Susana Cordova took over as superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS) a year ago this month—just in time to lead the district through its first teacher strike in 25 years. What started with educators pleading for a higher base salary that wasn’t tied to a complicated bonus system turned into tense negotiations, which eventually devolved into a three-day walkout in February that drew national attention. With the tumultuous moment behind her, the 30-year DPS veteran—a district alumna who rose from teacher to principal to administrator—can now focus on actually running the 15,000-employee, 90,000-student system. To mark the beginning of her second year, Cordova spoke with 5280 about what she learned from the strike, school safety, and how she plans to better integrate classrooms.
5280: What was it like to immediately step into negotiations with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association?
Susana Cordova: I wasn’t prepared for the level of discord and strife we experienced in the negotiations. We had a phenomenal mediator who helped us. During the second all-nighter to finish the strike, I asked her, “How often have you been involved with [a strike] like this?” I thought she was going to tell me it’s pretty common. She was like, “Oh, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Any other moments from the negotiations that stand out to you?
I would have to steel myself to walk into a room of 200 or 300 people [where] many are really unhappy. I bumped into my daughter’s former social studies teacher, whom I loved. We stop and have a little moment, and I take a few more steps and run into the woman who was the gym teacher where I was an elementary school principal. These are people I have deep relationships with. When I think about the impact they’ve had on my children’s lives, it changes what you think the goal is.
How do you feel about the final deal?
I think it’s a really good contract. I think it values what so many of our teachers said they wanted: a salary schedule they can understand, plan on, and use to help earn more over their lifetimes. The other aspect was: What voice do teachers have? How are teachers treated? How do we create an environment where their contributions are as important as district leadership’s contributions? I believe the pathway forward is doing a better job of collaborating.
The other headline-grabbing incident during your first year was the districtwide lockdown related to the anniversary of Columbine, which led to some confusion.
Our communication system to give parents information took far too long. We realized the technology was not up to the standard that we needed it to be. So we are getting ready to roll out a brand-new system so we can communicate much more quickly.
A recent Denver Post investigation found that more than half of DPS schools are effectively segregated. Would ending the district’s school-choice program help integrate them?
We’ve been looking at how we use the school-choice system to promote integration. We’ve already got several schools that are prioritizing free- and reduced-lunch students for their choice seats, which is a way to promote school demographics that look like the district demographics. As we get closer to the 2020 census, it will be an important time to look at boundaries around the city. Denver has really changed in the past 10 years, and that’ll give us some good data.