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.

principal pipeline

Here are 26 assistant principals being groomed to lead Tennessee schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Assistant principals engage with Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as part of the Governor's Academy for School Leadership.

Twenty-six assistant principals will participate in a one-year fellowship program as part of Tennessee’s drive to cultivate school leaders for the future.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday announced educators chosen for his 2018 Governor’s Academy for School Leadership, as well as the 26 principals who will mentor them.

The initiative is in response to the growing body of research showing the significance of principals in developing effective teachers — and therefore improving student outcomes.

“You can walk into a school and tell right away if there is a great principal who is leading effectively,” Haslam said in his announcement. “Great principals attract and keep great teachers, and great teachers lead to student success.”

This will be the third class of the Governor’s Academy, which launched in 2016 as a partnership of the state, local school districts, and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Fellows were nominated by their superintendents and selected by the partnership through an application and interview process.

Each fellow is paired with an experienced principal mentor, must attend monthly group training sessions and a week-long summer institute at Vanderbilt, and intern three days a month at his or her mentor’s school. Upon completion, they are expected to pursue placement as a school principal in their districts or regions. (At least 18 have been promoted so far.)

Chosen for the 2018 academy are:

Merissa Baldwin Aspire Hanley Elementary School Achievement School District
Jeni Irwin Anderson County High School Anderson County
Heather Byrd Eagleton Elementary School Blount County
Melissa Brock H Y Livesay Middle School Claiborne County
Milton Nettles Cumberland Elementary School Davidson County
Noelle Taylor West End Middle School Davidson County
Andrea Beaubien Dickson Elementary School Dickson County
Josh Rogers Dyersburg Intermediate School Dyersburg
Noelle Smith Greeneville High School Greeneville
Travis Miller Orchard Knob Middle School Hamilton County
Heather Harris Middleton Middle-High School Hardeman County
Jacob Bellissimo Jefferson Middle School Jefferson County
Beth Cohen Dobyns-Bennett High School Kingsport
Jamey Romeg Halls Elementary School Knox County
Sharonda Rose Lakeland Elementary School Lakeland
Vanessa Spoon Ripley Middle School Lauderdale County
Rachel Wasserman Loudon Elementary School Loudon County
Amanda Brabham Thelma Barker Elementary School Madison County
Chris Winningham Algood Middle School Putnam County
Larry Staggs Springfield High School Robertson County
Chris George Christiana Middle School Rutherford County
Clint Dowda Bluff City Elementary School Sullivan County
Stephen Walker Rucker Stewart Middle School Sumner County
Latoya Avery Drummonds Elementary School Tipton County
Jordan Hughes Boones Creek Elementary School Washington County
Joshua Johnston Mt. Juliet High School Wilson County

Here are this year’s principal mentors:

Monique Cincore Aspire East Academy Achievement School District
Andrea Russell Central office Anderson County
April Herron Middlesettlements Elementary School Blount County
Suzanne Anders Tazewell-New Tazewell Primary School Claiborne County
Renita Perkins Stratton Elementary School Davidson County
Kevin Armstrong Dupont-Hadley Middle School Davidson County
Malissa Johnson Charlotte Elementary School Dickson County
Cal Johnson Dyersburg Middle School Dyersburg
Pat Donaldson Central office Greeneville
Chrissy Easterly Ooltewah Middle School Hamilton County
Chris Cranford Toone Elementary School Hardeman County
Scott Walker Jefferson County High School Jefferson County
Holly Flora John Sevier Middle School Kingsport
Keith Cotrell Cedar Bluff Elementary School Knox County
Kasandra Berry Bon Lin Elementary School Lakeland
Susan Farris Central office Lauderdale County
Christie Amburn Fort Loudoun Middle School Loudon County
Melinda Harris Community Montessori School Madison County
Trey Upchurch Prescott South Middle School Putnam County
Katie Osborne Greenbrier High School Robertson County
Kim Stoecker Siegel Middle School Rutherford County
Robin McClellan Central office Sullivan County
Brian Smith Station Camp Middle School Sumner County
Brooke Shipley Brighton Elementary School Tipton County
Kelley Harrell Ridgeview Elementary School Washington County
Travis Mayfield Wilson Central High School Wilson County

 

Movers and shakers

Denver Scholarship Foundation hires new CEO

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

The Denver Scholarship Foundation has named a new CEO: Lorii Rabinowitz, who currently heads a startup venture in the city that counts among its goals improving high school graduation rates by engaging at-risk students in arts education.

The nonprofit Denver Scholarship Foundation provides needs-based college scholarships to Denver Public Schools graduates. Over the past 11 years, it’s given $36 million to more than 6,300 low-income graduates. It also runs “Future Centers” for 21 Denver high schools, where advisers help students apply to college and figure out how to pay for it.

Former CEO Nate Easley left the organization to serve as the inaugural leader of a new education-focused philanthropic collaborative called Blue School Partners.

Rabinowitz previously worked at Denver-based consulting firm Rebound Solutions and for 9News, where she helped develop strategic partnerships and new initiatives. Her most recent position was as executive director for the startup Denver Center for Arts and Technology, which is projected to open to the public in 2018, according to its website.

“I am grateful for this amazing opportunity to lead an organization I have long admired,” Rabinowitz said in a statement. “The Denver Scholarship Foundation has engineered tremendous gains in access to education and sustainable careers for thousands of Denver’s students. It will be my great honor to work alongside the board, professional staff, and community partners to build on this important legacy for Denver’s future.”

Rabinowitz is scheduled to start as CEO on Dec. 1.