From the Desk of Pamela Bisceglia, Executive Director
AdvocacyDenver is pleased to forward the following interview with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova. There are two reasons why this interview is important. At different times during Tom Boasberg’s tenure, we attempted to secure a time to meet with him to discuss systemic issues in relation to programming for students with disabilities. The former superintendent ignored all requests from AdvocacyDenver to meet and ordered deep cuts to Special Education every few years. The cuts resulted in a significant decrease in Special Education oversight, professional development, and elimination of the autism, behavior and assistive technology service teams. Each year, Special Education teachers and in particular related services providers’ caseloads were increased.
An Interview with Catherine Strode
What motivated you to get into the field of education?
I was a Latina, first generation college graduate. In 1984, there was not a lot of work going on around cultural competence. The message I heard was, ‘Get educated so you can get out of your neighborhood.’ I lacked a positive sense of identity. In college I found a literary journal that had published work by Chicano authors. It was a transformational moment for me. I realized these are people with PhDs who were writing about an experience that was very familiar to me in an academic setting They had not stopped being who they were to get educated. They had invested in their identity and in their culture, by creating literature to describe and share it with others. It was the first time I realized becoming educated can be a way to help you more fully realize your identity. That is what encouraged me to become a teacher. I wanted to make sure other kids, like me, were affirmed for who they were. That their gifts, their values, their culture, their language, were seen as an asset.
What motivated you to apply for the Superintendent position?
I am deeply committed to the success of our schools in Denver. I have had a lot of different roles in DPS. I have worked in the classroom, both at Middle School and High School. I was an elementary school principal. I have had many roles in the central office. I appreciate the roles our schools and teachers play in creating greater opportunity for students. When Tom (Boasberg) stepped down, I had been thinking about wanting to apply. I had always planned on waiting until my youngest was out of high school. She’s a senior this year, so it was a little quicker than I had anticipated. But I feel so committed to our city and to our kids that when he stepped down, I decided to put my name in. I believe I have a lot to contribute. I feel I can help us move quickly to the next level.
There are laws that define the district’s obligation to educate student with disabilities. Under your leadership, what decisions will be delegated to the school?
It would be very challenging for the district level to have knowledge of individual kids in the way we want our special educators and general educators to have knowledge of kids on a daily basis. We need to make sure we have general educators and special educators who can develop students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on demonstrated needs. Schools should be working on the design of the wrap around services that are aligned to student needs within their building. It’s critical that schools are making the right kind of choices on how we ensure kids with disabilities have access to all appropriate parts of their school buildings. That we’re making investments in our center program classrooms in the same way we make them in our general education classrooms. That the school is building out their staffing plans aligned to the needs of their kids with disabilities and what their IEP’s call for. That’s part of the important work that happens at the school level.
What authority will central administration have to ensure compliance?
At the district level, we have a role in developing tools and resources for parent education so schools aren’t having to individually create those on their own. We need to be able to provide special educators with in depth training. We need to make investments in the services for our students with disabilities, financial investments as well as staffing and instructional resource investments. For our center programs, it is critical we have access to the materials, environments, and support systems conducive to kids being able to progress. We’re a big system. There’s no way to ensure that every decision that gets made is going to always, 100 per cent, align with what the expectations are. If it doesn’t, we need to be able to know it quickly so we can intervene and support. The real emphasis at the district level is: how do we make sure we turn our guidance into real systems with clarity of expectation, written guidance, training, supports to implement, and oversight? We also have a role in oversight through the review and monitoring of actual IEP’s, so we can make sure we are meeting students’ needs and being in compliance with the law. We need particularly, to make sure students have access to the least restrictive environment. It has been helpful to have the Special Education Task Force working because it has pointed out the places where there’s a goal in the system that isn’t being actualized.
What did you learn in the past 40 days?
One of the lessons I took away has been the importance of being at the table and sticking with hard conversations to get to solutions that feel positive for everybody. It’s critical you stay at the table. The other lesson was being clear in articulating the most important aspects of a negotiated agreement we needed to feel good about agreeing. Our teachers were clear they were committed to having more money in base salaries. The district was clear it was important we maintain support for Title I schools, and the 30 highest priority schools (that have a very high number of students with disabilities). One of my lessons was that with collaboration, people can solve really hard problems. That’s how I’m going to approach the rest of the work I’ll have as Superintendent, looking for ways to create space for collaboration and for smart people to come together to disagree. Disagreements are important because they help clarify what the values are at play. That was my other big lesson.”
What will you focus on the next 120 days?
The next set of work we have is to help create greater alignment and impact in the support we provide to schools and in the outcomes we see for kids. A big part of that is sharing my vision and getting feedback on that vision. It is a way for me to start working with our community, both our external and internal community, on key questions that are going to be critical for us as we think about the pathway forward. Another big body of work we will be engaged in, is reorganization of the central office. In part, to help fund the increases we’re providing to our teachers and to have a more impactful central office with less inefficiency and redundancy in the supports we offer. This is a great opportunity for us to think about: how we are organized centrally, how we’re investing in areas that need more investment, and how we’re slimming down in areas where we’re not getting the impact we want. That will be part of the work over the next several months.
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.