By Melanie Asmar
Three school district administrators — from Florida, New York, and the Colorado city of Aurora — are finalists for the position of superintendent of Denver Public Schools, according to a district announcement.
The three are Andre Wright, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools; Stephanie Soliven, assistant superintendent for secondary leading and learning in Brevard Public Schools in Florida; and Alex Marrero, interim superintendent for the City School District of New Rochelle in New York.
“Each is bold, each is a rising star in the field of education, and each would be an excellent leader for Denver Public Schools,” school board President Carrie Olson said.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district with 93,000 students. The previous superintendent, Susana Cordova, left in December to take a job in Texas. The school board has spent the past five months searching for a new leader. The board is expected to vote on hiring a new superintendent next month.
In surveys and meetings, parents, teachers, students, and community members have said they want the board to hire a person of color who has experience as an educator, knowledge of Denver education issues, and a demonstrated commitment to equity.
The next superintendent will take the helm of a district recovering from pandemic learning disruptions. The school board is also grappling with the financial implications of declining enrollment and the need to write a new strategic plan for the district. The board has shifted away from past education reform strategies such as closing schools with low test scores, and has asked tough questions of autonomous district-run schools and independent charter schools.
About the three finalists:
In neighboring Aurora Public Schools, a diverse 38,000-student district southeast of Denver, Wright’s job involves helping Aurora’s schools improve their academics. He has held the position for more than three years. Wright has been in Aurora since 2014. He previously oversaw 10 schools, including Hinkley High School and East Middle School, as one of the district’s learning directors.
Before coming to Aurora, Wright was an administrator in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal and assistant principal. He began his education career teaching middle school language arts.
In a video introduction posted on Denver Public Schools’ website, Wright said he values trust, transparency, and building relationships. The son of educators, Wright said engaging with teachers, students, and community members is important to him.
A key part of his leadership style is a desire to propose solutions, he said.
“I don’t want to spend all of my time being someone who only presents problems,” Wright said. “I want to be a leader who’s actually also involved in creating solutions for our children. That’s critical in this work.”
Soliven oversees the middle and high schools in Brevard Public Schools, which serves more than 73,000 students. According to her biography on the district’s website, she previously served as a high school principal for eight years, and was an assistant principal before that. As a school leader, she increased academic achievement and pushed for equitable access to programs for students, her biography says.
Soliven has won several awards during her career, including Florida Assistant Principal of the Year, her biography says. She is originally from Miami.
In a video introduction, Soliven said integrity, respect, and a sense of urgency are three core values that describe how she leads. She said she’d be relentless in ensuring Denver’s schools have the proper resources, and she promised to work on her Spanish to be able to communicate with large number of families who speak the language.
Soliven praised Denver as “the dream” — a community of diverse, passionate citizens who she said consistently prioritize their public schools.
“I love the fact that in Denver, people are active,” Soliven said. “People are fierce champions of programs — and vocal adversaries when necessary.”
Marrero is the first Latinx educator to head the 10,400-student New Rochelle school system, according to the district’s website. He was appointed acting superintendent this past fall when the permanent superintendent went on medical leave. The permanent superintendent later resigned amid controversy.
“Each is bold, each is a rising star in the field of education, and each would be an excellent leader for Denver Public Schools.”
Carrie Olson, DPS Board President
Marrero joined the New Rochelle district in January 2020 as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Before that, he was an assistant superintendent in East Ramapo, New York, where he helped boost academic achievement and graduation rates, as well as an assistant principal and principal in the Bronx, his biography says.
In a video introduction, Marrero said if he were hired, Denver could expect him to “disrupt the status quo” with regard to the role of superintendent.
“You will seldom find me here, in city hall, in central office,” he said. “You’ll find me in the schools, collaborating with leaders, collaborating with teachers, staff, and in the community, looking to learn and articulate the great work that is happening in our schools.”
Answering questions in both English and Spanish, Marrero said educators helped him in meaningful ways after the death of his mother when he was in college. He said one of the best parts of his current job is meeting with his own student advisory council.
Each finalist will interview with seven different groups: students, teachers and school staff, school leaders, central office staff, the senior leadership team, the school board, and a group of families and community members.
Denver Public Schools plans to livestream the student and community interviews on Thursday, May 13. The student-led interviews will take place at 4 p.m., followed by the community interviews at 6 p.m. You can watch the interviews at superintendent.dpsk12.org.
The community is also invited to give feedback during the public comment portion of the school board’s May 20 meeting. Each speaker is allotted three minutes.
The Denver school board hired Alma Advisory Group of Chicago to lead a national search for a new superintendent. Alma CEO Monica Santana Rosen said 38 candidates applied for Denver’s top job. Alma interviewed 20 of them and the school board interviewed 15.
All candidates were screened for whether their values matched what Denver community members said they wanted in a superintendent, Rosen said. And the school board asked for examples of how the candidates put those values into action.
Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon said they asked questions like, ‘Do you believe in parent voice? Does culturally responsive education come naturally to you?’
Olson said the board also asked about equity, a Denver Public Schools core value that has become a buzzword in education — or as she put it, “just a word on the wall.”
“We probed, ‘What would that look like in action?’” Olson said.
Melanie Asmar is a Senior Reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado.
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