This is your invitation to shatter education’s glass ceilings

Students need more diverse leaders heading up districts and state agencies
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 10, 2019
Susana Cordova is superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

A bit less than a year ago, I was chosen as the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, becoming the second woman and the first Latinx person chosen for the permanent role in the 116-year history of our district.

The fact is, as a woman and as a person of color leading a major school district, I’m a rarity not just locally, but nationwide. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Today, women comprise less than one-third of all district superintendents, and women of color only 11%, according to a recent report from Chiefs for Change (DAmag.me/cfcp), a diverse, bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs, of which I’m a member.

These numbers should disturb anyone who values fairness, representation and opportunity, but they represent more than that. Squandering talented leadership means depriving communities of vision and energy that could change millions of children’s and families’ lives.

I’m not willing to accept that: The stakes are too high, and the opportunities too great. We know—not from dogma, but from data—that visionary, kid-focused leadership matters. We have to draw from the entire pool of talent and genius among the nation’s teachers, school leaders and other educators.

Valuable supports

My experience mirrors that of many of my female colleagues: I started my career as a teacher, then I became an assistant principal, principal, administrator, and cabinet member—all roles held most often by women. Above that is education’s glass ceiling. Women make it to plenty of No. 2 and No. 3 roles—but rarely to No. 1. We must do a better job of opening doors for women with the necessary drive, talent and passion.

Structural change is part of that, but so are stronger networks, supports, mentoring and preparation—all of which are elements of Chiefs for Change’s Future Chiefs program (DAmag.me/cfcc), which has just opened its fifth cohort for applications. Part of that program is a set of sessions just for women, offering unique and valuable supports.

It doesn’t surprise me that women who participate in this cohort are twice as likely to apply for top-tier jobs as compared with Future Chiefs who did not take part in the women-only programming. That effort reflects the types of networks and informal mentoring that have rarely been available to women and people of color—and it matters.
I’d recommend the program to any senior-level talent eager to better serve more students.

Validation

Many years before I was named leader of the public schools in Denver, I was a student in them. One day in fourth grade, my teacher asked me to tell her what foods I ate at home by using their Spanish names.

It was the only time in my K-12 experience that an adult cared enough to wonder about my bicultural life. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of validation and the sense that she knew I could do anything.

I want to be the kind of leader who makes others feel just as valuable and important as my teacher did back in fourth grade, especially when the rest of the world doesn’t. So if you are an education leader and you dream of impacting the lives of millions of students and families,

I hope you’ll give the path to top leadership some serious thought and apply for the nation’s premier education leadership development program, the Future Chiefs program. And if you’ve never considered that path, I hope you will. The nation has been missing your talent.

Susana Cordova is superintendent of Denver Public Schools.