The unanimous DPS Board vote was a testament to Susana Cordova’s presentation of herself and her values to the community. The two board representatives from northeast Denver, Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson, who had expressed serious concerns that constituents wouldn’t meet multiple candidates, ended up voting yes.
Olson, in announcing her yes vote, said, “I will hold you accountable for your promise to work ‘with’ the community instead of doing ‘to’ and ‘for.’ I would like to pledge to you my support and willingness to work with you in this hard work.”
Bacon said, “I’m excited to know you’ve heard what these demands for a different DPS are. I hope to walk with you as you demonstrate you are a listener, a collaborator and a bridge builder. You hold yourself out to be. I will approach my vote with some reservations, but that’ s OK. The true value of diversity is that difference makes us better… And the truth of the matter is, only a woman can do it anyway.”
One of the first hurdles of Cordova’s candidacy was overcoming the impression that her superintendency would be a continuation of Tom Boasberg’s time as leader.
When asked how she’s different, she replied firmly and without hesitation: she’s a better listener and she believes strongly in the power of collaboration. “I grew up in Denver. I’m shaped by my life experiences, a woman growing up in a lower income family. I believe deeply in the power of relationships. I want to be able to talk to people across lines of difference. I would put my money where my mouth is in terms of how I would spend my time in doing work in that space. Things would look and feel different.”
There were those who said the process wasn’t truly competitive, that it was set up to put her in the job. “I didn’t know if I was going to get through the first interview. When the superintendent stepped down, the first thing I said was, ‘There needs to be a process.’ I had hoped there would be other finalists. I don’t want to go into the superintendency with people feeling like I was preselected. I wasn’t. I want to be selected on my merits. I’m sorry that’s not how it played out.”
When asked about racism and equity she speaks of her own life as a Latina woman growing up in a poor family, and now her daughter talks to her about what it’s like to be a student of color in school. “Right now the work we’re doing on equity is more on an opt-in basis. To be a teacher in DPS, we all need training in understanding bias and what culturally responsive teaching looks like. I don’t think that should be optional. That might not be popular with all teachers who want some flexibility around what their training programs look like.”
Cordova speaks of her strong commitment to increasing teachers’ salaries —and she will be tested by the union negotiations that need to be wrapped up by mid-January. She was a teacher for years and says half the names in her speed dial list are teachers. Where will she find the money? The new governor has designated some additional money for schools, which she would put toward teacher salaries. She also says, “We need to slim down and make the central office much more efficient. I’ve been here a long time and I think we try to do too much. In working with the board, I would want to be able to prioritize the work to align with the goals. Intensely focus in those areas and stop doing other things so we can slim down and put that funding in teachers’ pockets.”
She already started a new budgeting process where she brought together the teams she supervises, telling them, “We’re going to collectively name what we should be putting our resources toward. Where are the places we need to save funds…and how can we do this across our teams as opposed to inside our teams. It has to be a district-wide approach.”
Cordova acknowledges that frequently DPS has acted like engagement is telling people something. “That’s not engagement…We have trust to build. We have relationships to rebuild. I shop at stores in Denver. If you’re a parent in Denver I’m going to see you. It really matters that I can walk with integrity when it comes to authentic communication, dialogue and relationships.”
Cordova’s quotes in this article come from the community meetings at North and GW high schools.