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How the Denver ‘rock star’ who might well be Dallas ISD’s next superintendent is settling into her new life

Susana Cordova, who led Colorado’s largest school district, talks about why she left her employer of 31 years and the city where she was born and raised.

Ever since the woman who might well be DISD’s next school superintendent picked Dallas over her native Denver, I’ve wondered why.

Why would Susana Cordova, a self-described “Head Start success story,” the daughter of Mexican-American parents and a first-generation college graduate, leave the top job in Colorado’s largest district to become No. 2 under DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa?

Why this sudden change after spending almost her entire life in the Denver Public Schools, first as a K-12 student and then for 31 years as an educator and boss?

But after going to school on Cordova and getting to know her, I realized the correct question — if you set aside Dallas’ humidity and pancake-flat horizon — is “why not?”

Dallas is a much bigger stage, with 155,000 students compared to Denver’s 93,000. While Denver may have been first with teacher-compensation and choice-school innovations, Dallas ISD’s versions are less complicated and more equitable.

Most important, DISD’s administration and board of trustees pull in the same constructive direction. How could that not sound appealing to a leader whose two years as Denver superintendent were often undermined by her own bosses?

It’s only four months into Cordova’s tenure as Dallas’ deputy superintendent, but my sense is that her decision to start anew is a big loss for Denver and a big win for us.

“Dallas looks a lot more like the kind of district that motivated me to want to become a teacher,” Cordova said as we sat in the small office that she has hardly begun to decorate. “Denver Public Schools today is much whiter and much wealthier than the Denver Public Schools I grew up in and I was teaching in.”

Susana Cordova, DISD deputy superintendent, is getting to know her new district by touring campuses and meeting the leaders, teachers and students at each.
Susana Cordova, DISD deputy superintendent, is getting to know her new district by touring campuses and meeting the leaders, teachers and students at each.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Cordova’s job is a new one — and ginormous; she’s in charge of everything related to leading and learning in DISD. That’s by Hinojosa’s own design.

The superintendent, who turns 65 in September, told me he has no plans to retire. But his latest contract, which runs through 2024, stipulates that he create a succession plan and hire someone, as he put it, “who could take over in case I got run over by a DART bus.”

“I love this job,” Hinojosa said, “but while I’ve never felt comfortable leaving for another opportunity, now it’s different because of Susana.”

Hinojosa and Cordova certainly make no assumptions about her future; they know it’s the board who will pick his eventual successor.

For now, Cordova has her hands full just listening and learning — about both Dallas and the district. She’s getting to know the people on her many teams. Knocking on doors with teams seeking to get students back into classrooms. Making multiple campus visits each week. Attending the community meet-and-greets cropping up as the worst of the pandemic passes.

And occasionally she sings.

“We’re talking about all this intense stuff and then she breaks into song,” Hinojosa said. “All of a sudden, everybody just relaxes. She’s a hard charger on transformation and reform, but she’s got that emotional IQ.”

Cordova claims to have more enthusiasm than talent, but hearing her sing a few lines, I’d disagree. (Pro tip: Ask her for a verse or two from “Dancing Queen” or “Summer Breeze.”)

Susana Cordova (right), DISD deputy superintendent, speaks with Kermange Johnson, principal of Tom Gooch Elementary School, as they observe classroom instruction.
Susana Cordova (right), DISD deputy superintendent, speaks with Kermange Johnson, principal of Tom Gooch Elementary School, as they observe classroom instruction.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Cordova knows that most of us can’t connect the dots between DISD central office’s 30,000-foot view of “leading and learning” and what happens day-to-day on individual campuses.

“My work needs to be informed by the experiences of our students, families, teachers and leaders,” she said. “I wouldn’t presume to think I know what’s best for Dallas without being willing to step out and hear directly from people.”

Here’s one campus leader’s message that Cordova vows to keep top of mind: “You need to trust your principals. You need to trust us when we either say we don’t need something or we do. You need to ask us and then listen.”

Cordova sees a big part of her role as making sure that even great ideas are prioritized so the work is manageable for teachers and campus leaders.

She has worked in all of those jobs and she told me her passion is anchored in her own history: “I know firsthand that education changes lives because it completely changed my life.”

She was a fourth-grader in 1976, the year Denver’s desegregation order was fully implemented, which provided students in her neighborhood the first opportunities for advanced coursework and arts programming.

“My mother was in the low track all through school in Denver. Nobody asked, nobody cared,” Cordova said. “But for me, I was able to be in the accelerated track.”

Susana Cordova, DISD deputy superintendent, speaks with second grader Jonathan Salazar (left) about the day's lesson during a tour of Tom Gooch Elementary School.
Susana Cordova, DISD deputy superintendent, speaks with second grader Jonathan Salazar (left) about the day's lesson during a tour of Tom Gooch Elementary School.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Cordova’s first job in Denver Public Schools was as a dual-language classroom teacher. Teaching led to principal posts and then the central office, where she rose to deputy superintendent.

She met Hinojosa through education organizations they were both members of and was part of a superintendents-in-training class he taught in 2014. Cordova was impressed by his leadership style and recalls telling her husband, “If I ever have the chance, I’d love to work for him.”

Cordova similarly made a big impression on Hinojosa. “She was the star pupil in that group, a rock star.”

When Cordova was offered the top job in Denver in late 2018 after Superintendent Tom Boasberg stepped down, she knew the path wouldn’t be a smooth one.

Her former boss’ innovations won kudos from many education experts. But his embrace of charter schools and strategy to deal with low-performing schools through closures were often controversial.

Cordova also knew the district faced a possible teachers strike, primarily over compensation. On her second day on the job, she sat at a negotiating table for the first time in her career. A deal was reached — but only after teachers walked out for three days.

Cordova immediately had to strip $25 million from the central office to pay for the agreement, which meant cutting jobs of people she had worked with for decades.

Halfway through the next school year, COVID-19 hit and, like superintendents everywhere, Cordova had to make one potentially life-or-death decision after another.

Roiling underneath those challenges were increasing difficulties with the school board, whose new members were backed by the same teachers’ union that opposed many of Boasberg’s reforms.

Cordova told me that too often, it felt like some board members were not working with her but rather “with the shadow of the former superintendent.”

She made mistakes too, but “the board at times did not give me the ability to lead as the CEO of the organization.”

As bad as things got, Cordova said she wasn’t looking to leave her hometown. But when Hinojosa called, she listened.

A staff member photographed Susana Cordova (left), DISD deputy superintendent, with principal Kermange Johnson before Cordova left Tom Gooch Elementary School for the next stop on her visits to three campuses that day.
A staff member photographed Susana Cordova (left), DISD deputy superintendent, with principal Kermange Johnson before Cordova left Tom Gooch Elementary School for the next stop on her visits to three campuses that day.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Hinojosa had recently lost Stephanie Elizalde, another rock star and his chief of school leadership, to Austin ISD. A nationwide search led to five candidates, and Cordova, whom he had been watching from afar, rose to the top.

Dallas wasn’t a completely foreign land to Cordova. In 2019, she had visited with her investment banker husband, Eric Duran, for a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored “all things Dallas” weekend.

Both had returned home impressed by what sounded like a serious commitment to issues they care deeply about, particularly child poverty and racial equity.

Most everything in Cordova’s life is a learning experience right now — new job, new house, new city, new colleagues and friends. But one of the most important hasn’t: “It’s always been my habit to call my mom on the drive home every day,” she said. “Now it’s just a different drive home.”

Even in Cordova’s first months on the job, Hinojosa told me, she exceeds the tests he puts in her path.

A recent session with 15 top DISD principals — a group that began meeting regularly with Hinojosa since last year — ended with one of the superintendent’s favorite exercises: Write down and read a comment about each individual in the room.

Cordova’s participation was optional; she had never met the principals before that day.

“Susana was able — just from listening to their shares — to give very specific praise and make connections with those principals,” Hinojosa said.

“I left the meeting thinking, ‘She’s got it.’ Even as well as I thought I knew her, she is even better than advertised.”

Sharon Grigsby. I'm the Metro columnist, which means that if it's happening in North Texas, I'm likely to write about it. My work on Baylor's sexual assault scandal earned a spot as a 2018 Pulitzer finalist. I was born in Waco, raised my own family in the suburbs and have been back in Dallas ever since.

sgrigsby@dallasnews.com /sharonfgrigsby @SharonFGrigsby
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