The Denver school board whittled the pool of finalists for superintendent of Denver Public Schools from three to one Wednesday when it named Alex Marrero, a school district administrator in suburban New York, the sole finalist for the job.
The seven-member board is expected to vote on the hire in June.
Board President Carrie Olson said the board found Marrero demonstrated his ability to listen and interact with the community and bring together people.
”Dr. Marrero rose to the top as the best leader for the students, staff, and community of Denver Public Schools,” Olson said.
Dr. Alex Marrero is the sole finalist for the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Marrero is currently the acting superintendent of the City School District of New Rochelle, N.Y.Courtesy of Denver Public Schools
Marrero served as interim superintendent of the City School District of New Rochelle for the past eight months, after the previous superintendent resigned. In a video introduction posted when Marrero was named a finalist for the Denver job, he said the Denver district could expect him to “disrupt the status quo” when it comes 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.”
The other two superintendent finalists were Andre Wright, the chief academic officer for nearby Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, and Stephanie Soliven, the assistant superintendent for secondary leading and learning in Brevard Public Schools in Florida. A total of 37 candidates applied for the job, according to Alma Advisory Group, the search firm hired by the board.
Before Marrero was announced as the sole finalist, a coalition of Latino leaders in Denver asked the school board to reopen the superintendent search because they questioned whether any of the three finalists had enough experience to lead Denver Public Schools.
Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon said Marrero shares much in common with many of the district’s students, educators and leaders. She said he has the ability to unify and strengthen the school system.
“Dr. Marrero has shown himself as a leader who is responsive and respects all voices,” Bacon said. “He is prepared to listen and prioritize interactions with families and students, teachers and administrators, community members and partners.”
Wednesday’s announcement came as a surprise to many, as school board members had said for weeks they planned to make a decision in June. Marrero was also a finalist for the superintendent position in New Rochelle.
The next superintendent in Denver will take the helm of a district recovering from pandemic learning disruptions. The district also is experiencing declining enrollment and a shift in the way it approaches school improvement. The school board, which sets policy for the district, has moved away from past education reform strategies such as closing schools with low test scores, and has asked tough questions of the district’s independent charter schools.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, with about 90,000 students this year. More than half of all students — 52% — are Hispanic, 14% are Black, and 26% are white, according to district data. A little less than two-thirds of students qualify for subsidized school meals, and about 30% are learning English as a second language.
The previous superintendent, Susana Cordova, resigned in November. In surveys and meetings, parents, teachers, students, and community members said they wanted the board to hire a superintendent of color who has experience as an educator, knowledge of Denver education issues, and a demonstrated commitment to equity.
Marrero was the first Latino administrator to lead the New Rochelle district in New York, which is about one-ninth the size of Denver, with 10,400 students. The demographics are similar to Denver: 49% of New Rochelle students are Hispanic, 20% are Black, and 25% are white, and more than half come from families who qualify for economic assistance, according to the New York State Education Department. The percentage of students who are English language learners in New Rochelle is smaller than in Denver at 12%.
Marrero is bilingual in English and Spanish, which many Denver community members said was important for the next district leader. His biography on the Denver Public Schools website says he is the child of a Cuban refugee and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
The local Latino leaders who wanted to reopen the search were particularly concerned with whether the finalists had track records of successfully educating English language learners or if they understood the Mexican American and Chicano culture of many Denver students. The district has for years been under a court-ordered consent decree that requires it to better serve English language learners.
In a pair of public interviews conducted by Denver students and community members earlier this month, Marrero said he was an English language learner as a child. He said that while he may not share the same cultural background as many of the students in Denver, he has an appreciation for it. Two of his mentors are Mexican American and Chicano, he said.
“Being Latino, I acknowledge that we are all different in terms of Latinos, Latinas, and Latinx. We are not monoliths,” Marrero said. “So embracing and celebrating culture — that means custom, cuisine, dialects — is critical, and we have to come with an awareness.”
Educationally, Marrero said that the Denver district needs to “build on the consent decree” in terms of how it educates its English language learners.
Marrero also said in the interviews that he believes in school autonomy, but that a school’s goals should be tied to larger districtwide goals. He said he is in favor of allowing families to choose the district school they believe is right for their child, but that it’s unfair if some schools have more resources or a “fancy facade” to attract students.
A former guidance counselor, Marrero said he believes in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of sending students into the criminal justice system, he said he favors having students perform “civil duty” to make up for any harm they’ve caused.
At the end of the community interview, Marrero had the chance to ask a few questions. One of his questions referenced the type of leader he might be for Denver Public Schools.
“No matter who the superintendent is, there will be absolutely no movement toward change without courageous leadership,” Marrero said. “How willing are all members of DPS to accept a civil servant who is going to push back and will be unwavered in support for all students — in particular those who are disenfranchised — and is going to address segregation, gentrification, and systemic racism? How prepared is DPS for that person?”