DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova on the strike, school diversity, and her proudest moment

August 29, 2019

Susana Cordova, superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS), began her current role on Jan. 7, 2019—just in time to facilitate discussions to end Denver’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years. Luckily, Cordova started her career as a teacher, and she brought that perspective to the negotiating table, along with her unshakeable optimism.

This year, Cordova celebrates 30 years working for DPS, but her relationship with the district predates her career as an educator. A Denver native, she attended Barnum Elementary and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School. She received her master’s degree from CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development in 2000, while she was a teacher and later principal for DPS. For Cordova, the continuing success of DPS is deeply personal, and her own success illustrates the great possibilities of a public education.

A woman, a Latina, and a dedicated public servant who represents more than 92,000 students and 4,500 teachers, Cordova is the ideal person to inaugurate our Fourteener series. Below are Cordova’s answers to 14 questions intended to elevate the conversation.

Black bookshelf with blue, green, and yellow journals lined up in a row. Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash.

1. Why did you choose a career in education?

“It was about halfway through my junior year in college when I decided that I wanted to consider teaching. I was an English major, and I had a work-study job, where I found a volume of the Denver Quarterly literary journal. It was all about Chicano literature and it kind of blew my mind. I was probably 20 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever seen anything in an academic setting that validated my own personal experience and background. I finally saw in print a statement that you can be who you are, be an academic, and be successful. That you don’t have to choose between community and success. A lot of the messages I had heard were go to college so you can get out of your neighborhood. I suddenly realized you don’t have to make that choice.”

“It was the first time I’d ever seen anything in an academic setting that validated my own personal experience and background.”

– Susana Cordova

“I want to tell kids the future can be very different. Education is a way to become the best version of yourself, to make your community a better place, not something that helps you get away from the people you love. That’s why I decided to become a teacher.”

School-aged girl reading a colorful book. Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash.

2. Who inspires you?

“I’m incredibly inspired by our students in DPS.  We have amazing kids. The work they are doing and the barriers they are overcoming… It’s why I do this work. I was at the Denver South High School graduation last year, and South is just such a special place. There are kids from all over the world, students who talk about how they came to the United States, about their experiences as refugees, and then what South has done for them. It’s just amazing. I think our future is going to be in really great hands.”

3. How have the events of your first year on the job shaped your plans for the new school year?

“There were a lot of challenges last school year. It’s really important that, as an organization, we honestly confront what those challenges were. It has definitely helped me to think about how we create a different way of interacting with our teachers and with our community.”

“The strike made me reflect on how we could have possibly gotten there. There were times when I would walk into rooms full of people who were just incredibly angry and frustrated. Lots of passion came out in lots of different ways, and, you know, I’d bump into my daughter’s social studies teacher or the woman who was a gym teacher when I was a principal, or a colleague of mine who is a literacy coach who I’ve known for almost 20 years. These are people I have deep relationships with, people I’ve known from different contexts and different places who do really good work. And any time you find good people at a breaking point, it really means, organizationally, we need to rethink how we design our interactions so we don’t get there.”

“I really took from last year that people want to feel valued, they want to do important work, and the work that we do has to create better equity for kids.”

“Once we were through the negotiations of the strike, I met with over 2,000 people—teachers, parents, students, elected officials, community members—completely focused on what has been exciting and what has been disappointing in their interactions with the district. I really took from last year that people want to feel valued, they want to do important work, and the work that we do has to create better equity for kids. All of that feedback has really helped me and my team.”

“I believe we can create a different way before the next contract is negotiated. Even when I was at the table, when it was really hard, I repeatedly said good people can share a goal and have similar values and beliefs and really divergent ideas about how you get there. That doesn’t make anybody bad. The purpose of negotiating is to trade ideas and get to a place we all can support. I continue to believe that.”

4. What excites you most about the new school year?

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the work that we’re doing around equity. We were with over 500 new teachers last week, immersing them in our work as educators, both around delivering content with high expectations and around acknowledging the cultural assets and differences that exist in our kids. The whole concept of being asset-based, of seeing the positives in what kids bring, particularly when they’re from a different background, is central to a lot of the work that we’re doing. And I think it’s going to be a real game changer.”

5. What else can be done to improve economic diversity within Denver’s schools?

“Denver, like many big urban cities, deals with the impact of segregated housing. We’ve piloted a program where we give kids who receive free and reduced lunch priority for school selection, but as long as this is about how do you move kids from this neighborhood to that neighborhood, it’s going to be harder. As neighborhoods thrive, they become more expensive. As they become more expensive and gentrified, it’s harder for lower-income families to remain in those neighborhoods. So how do we approach this in a way that actually enables people to stay in the schools and the neighborhoods that they love?”

“We definitely see parts of town where communities are working together to create more integrated schools.”

“Some of the solution is going to come from creating opportunity either with enrollment zones or through housing work to help create more diversity for kids. We definitely see parts of town where communities are working together to create more integrated schools. In the Park Hill neighborhood, there’s a group of parents, both parents of color and white parents, who want schools to reflect more of the diversity in the neighborhood. We’ve seen that in other parts of town, too. We saw it in North Denver, where you’re seeing demographic shifts.”

“I think, first and foremost, our goal has to be to create high quality experiences for kids in all of our schools, and, at the same time, to create schools that serve different kinds of kids equally well.”

6. How did your own education help prepare you to lead DPS?

“I’ve had amazing mentors here in the district. My own growth has been nurtured by the people I’ve had the good fortune to work with, so that’s something that has really helped me. Denver is also part of a really strong national network, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn from people in districts outside of Denver, which has also been beneficial.”

“The DPS district also played an important role in my graduate education. CU Denver partnered with the district to support people in getting their administrative licenses, and I was part of that. The partnership with CU Denver was geared toward doing this kind of work in this context, in an urban setting with the explicit goal of creating greater social justice. It was an incredibly strong cohort, and that’s part of the reason why I say this district has really nurtured me.”

Young girl seated at table reading book by Dr. Seuss titled Hop on Pop. Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash.

7. Which books would you recommend to all Denver students?

“For our elementary kids, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I love Kate DiCamillo, and it’s one of my all-time favorite chapter books. It is a beautiful book with a magical ending that I love.”

“As an adult, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a standard for ninth-grade English. It can be hard to appreciate books when you’re looking for symbolism, author’s purpose, et cetera, but reading the novel as an adult, I was able to think through the things it says about race, about having the moral strength to make a decision and stand by it in the face of really difficult things. I hope our students who are reading it get into some of those deeper questions.”

8. What is something Denver teachers or administrators might not know about you?

“Some people may know this, but I don’t know if everybody does: I’m not a big sleeper, so I’m a Netflix-binger. There are very few shows that people can talk about that I haven’t watched!”

Photo of high school senior with her mother, standing inside East High School in Denver. Photo by Kinser Studios Denver.
On May 6, 2019, more than 800 DPS seniors and guests gathered at East High School to celebrate earning the DPS Seal of Biliteracy by demonstrating mastery of English and another world language.  Photo by Kinser Studios Denver.

9. What’s been your proudest moment since being named DPS Superintendent?

“This past year my daughter graduated from high school here in DPS, so it’s kind of hard to separate the personal from the professional. But I was incredibly proud during our Seal of Biliteracy event. We had almost a fifth of our graduating class apply for and receive the Seal of Biliteracy. One thousand one hundred kids demonstrated proficiency in English as well as a second or, in some cases, a third language. My daughter was there with a thousand of her peers, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”

“In the past, we weren’t always a district that looked at language as an asset, so I want to celebrate that we had 19 different languages represented in this program. This means that kids have reached proficiency in English and 19 other languages. It’s just such a great celebration. I’m very proud both as a parent and as the superintendent to be part of an organization that says biliteracy is important for our kids.”

10. What’s your favorite punctuation mark and why?

“I probably overuse exclamation points. If it’s my favorite based on usage, then that’s probably it. I tell people all the time I’m just a relentless optimist, and exclamation points go along with the territory.”

Picture of hands holding a deck of cards titled Prepare Future Leaders.

11. What advice would you share with those who might wish to become educators?

“The first thing I would say, and I just said this to all of our new teachers, is that this is the best job you could ever have. The opportunity to interact with young people, it’s energizing. It’s inspiring. There are a lot of really important jobs, but honestly I don’t think there’s anything more important than shaping and molding young people to become the leaders of the future.”

“There are a lot of really important jobs, but honestly I don’t think there’s anything more important than shaping and molding young people to become the leaders of the future.”

“The other thing I say is to make sure you never feel like you have to do it alone. When you’re a classroom teacher, it can be easy to feel like the only people you interact with are very little and a lot younger than you are. We’ve worked really hard to ensure teachers feel confident that they have a support system of other teachers and coaches. Make sure you engage your support system of fellow educators and people who can help guide you.”

Photo of two male school children playing with sand.

12. What issues keep you up at night?

“Even though we’ve made huge gains, we are nowhere close to where we need to be in terms of serving all kids well. A couple of different studies have put us in the top two in terms of the amount of growth our kids are making, and yet we are still so, so, so far from creating real equity in terms of our outcomes. That’s hard to rationalize because it’s not that people aren’t working hard on this issue. It definitely keeps me up.”

13. Fill in the blanks: “I love _____; I wish _____; I wonder _____.”

“I love the people that I work with here in the district; I wish that we could marshal both our internal and external support to help each and every kid be successful; and I wonder how we can bring people together to make that a reality.”

14. Where do you hope you will be in 2029?

“In 10 years? I am a little bit one-day-at-a-time right now. When I do look back, the previous superintendent was in this role for 10 years, and the amount of persistence and stamina that it takes to be in a role for 10 years is pretty daunting. In 10 years, I certainly want to be in Denver. I can’t imagine that I won’t be associated with Denver Public Schools, whether I’m the superintendent or not. I’m always going to be looking for ways to contribute to our schools.”

“I can’t imagine that I won’t be associated with Denver Public Schools, whether I’m superintendent or not.”

“This is my home. This is where all of my family is, and I would love to be here for as long as I can because I believe so deeply in the work that I do. I’m up for the challenge. I’m always going to be a huge champion for our kids.”

Portrait of Susana Cordova, DPS Superintendent, leaning against row of gray school lockers.
Susana Cordova at DPS offices in downtown Denver.

Responses lightly edited for length and clarity.