After Tumultuous Year DPS Selects New Superintendent

By Alfonzo Porter

Over the past year, Denver Public Schools (DPS) looked as if it were a ship without either a rudder or anchor.

The school district suffered from a revolving door leadership, fractured relationships, multiple competing community interests, instructional practices interrupted by a global pandemic, disparate achievement among its diverse student population, and long-term grievances among policymakers.

With three leaders within nine months, DPS has experienced its share of challenges. The 92,000-student district is in the throes of a leadership evolution both on the board of education and within the district’s top administration.

In November 2020, after a brief stint, Superintendent Susana Cordova suddenly resigned and accepted a position with the Dallas Unified School District as its deputy superintendent. In December, Senior Deputy Superintendent Dwight Jones was named as interim superintendent. Now, the school board has announced the hiring of the district’s third superintendent within a nine-month stretch.

This leadership turnover was set against a backdrop of allegations accusing School Board Director Tay Anderson of sexual impropriety.

Then on May 26, the district announced the appointment of Alex Marrero as the new superintendent. But a few days later, Marrero was named in a federal lawsuit stemming from his last job as superintendent of the 10,000-student City School District of New Rochelle in New York State.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court, the former medical director accused a number of administrators and a school board member of sidelining her and retaliating against her, related to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district has denied any wrongdoing.

The suit also asserts that Marrero implemented a plan for districtwide staff vaccinations, but abandoned the idea once state health officials notified the district that staff members were not eligible for vaccination yet.

Several community groups including the Colorado Black Roundtable and the Latino Education Council called for the search to be reopened in search of stronger candidates. However, in a near unanimous 6-1 vote, the DPS school board approved Marrero’s contract, which began July 6 and will run through June 30, 2023. The board expressed its confidence in their hire, saying that schools are working closely with state and local health officials to address issues related to COVID-19, and will continue to do so.

Superintendent Connects with Community

Marrero, 38, will receive a salary of $260,000 per year to run the district, which boasts nearly 5,000 educators.

Appearing alongside Anderson on July 24, at a town hall for parents and community members at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Five Points, Marrero posed three questions to the audience.

“I have three primary questions for the community,” he stated. “First, what’s going well in Denver Public Schools? Two, what needs to improve in Denver Public Schools, and three, what feedback and advice can you as parents, teachers, students and community members offer that can get us there?”

For Anderson, it was his first community event after stepping back from official duties in light of the sexual allegations against him. He said that it was time to move on with the business of the school district. The investigation is still pending.

“This is the first time in 20 years that DPS has a leader that understands the direct stories of our students and can walk the halls of any school in this system and understand the needs of our most challenged learners,” Anderson said. “He is the first person in a while that I can say that I can see myself in our leader. I am sure that others in the district can see the same thing.”

Anderson said the process to find and select Marrero was rigorous with some 85 candidates having applied for the job.

“We literally held hundreds of community engagement opportunities, spoke multiple times via Zoom and a number of face-to-face interactions,” he said. “We had some amazing candidates from all around the nation, but when I sat in on Dr. Marrero’s interview, I remember saying that I can see myself and my story in him.”

Marrero admitted that the interview was a two-way street. “While they were interviewing me, I was also interviewing them. We are here today to discuss the future. Our system is not perfect, and we want fruitful discussions and together we can make it better,” he said.

Marrero would again participate in a similar event on August 3, hosted by a coalition of DPS families, education advocacy organizations, and charter and innovation school educators. The evening gathering was held at the Kepner Campus, home to Kepner Beacon, Rocky Mountain Prep and Strive Prep schools.  

Families attended from across the city for the opportunity to share their hopes and concerns in English and Spanish directly with Marrero. Parents expressed their worries about their children’s mental health, and whether their learning can accelerate this year with the continued challenges of the pandemic. They talked about what defined a high-quality education, and what needs to happen so kids’ futures are not defined by their zip codes.

The new superintendent shared the story of his childhood growing up poor in the Bronx, and how educators pushed him and believed in him, encouraging him to see beyond the horizon.

“There is a world and there’s folks like you who need support outside your bubble,” Marrero recalled them saying. “I believe things happen for a reason. I’m here because I know that I can impact change. I’m hoping that you all can help out, because I know that I can’t do it by myself.”

TeRay Esquibel, who served as the event moderator, is the executive director of Ednium Leaders, a collective of DPS alumni who advocate for more equitable educational experiences for students. Esquibel asked Marrero, “How do you plan on engaging and sparking nuanced dialogue in order to bring people together to create a shared positive vision for the future?”  

“I believe in making shared decisions. But, whenever it is impossible to come to agreement on a shared decision, I go into informed decision-making,” he answered. “The only way I know how to function is by being informed by the folks who are going to be impacted the most. And that’s students, of course, parents, community members, and of course, our staff. No particular order with the exception of students always being first.”   

He went on to describe his wish to have a transition team of community advisors who can help him identify priorities to establish a vision for the next several years, adding, “Community empowerment happens when I’m prepared to relinquish some of my power so you all can help me make a decision.”

He admitted that he would need the help of the community in his quest at transforming the district.

“I am here to engage on a macro level,” he explained. “I am a true community person. I will continue to communicate with the entire community. What I lack at this point is the institutional and community knowledge that must come together in order to be successful.”

Members of the board have said they expect Marrero to take a collaborative rather than competitive approach to managing the district’s schools and tackle longstanding opportunity gaps between students of color and their white peers. 

Marrero began his education career as a guidance counselor and has said reducing the school-to-prison pipeline is a priority. He said he will hold all students to high standards and work to gain the confidence of the community. He has pledged to start his tenure with a listening tour and include students and teachers in his decisions.

“I am grateful for Dr. Marrero for going through our process,” Board Member Jennifer Bacon said. “It is not for the faint of heart. It took a lot of time, courage and commitment to go through it, but that is what our community is owed. And now it is time to move forward.”

The new superintendent concluded, “Every student deserves intellectual, social and emotional respect that’s been challenged more so than ever before this pandemic.”