Alex Marrero, Denver’s newest public school leader, juggles student learning during a seemingly endless pandemic with a tired teachers’ union that has battled three superintendents in three years.
Since becoming superintendent in July, Marrero has been keen to meet with families, students and staff to better understand the issues in the neighborhood.
âThe best way to get into a neighborhood, it doesn’t matter if it’s five students or 93,000, that’s what we have is to make sure you don’t come and impose your facts. And I was very careful not to do it, “he said.
Marrero oversees 207 schools and 14,000 employees in the state’s largest and most diverse school district. Prior to coming to Colorado, he served as the Acting Superintendent of the New Rochelle City School District in New York City and also served in the New York City Department of Education.
On Thursday, the DPS board voted to extend his contract until June 30, 2025, changing Marrero’s two-year tenure to a four-year term with an option for a one-year extension. Marrero’s annual salary of $ 260,000 has not been changed.
Robert Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union is monitoring Marrero with some sense of PTSD after going through two years of increased workloads amid a pandemic that shows no signs of abating.
âDr. Marrero inherited a system of wacky policies. The last piece of advice didn’t listen to educators and we’re trying to sort out this mess,â Gould said.
He was referring to former school board members who were supported by education reform organizations. In November, voters elected three new board members and re-elected one incumbent, all supported by the teachers’ union. The other three board members are also supported by the unions.
Marrero said he doesn’t pay attention to labels: âAs a superintendent, I don’t see my board as a union council or a reform council. I see them as partners in what we’re trying to do.
Marrero scored points with the union by extending the Thanksgiving break by one day after hearing teachers, staff, parents and students talk about the challenges this year has presented.
âOur staff really appreciated it because they are incredibly tired,â he said. âI have received hate emails. I expected this. There is never a decision that will be universally accepted. It never happened! It’s normal.”
Marrero was raised in the Bronx in what he calls a “rock hard neighborhood” by an immigrant mother who made him do his homework.
âShe managed to get me to finish high school,â said Marrero, whose father wasn’t around much. Her mother died after graduating from high school. âEverything makes sense to me now. It was about her bringing a boy to a man.
When Marrero came to Denver, he led a listening and learning tour.
âI encouraged him to go out into the field and talk with educators and parents,â said Gould, who believes the community outreach will help Marrero understand the scale of the district’s unrest over the past 10 years. âHe needs to understand this story, what it looked like in DPS. “
Marrero also commissioned a survey of 10,000 staff and families.
The results revealed that most families approved of the district’s handling of student learning during the pandemic. Many parents and students said they were thankful that virtual learning is a thing of the past.
The report showed that 17% of families were satisfied with the school district’s focus on equity. One parent wrote that there was a âstrong culture of inclusion and valuing diversityâ and that âmultiple languages ââwere used to share information with familiesâ. A ninth grade student from northeast Denver said, “The people are nice and sometimes help out if you need it.”
About 18% of teachers said the district pays enough attention to issues of equity and social justice. A front office support staff member wrote: âI feel like we are a district that is very focused on social justice issues. When I talk to my friends in another state, it seems the DPS is taking action to help and uplift disenfranchised students. I think it’s great how much we support our trans students. “
The report was not all rosy. Students want the district to pay more attention to issues affecting the LGBTQIA community and students of color. Parents complained about school hours and old buildings that don’t have air conditioning. Critics of staff have focused on teacher shortages, which they say have created unsustainable workloads and burnout.
Gould, the union president, was not surprised by the poll’s results. In 23 years of working in education, including as a special education teacher, he said this was the first time officials had set up a crisis line for educators. He said stress-related issues are linked to the pandemic.
âI have heard from teachers who were suicidal,â Gould said. ” We had to do something. “
Phase 2 of Marrero’s listening and learning tour wrapped up last week, when 60 people in small groups met with him to discuss their ideas and develop a plan for the future of the district.
Marrero focuses on three priorities: equity, accelerating learning for all students, and health and safety.
âHealth and safety and all that is a post-pandemic response is the # 1 priority. And not just for Denver public schools. This must be true in all districts of the country, âhe said.
Safety in schools has been a challenge lately. Marrero said the recent shootings involving teenagers in Aurora and Michigan were impossible to ignore. He also had to deal with a series of threats made against East Denver High School.
âTwo of the kids in my student executive cabinet are from East High School. The added and discontinued instruction is something no one deserves, âhe said.
At 38, Marrero is the district’s first millennial superintendent. The fiercest criticism of Marrero has been that he is too young to take on such great responsibility. But with youth comes energy and openness.
âMy model is community led and district supported,â he said. âI am at the service of students and the community. These are my voices.