Denver’s new schools superintendent, Alex Marrero, has been listening.
Since taking the top job in Colorado’s largest school district on July 6, he’s met with district staff, parents, leaders of foundations that support the schools, and grassroots community groups, including those who questioned his candidacy for the job and the process that led to his hiring.
Marrero, who was the interim superintendent in New Rochelle, New York, before coming to Denver, said two issues repeatedly have been raised. One — whether masks should be mandatory in schools — is the current hot topic. The other is a long-simmering debate: whether a decade-plus of education reform in Denver Public Schools has helped or hurt.
“I’ve engaged with folks who are, I hate to call them a reformer or reformist, but who are pro what has happened in the past decade, saying it’s the best thing that’s happened in the educational system,” Marrero said. “A couple hours later, at the next burger joint, there’s someone else who says, ‘The last decade has been a travesty. Please fix it.’”
Marrero said he’s open to hearing both sides of that issue and any others. He said it’s a key part of how he makes decisions.
And he’ll have a lot of decisions to make. In addition to steering the district through the ongoing pandemic, he’ll have to address declining enrollment, the aftermath of removing police officers from schools, and the urgent need to improve education for Black and Latino students who make up the majority in Denver Public Schools.
“I do not have all the answers,” Marrero said of his decision-making style. “I have to make sure I know what the needs, wants, and desires are before I make a suggestion.”
Marrero, 38, began his career in the country’s biggest school district, New York City, where he served as a guidance counselor, assistant principal, and principal. It’s also where he attended school as a child growing up in the Bronx.
Marrero is Latino and was the only bilingual candidate among the three finalists for the superintendent job in Denver, where a third of students are English language learners. He also stood out for the way he answered questions, often peppering them with personal stories.
When he was a child, he said, his family would sell Avon products — four deodorants for $10 — on the street during the summer. He and his brother were embarrassed by the job, and they would escape to a nearby open lot, where they’d throw rocks and hit them with sticks.
Years later, when he worked in New York City schools, a district administrator called him to her office. She wanted him to take over as principal at a struggling middle school, he said. It turned out the school had been built in that very same open lot from his childhood.
“I said, ‘Where do I sign?’” Marrero recalled. “I believe things happen for a reason. Me coming to Denver, it was not by chance, either. Things happen for a reason.”
But not everyone was thrilled when Marrero was named the sole finalist in Denver. A group of Latino leaders called for the school board to delay its vote after Marrero was named in a lawsuit about his previous school district’s COVID response. Those same leaders had previously expressed concerns that Marrero didn’t have enough experience to lead a 90,000-student district like Denver, and that he didn’t understand southwestern Chicano culture.
Marrero has already met with his critics, including leaders from the Latino Education Coalition and the Colorado Black Roundtable. Milo Marquez of the Latino Education Coalition has been impressed with Marrero’s willingness to sit down and listen.
“I’ve been pretty rough on him since the beginning, even before he was chosen, just because we’ve had expectations of past superintendents, and superintendents said the right things, and then they’ve come in and they’re nowhere to be found,” said Marquez, vice president of the Auraria Historical Advocacy Council. “Marrero has been different so far.”
Elsa Bañuelos, executive director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, echoed Marquez. She said her impression is that Marrero is going to “rock the boat in a good way.”
“He’s doing these listening tours, putting himself out there in really uncomfortable spaces,” she said. “For him to say, ‘Hey, I want to understand your concerns,’ is huge for me.”
Marrero said that when he first heard Latino leaders in Denver were concerned about him, he had “a bit of a reaction.” But he said it lasted no more than 20 minutes. Given that he hadn’t yet met the leaders, Marrero said he realized that their concerns likely had less to do with him as a person and more to do with systemic issues in Denver that needed to be addressed.
“The ‘why’ is not me,” he said. “I prioritized engaging with them because I wanted to know the why.”
Marrero said he is already looking into several of the issues they raised, including how the district can improve communication with families, and how to bring back students who were disengaged during remote learning. Marrero said he’ll knock on doors to find students, if necessary.
Once students are back in class, Marrero said schools will focus first on making sure students feel supported mentally and emotionally, and then will turn to accelerating students’ learning to make up any ground lost during the pandemic.
The district’s third focus, he said, will be making sure staff are ready for that challenge.
Teachers, he said, need to “understand that it doesn’t matter the zip code, doesn’t matter the upbringing, doesn’t matter how disengaged they were, a student can achieve. And no one can tell me anything other than that because I was that student — and here I am.”