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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 Córdova is returning home to Denver — the place that shaped her as an educator over three decades and launched her into school and district leadership — to oversee Colorado’s 178 school districts and more than 883,000 students as the state’s next education commissioner.

Colorado’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint Córdova to the top education post during a Wednesday afternoon board meeting.

“Susana Córdova is uniquely positioned to understand our educational system in Colorado and the lived experiences of our students, our educators and our school districts,” State Board Chairwoman Rebecca McClellan said before the board voted. “Her extensive experience working in schools and districts along with her thoughtful and caring approach to addressing the issues facing students and educators will be tremendous assets.” 

Córdova, 56, will begin her new role June 26, settling in Colorado full time after about two-and-a-half years of shuffling back and forth between here and Texas, where she previously worked as the deputy superintendent of Dallas Independent School District before becoming a superintendent-in-residence at the national education nonprofit Transcend.

Córdova, who will earn a salary of $300,000, was named the sole finalist for the role of education commissioner last month and will take the helm of the Colorado Department of Education following the departure of current education commissioner Katy Anthes, who plans to leave in July after about seven years of guiding the department.

The passing of the torch at the state education department comes as teachers and students have been sprinting to make up for lost time and lessons during the pandemic while schools have been battered by teacher and staff shortages and faced mounting pressure among community fights over curriculums.

A woman helps a child who is working on a laptop. Both are wearing masks.
A mom and her son grab a computer from a teacher outside a school. Everyone is wearing masks and gloves.

LEFT: Former DPS Superintendent Susana Córdova, left, helps Abigail Prado as she works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School in August 2020. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo) RIGHT: Norma Buenrostro and son Izrael, 7, a second-grader at Knapp Elementary, pick up a computer after waiting during the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Former DPS Superintendent Susana Córdova, left, helps Abigail Prado as she works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School in August 2020. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo) BOTTOM: Norma Buenrostro and son Izrael, 7, a second-grader at Knapp Elementary, pick up a computer after waiting during the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

But Córdova, who traces the roots of her education career to a job as a bilingual language arts teacher, sees a chance to pause and catapult the innovations that have surfaced throughout the past three-and-a-half years of pandemic-driven and politically charged disruptions to learning.

“We are at a very unique point in time in that the pandemic upended the way we typically think about school,” Córdova said, “and we’re in this window where we can potentially seize the moment to really be innovative and build on some of the good things that we learned.”

Still, there is a growing number of challenges waiting for Córdova as she begins steering Colorado schools into their next chapter. The Colorado Sun interviewed Córdova about her most pressing priorities as she moves from district to state-level leadership.

Helping kids catch up on learning as schools prepare for the end of federal COVID dollars and need more educators

Colorado schools will continue trying to get students meeting grade-level standards across subjects in the fall, building on months of class time already spent trying to ramp up academic recovery after many students fell behind during the pandemic.

But there’s a significant catch: districts will have only one more year to use federal stimulus funds once the next school year begins, meaning any extra programs and resources they are funding with those dollars are at risk of being cut.

“We’re all worried about (the fact that) the funds will sunset, but the needs likely won’t sunset,” Córdova said. “And so I think it’s going to be really important that we’re thinking about when there have been investments that have been really valuable, are there ways to continue resourcing some of those positions?”

Another challenge of getting students back on par with their learning: the widespread problems schools have in retaining experienced teachers and in filling staff vacancies as applications for open educator positions have dwindled in many places.

“Educators have had a few years of really stressful times,” Córdova said. “I think it has been in some ways like full steam ahead with rapidly changing conditions, and so I do think that there’s this sense on one hand that people have really been giving it their all in really challenging circumstances, and people are really tired.” 

On the other hand, Córdova has never seen a more innovative period in education.

“And I think really the trick is to figure out how do we maximize on the most promising aspects of that innovation?” she said. “How do we think about building on the new and energizing ways to do work and still at the same time address some of the things that have been more stressful for teachers?”

The state education department plays a key role in highlighting novel ways districts are solving teacher shortages and the ongoing struggle around low teacher pay so that individual district leaders learn from one another, Córdova added.

Colorado students inched forward with academic achievement during the 2021-22 school year, with state standardized test results from that school year showing that math and English language arts scores among students in many grades were higher than scores from spring 2021. However, student performance still lagged results from 2019 exams in just about every grade level and subject.

A teacher uses a projector during class.
Teacher Timi Meyer, left, uses an overhead projector as she goes through a worksheet on atoms and radioactivity with her students during science class at the Hilltop Day Treatment facility in Grand Junction. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

How will educators route students back on track in their classes?

“I think it really is investing in the places where we know that we’ve got evidence that acceleration can happen,” Córdova said, citing the significant gains students make in reading when they learn from high-quality instructional materials that follow the science of reading, as an example.

Córdova, who has been working with a network of superintendents across the country, has seen transformational shifts in schools’ approaches to education, with the pandemic breaking some of the conventions of classroom learning. 

“I think we thought a lot for a long time that learning happens in classrooms,” she said, “and I think I just realized in a very different way how kids are accessing information, how teachers are accessing information and how we can truly harness those innovations to help improve the experiences that kids are having in school.”

I think it has been in some ways like full steam ahead with rapidly changing conditions

— Susana Córdova, Colorado’s new education chief

Córdova said she has always been a proponent of tutoring and never anticipated that educators could coach students remotely, for instance. She has also watched as schools have experimented with competency-based learning — which hinges on students demonstrating their understanding of knowledge or “competencies” related to real-life skills — and explored the boundaries of the school day, reimagining the ways kids learn. Córdova calls it “anywhere, any time learning,” with students able to absorb information online and also delve deeper into hands-on learning and home in on their interests.

Córdova noted that it’s also critical for schools and teachers to leave open enough space to let innovation happen so that schools can “capture the best of what we’ve learned to do differently to help support our students and our educators going forward with the heavy lift of learning recovery.”

Among the subjects most troubling students is math — to the extent that Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers have stepped in with $28 million in legislative support that will offer districts access to community learning centers where kids can get tutoring and math teachers learn evidence-based math practices in a teacher preparation program.

Córdova is encouraged that schools will be able to opt into those resources rather than be required to use them, particularly since elementary school educators face “a big lift” when mastering new approaches in math.

“Let’s learn, let’s figure out what’s the way to do this,” she said, “and then think about how we can scale and spread.”

Evaluating how the state gauges school quality

One of the most consequential — and potentially contentious — issues state leaders and educators will confront this year is how to measure school quality and determine whether Colorado’s current school accountability system, which has been in place since 2009, could be improved to better assess how well schools educate students.

Córdova will be a central voice in conversations about how to optimize the system, which many superintendents throughout Colorado maintain doesn’t truly reflect the quality of education students at different schools are receiving, particularly subgroups of students like those living in poverty. For instance, some district officials worry that schools that perform well on the accountability system are still riddled with academic challenges, such as significant achievement gaps between different demographics of students.

Miller Middle School in Durango in December 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A task force convened by lawmakers during the most recent legislative session will begin meeting by September to revisit a 2022 audit of the accountability system, which “found that the performance indicators and measures used in Colorado’s statewide education accountability system provide a reasonable and appropriate basis for objectively measuring the performance of districts and public schools.”

Still, district leaders want to see the system updated to better reflect the full scope of components that make a school high quality — something Córdova echoes.

“I think it needs to transparently communicate to parents and educators how well we are doing on the aspects of school that we think are most important,” she said, adding that includes whether students are proficient in subjects and how much progress they make during the school year.

That system also must inform teachers and families about how ready students are to move onto the next grade level or transition to a post-secondary plan, which could include results from standardized exams like the SAT or ACT, work-based learning certificates and college-level coursework, Córdova said.

“It really is predicated on defined agreement around what do we say is a quality school experience?” Córdova said. “And I think that’s really where the conversation needs to start is, we think that x, y and z are the characteristics that in Colorado we don’t want to compromise on as a quality school experience, and how can we measure those?

She added that a well-rounded collection of voices must be part of the process of reviewing and possibly revising the accountability system. That system must also be designed with the state’s diversity of districts in mind, Córdova said, so that local districts have the flexibility to decide how they want to measure progress in the areas they deem most important.

“We’ve got very, very, very, very different districts with access to very, very different kinds of work-based learning or institutes of higher education or opportunities to work,” she said. “Like it’s just very, very different depending on where you are. How do you design a system that works for everybody, doesn’t privilege or penalize unfairly?”

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...