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Woman talks into microphone
Former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova at DPS headquarters in April 2020. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post via The Associated Press)

Susana Cordova, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, will be Colorado’s next education commissioner.

The state’s Board of Education on Monday named Cordova as the sole finalist for the position among 23 applicants after a unanimous vote. Her appointment is expected to be formalized when the board next meets June 14 and 15.

“We really appreciated her sharp focus on results for students and outcomes for students with an eye toward equity,” State Board Chairwoman Rebecca McClellan told The Colorado Sun.

“She’s not only talked the talk,” McClellan added. “She’s proven that she’s capable of achieving gains for students.”

Cordova will take over the position from Katy Anthes, who is stepping down from the role in July after serving as commissioner since December 2016.

Cordova began her career as a bilingual language arts teacher and has since worked in education for more than 30 years, including as a teacher, principal, district leader and currently as a superintendent in residence for Transcend, a national nonprofit focused on helping schools make classrooms more equitable for all students.

Cordova also previously was deputy superintendent for Dallas Independent School District.

Before taking the helm of Denver Public Schools in 2019, she rose through the ranks of the district, serving as deputy superintendent, chief schools officer, chief academic officer and executive director of teaching and learning. She left her position as superintendent in December 2020.

Cordova has also taught as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver’s School of Education and now serves on the university’s board of trustees. 

Cordova will begin steering the state education department at a particularly consequential time for Colorado schools, as districts continue to help students recover from lost time and learning during the pandemic and as many communities struggle to recruit and retain educators and manage declining student enrollment.

Susana Cordova, then superintendent of Denver Public Schools, looks on as students work on laptops in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning during the pandemic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“One of the biggest areas of focus (for Cordova) is making sure that we are doing right by students who experienced learning loss during the pandemic, and I think that focus on student achievement has never been more important than it is now,” McClellan said, noting that math and early literacy are among the subjects the new commissioner will have to prioritize for student gains.

Cordova will begin her tenure just as a state task force is considering changes to how Colorado evaluates its schools, which could potentially affect how much funding schools receive.

“The stakes for who the state board chose were incredibly high because of what will be pending decisions around school accountability, and I think Susana is the right person to be in the place to be able to guide us,” said Van Schoales, a senior policy director at the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center and a longtime education advocate.

Schoales sees Cordova as someone with “the potential to be a remarkable commissioner” given her experience in all kinds of education roles.

She “has shown that she can improve achievement for low-income kids and particularly for English language learners,” Schoales said. “And we desperately need somebody that has that experience and knows how to do that.”

Monday’s announcement of Colorado’s next education commissioner was highly anticipated, particularly among district superintendents, who wanted the next state leader to bring some leadership experience in K-12 schools, said Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Cordova, he said, will be able to take over the state education department with firsthand understanding of the day-to-day realities and challenges that school districts face, including staff shortages.

“All of our districts are dealing with educator shortages, and not just educators but every position, so I think the department plays an important role in all … the things we need to do to deal with our educator shortage,” Miles said.

But Cordova’s powers are much more limited than some of her peers’ across the country because of how much Colorado relies on local control and gives districts the room to make their own decisions. Schoales noted that Cordova will have to keep the scope of her authority in mind and analyze what state strategies have been effective when trying to improve academic achievement at a time it has largely been flat, particularly among low-income students.

“Coming out of the pandemic, that challenge has grown by an order of magnitude,” Schoales said. “So I think her challenges at this particular point in time I think are going to be greater.”

The State Board of Education has nine members and is currently controlled by Democrats.

Gov. Jared Polis celebrated Cordova’s selection in a written statement Tuesday.

“Her prior work boosting academic progress and improving access to high-quality education for learners of all backgrounds as superintendent of Denver Public Schools is sure to benefit students across the state as she brings this passion and experience to this new role,” said Polis, a Democrat. “I look forward to working with Susana as a member of my cabinet as we continue to carry forward our bold education priorities.” 

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....