Susana Cordova was a junior at the University of Denver when she discovered an anthology of Chicano poetry that changed her life.
The academic journal was filled with poems about lives and experiences similar to her own: the child of Mexican-American parents with deep roots in the American Southwest, who grew up worried she had to choose between her heritage and culture and assimilating and getting ahead.
“It was such a pivotal moment for me to think you can be authentic to who you are as a person, and be educated, and make a difference, and get acclaim,” said Cordova, who is the deputy superintendent in Denver’s public schools.
“For a lot of kids, they really do feel like they hear these messages that if you go to school, it is to get out of your neighborhood because there is something bad about your neighborhood.”
That epiphany led Cordova to change her career plans from becoming a translator—she was majoring in English and French at the time—to teaching.
“I really wanted to be able to be the kind of teacher to carry that message to all kids—because it’s so much harder to learn if you are constantly trying to be somebody you are not,” Cordova said.
That belief has been the driving force during Cordova’s two-decades-long, path-breaking career with the Denver school system. She started as a teacher of language arts and English-as-a-second language in 1989, then began her steady rise through the ranks as an assistant principal, principal, director of humanities, executive director of teaching and learning, chief academic officer, chief schools officer, and now, the first Latina to hold the position of deputy superintendent in the 92,000-student district.
Her deep Denver roots—she’s a longtime resident and graduate of the city’s schools—and her experience at the head of classrooms and schools make Cordova one of the most trusted and respected educators in the school system.
Central to Cordova’s work has been her keen attention to equity issues, especially for the district’s large population of English-learners.
Over the years, Denver’s schools struggled to serve English-learners, so much so that a federal court in 1984 ruled that the district was violating those students’ civil rights. In her administrative roles Cordova has intensified efforts to improve English-learner education, with a major focus on recruiting and developing teachers and principals who are adept at working with the district’s ELLs, who comprise nearly 40 percent of the student enrollment. The district’s students speak more than 170 languages.
More recently, that focus extended to forceful advocacy to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation. In the days after the Trump administration ended DACA, Cordova and Superintendent Tom Boasberg visited Denver’s schools to reassure students who qualified for the program. Cordova has said that it’s a “moral obligation” to support students who will be affected if the program ends.
Denver was one of the first school districts to intentionally recruit DACA recipients to work in its school system—part of a concerted effort to build a robust bilingual workforce that can also relate culturally to the district’s English-learners.
Cordova’s commitment to students has not gone unnoticed: She was among 10 district leaders nationwide the Obama administration honored in 2014 as “Champions of Change” in the Latino community.
“She is just a perpetual fighter for kids who don’t have opportunities—and we need that in schools,” said Peter Gorman, a former superintendent of North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. “She is looking out for all students—and that’s powerful.”
One of Cordova’s biggest champions is her boss, Boasberg, who highlights the increase in the district’s four-year graduation rate, reduction in drop-out rates, and the narrowing of the proficiency gap between Denver’s English-learners and those in the rest of the state as fruits of Cordova’s leadership.
Her imprint can be found in many other areas.
She helped spearhead the effort to reduce the workload for administrators responsible for managing principals. Those leaders—known as principal supervisors—now oversee fewer schools and principals, freeing up their time to provide meaningful and more frequent coaching and observing of school leaders.
Cordova was a key player in developing Denver’s teacher-leadership program, which has expanded this year to more than 500 teacher-leaders—the largest number of teacher-leaders in any district in the country, Boasberg said.
But her signature accomplishment may be transforming how the district views its obligations to English-learners.
For more than 30 years, Denver has been under a federal court order to improve how it teaches English-learners and engages their families. In 1984, the district reached an agreement with the Congress of Hispanic Educators, a group of teachers, principals and school psychologists. The school system was required to change teacher-training, improve parental engagement, and strengthen identification procedures for students who needed additional English-language support. But its response has been inconsistent.
“Some things were happening, but overall, we did not have any systems and structures in the district to ensure quality for our English-learners,” said Darlene LeDoux, an instructional superintendent in Denver but who was in charge of academic achievement for English-learners.
Righting a Wrong
That began to change starting around 2010, when Cordova became the chief academic officer and responsible for the education of all students in the district, LeDoux said. The staff dedicated to English-learners more than doubled. Experts on language acquisition were placed in other departments, such as literacy, assessments, and math, to ensure that those departments were keeping ELLs’ needs at the heart of their work.
The district created a system to keep track of the home-language questionnaires that parents had to fill out when enrolling students to ensure that students were receiving required services. LeDoux and her team worked with professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder to revamp the quality and rigor of the courses that teachers were required to take.
All new teachers now take a semester of training on teaching English-learners.
To establish an ethos that all teachers are responsible for supporting ELLs’ language development, teacher evaluations were revamped. Teachers must include a daily language objective for their classes, in addition to a content objective. When principals are conducting classroom observations, they look for the ways that teachers make their classes accessible to ELLs, and the techniques they use, such as charts, pictures, and examples.
Everyone in the schools—from secretaries to gym teachers—were trained in working with English-learners.
A new English-language-acquisition partner was assigned to schools to help them with parental engagement or anything they needed to respond to comply with the court-enforced agreement.
The district dug into its data and found that many students and families were waiving services such as bilingual and transitional language assistance. They used research to show parents, who often wanted their children to be in English-only classes as soon as possible, that students did better when they took the language-assistance classes.
“She didn’t want to fulfill this consent decree just to get it checked off. She really wanted to do it because she knows it’s the right thing to do, and she believes in the work for the kids,” said LeDoux of Cordova. “It hasn’t been easy work to change a system that was not responsive to English-learners to become one that is very responsive to English-learners and their families.”
Despite the changes, the district has not met all of the requirements, and parents have not always been satisfied with the services provided.
Roger Rice, a Massachusetts-based attorney who represents the Congress of Hispanic Educators, said the district has a better record on supporting ELLs since Cordova began overseeing the work.
While teacher-training has improved, turnover continues to be a problem, said Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, Inc., an advocacy group.
Rice said Cordova is refreshingly responsive to critiques.
Three years ago, when she was notified that thousands of students weren’t receiving English-language-development classes as required by the court order, she didn’t try to fend off the criticisms, but charged her staff to investigate. Concrete changes came about, Rice said, including a much closer tracking system of which students needed to be in those English-development courses and working with principals to adjust schedules to make it easier for students to take those courses without missing out on electives.
“That’s very unusual in dealing with school systems,” Rice said. “If people have legitimate critiques of what they are doing, she wants to know. And if there is a problem, she wants to [try to] address it.”
The district is seeing results. In the last two years, Denver was among the school districts that received an additional $500,000 from state education officials for improving ELLs’ performance. Denver’s ELLs out-scored their ELL peers across Colorado on English/language arts on state exams in the last three years, according to district data. But given the district’s size, English-learner performance varies from school to school.
A Stabilizing Force
In Denver, which has a diverse mix of charter schools and regular public schools, Cordova leads the district’s traditional school program. That’s a sticking point for some who want to see the district try different approaches, like charter expansion, to transform schools.
But Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit that focuses on research and school improvement in the state’s schools, credits Cordova with spotting smart practices in charters and bringing those into regular district schools.
Cordova is a stabilizing force in a bifurcated system, where she is responsible for the collaboration between the charter and traditional sectors.
For a lot of kids, they really do feel like they hear these messages that if you go to school, it is to get out of your neighborhood because there is something bad about your neighborhood.
Those who work with her Cordova say she is smart and approachable—whether it’s with aspiring leaders seeking her advice and expertise or with parents and students. She’s also the kind of person who cuts through meandering discussions to find solutions, they said.
And she is always willing to share her knowledge with others and help other school leaders navigate complex educational challenges, said Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of the Guilford County school system in North Carolina, who leaned on Cordova for advice when she first moved to North Carolina in 2016.
“What I have learned the most is that you can take some risks, bold steps, you can be innovative, and still be embraced by …the majority of the community,” Contreras said. “Many superintendents who take risks, lose their jobs. She has done this so well and she has gotten so much community support that she’s almost made it look easy. It’s clear to me that the work can be done. That model is in Susana.”
Cordova, she said, also played a pivotal role in helping to expand a partnership with the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, to train the next generation of Latino district leaders in an effort to increase the number of Hispanic educators in charge of the nation’s school districts.
Given Cordova’s long career in Denver, the question of when she is going to land the top job in a school system inevitably emerges. If— or when—Cordova leaves depends in part on her youngest daughter, a high school student in Denver. But, she said, she would love to run a district someday.
In the meantime, she wakes up every morning with the same drive that’s pushed her since the early days of her career.
“Education really matters,” she says. “My life is completely different from my parents’ lives because of the opportunities I’ve been given through my education. For kids who depend on school to open up doors for them, I feel incredibly obligated to do that work. So many doors were opened for me by the teachers and other educators that I worked with, and I feel this incredible debt that I need to pay back.”