Q&A

As a girl, she swept school floors. Now she leads family engagement for Denver Public Schools.

PHOTO: Courtesy Georgia Duran
Georgia Duran is head of DPS's Family and Community Engagement office.

The new chief of family engagement for Denver Public Schools has a personal connection to the job: She grew up in the city, attended the public schools and watched as her parents — who, like many current DPS parents, were native Spanish speakers — sometimes struggled to speak up on behalf of their children’s education, though they valued it highly.

Georgia Duran says she wants to ensure all families and community members have a voice. After serving as chief communications officer for Aurora Public Schools for more than a decade, Duran began last week as head of DPS’s Family and Community Engagement office.

We sat down with her to ask about her background and vision for the job.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about growing up in Denver.

I grew up in — we called it the west side. I went to Knapp Elementary School. I was bused to Lake Junior High School (in northwest Denver). That was a challenge because my friends went to Kepner Junior High School — many, many (of them) — and then some of us went to Lake. Many of us were reunited when we went to West High School.

What was busing like? Did you understand why you were being bused?

All we understood was we were going to be separated from our friends.

We walked home a lot. It was a long walk. What was beautiful for my friends and me at Lake (was) we got to know the city in a completely different way that a lot of middle school students wouldn’t. We had a lot of freedom to learn more practical things.

What do you remember about how your parents were treated by the schools?

Both of my parents are native Spanish speakers. Because they didn’t always know what education opportunities were there — none of us knew what college was — sometimes it was intimidating for them to advocate for us. They were raised to be very respectful of authority. There were times when I know that it was intimidating.

Do you remember a specific time when it was an issue?

When I was at West, the school did not have as many Advanced Placement courses (as other schools) and the (school leaders) wanted us to go to another school. But I, like many of my peers, worked and did not have the time to go to another school. We went to the school board — the students. My mom was a little concerned about us getting in trouble.

The school board did make a change and provided us more access at West. They were very responsive to student voice. I’m very, very grateful to DPS. There were struggles, definitely. But the people here created so many opportunities that changed my life and my family’s life.

My parents were always very supportive with whatever I was interested in or learned. They were always people who made education a priority. Their goal was for us to graduate from high school. They were very strict about that and about grades.

Tell me about being the first in your family to go to college.

Mrs. Bernier was my teacher in first grade. She changed my life. Sometimes I would do work and get ahead and I’d be restless. It wasn’t necessarily that I was being naughty, but I needed something different to read or study. She was the first one to put in my head that I could go to college and make a difference.

It’s an embarrassing story because when Mrs. Bernier told me about college, I thought it was like a state, a place you would move. I didn’t understand it was more schooling.

In eighth grade, Mrs. Bayer was a teacher who realized I had writing skills. She brought all these magazines in and ended up ordering college catalogs for me. That’s when I realized it was more schooling. I remember that moment when I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not like California. It’s not a state.’ That’s embarrassing!

What I had known about it was it would give me a chance to make a better living to help my family. That was important. My first job was with DPS. I was a custodian. They had a program where you could work at a school. My cousin and I were student sweepers at Knapp.

How old were you?

It was before I was 16 and could get other jobs. I swept the hallways. I was very conscious of a desire to help my family. I was conscious of finances.

You ended up going to Colorado State University. What was college like for you?

College was terrifying. I grew up on the west side of Denver. I had never been in an environment without so many Latinos. That was very different.

In some ways, I didn’t understand college until I did it. It was such an unknown concept. I remember being at West and applying and they asked for a ‘statement of purpose’ and I had no idea what that was. Some of those experiences were challenging.

How did you end up working in education?

I went to the University of California Santa Barbara to get my master’s degree. After that, I had all different communications positions. I ended up getting a position at … Santa Barbara City College, where I became a tenure-track professor.

There weren’t a lot of staff of color, so they asked some of us to help retain and recruit diverse students. That’s when I started to see that many of my students were not prepared for college. I became curious about the pipeline. Other than going to K-12, I knew nothing about education and K-12. So I decided I wanted a position in K-12.

I heard about Aurora. It had very similar demographics to what I grew up in and it was near Denver, so I jumped on the opportunity. … I worked in Aurora for 14 years and had an amazing experience leading communication efforts there and serving very diverse families similar to mine — some with much higher needs than my family had.

I didn’t think I was going to leave Aurora. It was a great place. … But when this opportunity came up — DPS changed my life. It changed my family’s life. The idea of serving and giving back to the community that raised me, I had to try.

It’s humbling. I think about pushing that little broom as a little girl. I wanted to be something in my life, but I didn’t know what that meant.

What do you mean when you say DPS changed your life?

Both of my parents went to Emily Griffith (the district’s technical college) and it changed their ability to find work and support us. … My father took automotive classes and got a job as a truck driver. My mom took all kinds of classes. Cosmetology — she cut our hair. Cake decorating — she had a little business. She’s very resourceful.

The fact that a few teachers believed in me to tell me about college, I went (to college) and ended up earning my doctorate. My brother went (to college) and just this year earned his doctorate. Several of our cousins, our nieces and nephews, have gone on and earned associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees.

Denver created a different narrative for us.

What is your vision for this job? And how will your personal experience influence that?

I have profound respect for families — parents, grandparents, guardians. My experiences will demand that I am a listener first and that we listen more than we talk. I understand many of the challenges that families face and I know what it’s like when people don’t believe in you and how that can interfere with a child’s success. I think I bring a lot of empathy and understanding.

DPS has been criticized for not seeking enough community input before making important decisions. Is that a fair criticism? If so, how will you work to change that?

I don’t think you ever get enough community input because there’s always so much more and so many people you are not able to access.

Denver is doing some really strong work with engagement. The superintendent parent forums, for example. Or the Center for Family Opportunity, which follows the two-generation approach where you’re providing support for families, parents and grandparents as well as for students and lifting the families up. Or our parent-teacher home visits.

But I think we can always look for ways to create more opportunities to listen and then reflect and adapt our work to better meet family and community needs. And we’ll be doing some of that in the community — going to the community, going to families.

We have also high objectives for our home visit program. This year, we know how important it is to go for a second visit, so we’ll be focusing on that.

What are your ultimate goals?

My top goal is to listen. And to understand how we can better serve family and community needs in areas where we need to rebuild trust and to work on building those relationships.

I’m here to serve so that we can increase the number of students who are successful, because I really believe in education. I’m living proof of the difference education can make for a family.

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Departure

Tennessee loses a behind-the-scenes education operative

PHOTO: Jennifer Pignolet/The Commercial Appeal
Kathleen Airhart, then the interim superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, speaks in February to a community meeting sponsored by the Frayser Exchange in Memphis.

Kathleen Airhart, who recently served as interim leader of Tennessee’s Achievement School District during a major transition, has stepped down as the state’s deputy education commissioner and chief operating officer.

Kathleen Airhart

The career educator ended almost seven years with the Education Department last week in Nashville. She will start her new job with the Council of Chief State School Officers as the national nonprofit organization’s program director on special education.

Since 2012, Airhart has been a go-to lieutenant for two education commissioners as Tennessee rolled out major policy initiatives under its First to the Top overhaul of K-12 schools.

She oversaw the transition to the state’s academic intervention program for struggling students, the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, the development of a library of state and local education resources, and operational changes to make the Achievement School District financially sustainable after the end of a federal award supporting Tennessee’s turnaround program for low-performing schools.

Airhart worked mostly behind the scenes until Commissioner Candice McQueen tasked her last fall with leading the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD, as Tennessee looked for a replacement for departing Superintendent Malika Anderson. During that time, Airhart met frequently with school communities in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work, and oversaw the closure of two more under-enrolled schools before McQueen tapped turnaround leader Sharon Griffin to take the helm beginning in June.

Airhart previously was superintendent of Putnam County Schools, where she was named Tennessee’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. She started her career as a high school special education teacher and also served as a special ed supervisor.

In her new job, she’ll return to her roots and advise other states on special education programs and services.

“Dr. Airhart has been an excellent manager and leader at the department, and no matter what challenges she was presented, she always stayed calm and kept students at the center of every decision,” McQueen wrote in an internal letter about the departure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is comprised of education leaders from across the country.