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.

meet and greet

Tennessee seeks reset in Memphis with next leader of its school turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Stephen Osborn (right), a finalist for superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement Schools District, speaks with Mendell Grinter, leader of the Campaign for School Equity, during a meeting at Martin Luther King College Preparatory School in Memphis.

Pastor Ricky Floyd says he was an “early cheerleader” when the state began taking over low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012 and assigning them to charter operators to improve.

But no more.

Disappointed with those schools’ academic progress and even more disappointed with how Tennessee’s Achievement School District engages with Memphians, he now feels “hoodwinked” by the state.

“What is your plan to cultivate relationships with the community again?” Floyd asked Stephen Osborn, a finalist to become the next superintendent of the state-run district.

Osborn, who is chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, met with Floyd and other community members Wednesday as Tennessee seeks to whittle down its list of four superintendent candidates revealed last week.

Their brief exchange — in which Osborn pledged to earn community trust by creating better schools — captures the challenge that the district’s next leader will face.

Local trust in the Achievement School District is low, taxed by years of painful state takeovers of neighborhood schools with promises of fast turnarounds but lackluster results. In recent years, several national charter networks have left the district, mostly because of low enrollment but also due to the high cost of turnaround work. And several schools have closed or changed hands.

“I’m sorry that’s been your experience,” Osborn ultimately told Floyd, pastor of the Pursuit of God congregation in the city’s Frayser neighborhood. “I don’t expect to get folks’ faith on day one. I’m going to need to earn it.”

All four candidates have met with Memphis leaders, but Osborn was the first to be brought back for a second round, said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will make the hire along with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McQueen called the leadership change “a restart moment” and said community input is part of the transition. She emphasized that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The other top candidates include Keith Sanders, a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education; Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen joins Osborn during meetings with community stakeholders.

McQueen accompanied Osborn Wednesday as he met with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, along with funders, parents and community leaders. A day earlier, he was in Nashville speaking with the governor’s staff and members of the State Board of Education, as well as staff with LEAD Public Schools, which operates two ASD schools in the state’s capital city.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched during the Race to the Top era.

Osborn said he has been watching the ASD’s work from afar and said he is ready to get into the mix.

“This role is one where there’s no bigger impact make in terms of making better outcomes for families and this children,” he told reporters. “Tennessee has a bright, strong and vibrant future.”

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.