guidance, also the neighboring districts, as you mentioned, some who've made decisions, others who are struggling. I predict that by the end of this week, we'll take a stance and make an announcement. Just so we're clear, just as we heard from that caller, who was advocating for universal masking, in my inbox and as I stroll the streets, I'm hearing equal amounts so it's 50/50 split of those who are saying that masks need to go away and everything that they're justifying for their why. So it's a very difficult position. And our doctors have been incredibly supportive in terms of what we have done thus far. I want to honor that commitment, but also it’s difficult when you have folks who you are servicing, i.e. students and parents who may want something different.

RW:  But why wouldn't you just default to what the group of pediatricians nationally is saying? Why would there be any reason to do other than what child health experts say?

AM:  Well, because of the feedback, right? So we're community leaders, right? So if the community is wanting something different then I think we have to at least discuss that. So it's not as if we're not going to default that way, it's probable, but to be determined. I know that in a neighboring district there is, I'm not going to say a threat, but I guess the public health order from their public health office is going to actually not mention masks as a requirement. They're going to say that it's recommended, but they're going to go down the lane of quarantine procedures. So that is what we're grappling with. It's not just the mask, it's what happens as a result of those who are unmasked or who are masked in terms of what we're going to do with everything that is social distancing and also quarantine. So it's just worth a discussion as opposed to just default ‘cause I think that will be a tremendous disrespect for those who have advocated for us not to mask and those of our parents and our students.

RW:  So I want to be clear, you're leaving room for politics, not just science, correct.

AM:  Well, I think it’s not politics. I'm leaving room for the voices of those that we serve.

RW:  Will kids be able to learn remotely if families are uncomfortable with in-person learning at any point?

AM:  Yes, regardless of what the decision is, we have that option in DPS. So we have a virtual academy that exists. It's actually not tremendously enrolled, meaning there hasn't been a large demand for a continuation of online, remote learning, but that is an option that was decided before my arrival. And it's growing, slowly. Overwhelmingly students have requested to be in-person. But to your point, if there is a decision that's unfavorable for a certain household, they always have the option to enroll in our virtual academy.

RW:  And can they do so flexibly throughout the year or do they have to make that call by a date certain?

AM:  So we would love for it to happen before the school starts. We'll always allow them to enter throughout the school year, but we want to avoid the in and out for the sake of just programming for the receiving school, which would be their home school where they're enrolled.

RW:  Are you measuring air circulation and carbon dioxide levels in schools?

AM:  So, I don't have that in front of me, but I know that our operations team has been monitoring that tremendously. So I'm going to say, yes, they have. In addition to that, they're also using our capital bonds to make sure that we upgrade those sites that need any upgrades.

RW:  The pandemic forced students into remote learning for much of last school year with mixed opinions on how effective it was. According to a survey of about 500 Denver families conducted by Transform Education Now, this is a Denver nonprofit, about half of people believe their child has fallen behind academically. And about half say they don't think their kids were prepared to advance to the next grade. Here are some questions from Nicholas Martinez, TEN's co-founder and executive director:

Recorded Audio from Nicholas Martinez:  How would you measure how far behind students have maybe fallen as a result of the pandemic and how would you measure how successful the district is in catching them up? And what are the programs and staffing that you are planning to implement in order to ensure that all students are successful?

RW:  Let's break those up. What does DPS data show about how far students fell behind last year, Superintendent?

AM:  Great question. Same question that I asked upon my entry here. And unfortunately we do not have a true pulse. We do have data, but I'm not going to consider it valid data for a lot of reasons, in terms of the testing conditions, everything that goes along with testing sophistication. So what we're going to do upon our entry, making sure that as students are safe, secure, immediately, we have to really take a pulse on where our students are and that's going to come via an interim assessment that was designed in-house.

RW:  So they'll take that, the students will take that early on in the school year?

AM:  Ryan, yes. And I need you, your support, everybody who's listening. This is not an opportunity for folks to exercise their right, which is to opt out of any assessment. This is an opportunity for us to inform you as a parent and our students. So that's my plug to say, please sit for the exam. It's internal. It's only going to be shared with you, our practitioners and making sure that we have a pulse so we can know what course of action, individual planning needs to happen for each scholar. No opt out, please. Ryan, please. I want you to say it for me. No opt-out to your listeners.

RW:  Well that's not my role, but I'll let you say it. But what I hear you saying is this is not something that goes on to some transcript or that a college would look at or something like that.

AM:  That's absolutely correct. And I want to respect everybody's decision and choice, but in this rendition of our assessments, it's critical so we can answer that question whenever a parent asks publicly, but more importantly, so we can inform you as a parent and as a student and then our teachers can really design a program so we can just catch any student up. Or also push those who have excelled. At the same rate, I know that some self-reliant learners have really excelled during this pandemic because that's how they learn best.

RW:  And these will be in multiple subjects presumably.

AM:  Of course, right? Of course literacy and math being the one-two punch in education. But in multiple subjects.

RW:  Now let's say that one of those assessments or some of those assessments reveal that a student has fallen behind. The other part of Mr. Martinez's question is, are there specific programs in place this year to catch them up, to accelerate them in Denver public schools?

AM:  There are. So let's look at the year that is, right? And this can be seen as controversial because I'm not saying that we're taking away vacations, that we're extending the learning day. All I'm saying, it's all on the menu, it's on the slate of possibilities. So we're talking everything that goes along with an extended program if needed. Pre-school, meaning before the school day starts at the school and those recesses that we have, it's all in play. And especially the summer, once we really have a pulse. The way I see it is we've had an interruption to our normal way of instructing and learning as a student for eighteen-plus months, to think that we're going to bounce back in a year, I think is unreasonable considering not only is it an interrupted to the academic progress, but the social, emotional and mental well being that goes along with it, that's step one. Right? So I think that we have to at least honor the same time that we had in terms of our interruption, so that's a year and a half before I can feel comfortable saying Ryan, here's what we're going to achieve by the end of the year. I'm in no position to have end goals that are measurable without having a pulse at this moment.

RW:  Okay. So the assessment is part of that pulse. And then I hear you saying that the tools for those who have fallen behind might be to extend the school day, might be to add school days and to rely on summer school for the coming summer. Those are all tools that you may use.

AM:  Correct. 

RW:  All right. That of course costs money because you have to keep buildings open and staff there. Which makes me think of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration announced that in March. $81 billion to support states in their efforts to quote, get students back in the classroom safely for in-person learning to keep schools open and address the academic, social, and as you say, emotional and mental health needs of students. Denver is getting about $210 million from the American Rescue Plan. Is that what will pay for those additional hours? 

AM:  Yes, absolutely. So the team here really collaborated in an incredible way, operations/academics in our schools division. And I can just visualize the pie chart that was presented to me in my onboarding in which there was a tremendous amount of the pie, if you will, a nice slice that went into the capital upgrades, operational, everything that is HVAC and ventilation, as you mentioned earlier, but a sizeable chunk went into our academic program. And our schools division in which we have the flexibility to extend the school year, but also compensate in terms of a human resource, but also any other resources that we need in terms of developing curricula or designing individualized learning plans. So that's a funding source and, you know, we have that for several years, so it should provide the appropriate amount of resources we need as we, again, and I'm putting this loosely, bounce back and I say bounce back because my prediction is that there's going to be a tremendous need of bouncing back across the board, but to be determined in terms of where we all are. 

RW:  About three quarters of DPS students are of color with a third English language learners. And while the numbers have improved over the last four years or so, there's still an achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts. Other cities have incorporated the idea of high quality seats, a strategy designed to address gaps like that. Are you in favor of those or are there other initiatives that you'd prefer?

AM: Well, I'm in favor of really seeing and implementing the resolutions and to consent degrees that exist in DPS. In my travels and my research I have yet to come across a district that has taken the approach that DPS has, you know, a resolution that speaks to Black excellence that we have that resolution and looking forward to supporting those. Similarly when it comes to the consent decree, you know, it's written doctrine as far as I'm concerned, right? We have a duty, right, or else. So those are the two approaches that I want to continue here because it was slightly interrupted in terms of the consent decree. The Black excellence plan is going into its second year and I'm looking forward to using those two strategies that are DPS-owned to really close that opportunity gap that you mentioned.

RW:  Let's just say for the uninitiated, the Denver School Board passed a Black Excellence resolution in 2019 specifically to improve how it serves Black students. And then that consent decree dates back to what I think 2012 and has to do with second language learners, correct?   

AM:  That is correct. Thank you.

RW:  Yeah. That has the involvement obviously of courts. Classrooms across the country have also become a focal point of conversation, Superintendent, regarding social and racial justice. Critical race theory is one highly-debated example. In March, we spoke with a quartet of Denver students who brought Black History 365, an interactive curriculum designed to present a fuller historical picture of the African-American experience. And this is one of those students, Jenelle Nangah.:

Recorded Audio from Jenelle Nangah: For all of us, one goal that we all really have is being able to really bring out the truth because when it comes to our history, the truth is not told. And there's actually a lot of lies and misconceptions that come along with our history. 

RW:  What role do you see efforts like Black History 365 playing in DPS?

AM:  Well, yeah, aside from the Black Excellence resolution we also adopted the Black Lives Matter Curriculum in DPS. And you mentioned critical race theory and heard our young scholar. Our approach and what we remain committed to is providing a culturally-responsive education as well as fostering, cultivating and preserving a culture of inclusion and belonging. So I think we have to really see that through where our students in that case and families and team members are safe and welcome. So it's less about the academic concept that comes along with a critical race theory and such curricula that's focused on racism. I think it needs to really be embedded into practice. So it's less about the politics and what is, I guess, popular across the nation. And it's more about doing the work, right? So if we have a resolution and a curriculum that has been adopted, that's the approach that we're going to take and it's all inclusive. So I have absolute confidence that is going to meet the needs of that young scholar and everybody else. 

RW:  Will you say just a few words about the BLM curriculum and how you see that as being separate from politics?

AM:  Well, it, it was designed by teachers, right? So it's less about being responsive. It's more about what happened internally on our equity and excellence division. So I don't think it was in response to, it's not something, no, you don't build curricula overnight. So this is the work that's been happening for years here in DPS. So that's the approach. The approach is that is teacher created and teacher driven.

RW:  You were hired last month. The board of education confirmed you six to one, the lone dissenter was Barbara O'Brien who expressed concerns about your coming to Denver from New Rochelle, New York, where you served as an acting and interim superintendent. New Rochelle serves about 11,000 students. DPS has more than 90,000. And after the vote O'Brien said "The learning curve you'll face represents a complicated environment." What's your response?

AM:  She's absolutely correct, right? As soon as we make our leaps and bounds, systems are very different. Education is the same, right, in terms of what we expect in terms of concepts and structure for the most part. But in every shift that I've made, it's been a tremendous learning curve. So she's absolutely right. In terms of preparation, I cut my teeth in the largest school district in the entire nation. And I think folks have skipped over that. And that's the New York City department of education. We're talking 1.2 million students. And upon my entry, I mean, my exit, I should say I was a no really heading the Bronx, which had way more than 93,000 students. We're talking, you know, 200-300,000, but it's not about numbers. It's about systems. So no Director O'Brien is absolutely correct. What I can say is that this month has been incredible honeymoon, but I'm calling it a honeymoon in terms of interacting with the folks in the community. So it's less about the size because it's really a systems approach. And in terms of the learning curve, culturally 100%, but I've engaged with our Mexican and Chicano and Black communities. Those who also had similar points. And I think the reception has been incredibly great. And I would say that's not an overstatement.

RW:  Before we go, I just want to note that just before your departure from New York, you were named in a federal lawsuit that was filed by the former medical director. This was over the New Rochelle district's response to COVID-19. The district has denied the allegations made. Where does that lawsuit stand? And, and what sort of disconnect do you think led it to being filed?

AM:  Right. So where does this stand? I do not know because interestingly enough, two months removed from, I guess when it became public, I have yet to be served. Right? So I find that incredibly interesting, Ryan, right? So interesting enough, it came right after the big announcement in terms of the press conference. So that just, if please read into it, because I know I am, I'm easy to find in New York. I was there for one month. No one came to the district and here I am in DPS for a month and similarly, no action. So I have to acknowledge that it exists because I guess it's out in public. In terms of a disconnect for and also the one in question she's not former, she's still the current, right? She's on leave, if I'm not mistaken so she's still an active employee so I can't comment. What I can say is that that's not the first and it won't be the last. So DPS community members, please know when you see my name listed, understand that I'm simply the head of agency. Meaning if someone has an issue, whether it's a disgruntled employee or in their eyes, a legitimate issue, there's a laundry list of folks who are attacked, but one person is always named and that's the head of agency. So there's nothing more to comment. I'm looking forward to seeing if it actually is a true lawsuit because at this moment, aside from some press that's covered it. I have no connection to it or involvement at this moment.

RW:  Do you think that new Rochelle handled the pandemic well?

AM:  Oh I think that we did an exemplary job. To be quite honest, I think that's part of the reason why I'm here. And I think Dr. Marrero, who was a, you know, east coast name and a New York name became a national name because we led the charge when it came to the pandemic and the COVID response. To say I'm proud of it, it's an understatement right now. We were the first district that was closed by a government agency. We were the epicenter. We had the first confirmed case and we were the first ones to really engage our professionals, our medical directors, externally commissioners of education and commissioners of public health to engage in our safe re-entry. And although, right, we, it was difficult decisions. It was well-informed and we led the charge on, New Rochelle, led the charge. And as a result, others followed suit. Unfortunately there's always some individuals who feel like that's not the case, but the proof is in the pudding and the results are in the results.

RW:  Superintendent, thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

AM:  Thank you. Thank you. And I'm looking forward to connecting with you all in person and feedback is always welcome because again, we make informed decisions here in DPS.