July 8, 2020

Leading for Equity: Reinventing Denver Public Schools

By Transcend

Denver Public Schools is the largest district in the state of Colorado, with approximately 93,000 students and over 200 schools. Under the leadership of our superintendent, Susana Cordova, our vision is clear: to ensure every child succeeds. We are committed to equitable outcomes for our students, not by accident but by design. Over the past several years, we’ve been redesigning our system for every child.

COVID tested us in our work towards this vision, and George Floyd’s murder and the events that have followed challenged us even further. Many of us left our schools and home/central offices at some point in March, and returned days or weeks later to a completely different world. Nearly, overnight we had to provide access to food, technology, health care and professional development to hundreds and thousands of students, staff and families. We rebuilt training platforms to support teachers, reimagined our presence on social media to communicate with families, and redesigned teaching and learning. Then the world shifted a second time, and we have been reminded yet again of the role we must play in eliminating systemic racism, or, as one principal I support says, “obliterating the status quo.” As we head into the 2020-21 school year, we are leading with the following message to all our African American and Black students: “You matter. Black Lives Matter. We see you, and we support you.”

At the forefront of all this reinvention work are our school principals. They will be leading our reinvention with COVID supports; they will be leading our work on the ground to design towards equity.


I have the privilege and pleasure of supporting our principals in the Denver Public Schools as a regional superintendent. It is a unique role where I wear many hats–coach, advocate, cheerleader, salesperson, coffee provider, thought partner, and ally. And I wear these hats in concert with a variety of other central departments designing curriculum, providing support for our multilingual students and our students with disabilities, and our operations and academics teams that support anything from technology to transportation to payroll to legal advice and culturally responsive, social-emotional learning. 

But no one sees and works as closely with principals as regional or area superintendents do.

Our principals are working tirelessly, as are our educators and students. They are preparing for next school year and confronting the important role we all play in limiting the spread and impact of racism. The narratives about “learning loss” and “gaps in instruction” may be true for some students. And yet, our principals are sharing stories where students are thriving in a remote setting, and are able to shine in new and different ways, given the change in their environment and learning conditions. More recently our students are jumping into real world learning as they organize and lead protests across the city to draw attention to the multiple murders of Black people at the hands of the police. Some of our schools are asking essential questions about historically popular school mascots and launching podcasts hoping to inspire other youth into making a change in a safe and effective way. And teachers have embraced learning platforms like SeeSaw to provide an enhanced level of descriptive academic feedback to our emerging readers–and are leaning into their learning edge as we prepare for the unknown this fall. Learning is shifting under our feet, and our principals are being called on to lead in new ways through this brave new world. 


As our system grapples with all these changes, including the innovation energy of our students, teachers, and school leaders, we in central office are reflecting on our role in supporting what’s happening at the school site. Below are my key learnings from the last few months on how central office and assistant superintendents / principal supervisors can best give our principals what they truly need in order to successfully lead in a time of profound change, with a view towards reinventing for equity. 

  1. Start with yourself. If you are white like me, acknowledge the privilege you were born with and unpack your own culpability in this work. For me, based on my white skin color, the fact that I identify and most people assume I am a cis-gendered man, and the privilege of the zipcode in which I was born (12208), I was granted access and opportunity as a young student and learner that often times is denied to students who don’t look me. This includes a eurocentric curriculum that specifically and centrally told the story of “my history”, access to teachers who supported me when I struggled in school because going to college was assumed, and a near constant assumption of positive intent–even when I broke rules or school policies. For example, I ditched high school one time to eat lunch across the street at McDonalds after a school assembly. I was caught, and the only punishment I received was a phone call home to my parents. Were my skin color different, I most likely would have received a harsher punishment. As we launch next school year, all of our principals will be guided by the recommendations of our African-American Equity Task Force. Specifically, every principal in DPS will review the performance and referral data (discipline and special education) of our African American/Black students and design an improvement plan with goals, metrics and accountability structures to track progress. We must be relentless in our pursuit of Black Excellence, knowing that when we address issues facing those most marginalized, we improve outcomes for all. This work can only succeed if we begin with interrogating our own privilege and uncovering hidden assumptions and biases that are likely impacting how we interact with our students, educators, and, most relevantly (given our sphere of influence), our principals. 
  2. Bring your “mirror” work to your principals and develop systems and practices that deepen it. Move beyond “I am not racist” and commit to being anti-racist in your 1:1 conversations, in your school visits and your professional development. As Ibram Kendi states, “denial is the heartbeat of racism…the claim of not racist neutrality is a mask for racism.” In the Denver Public Schools we have developed recommendations for Leaders & Instructional Leadership Teams on items that directly impact academic outcomes. This includes: coaching and Data Driven Instruction; guidance for hiring anti-racist teachers; scheduling implications to eliminate disproportionality; support with broader school strategic planning, including how to create safe and welcoming spaces for all students, including LGBTQ and gender inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, and supporting transgender and non-binary students. In the schools I supported this year, we narrowed academic gaps by nearly 10% by promoting a laser focus on equity and consistent monitoring of goals and targets, such that by March, many of our schools had reached their EOY targets. As we go deeper into equity work next year, we need to internalize and embody our Culturally Responsive Educator Mindsets, and bring those mindsets to bear to promote anti-racist practices in schools that begin with a caring relationship, and build toward academic excellence through thoughtful planning and analysis of student work. Finally, as our leaders reflect on their own identity, their privilege and the biases they may bring to the work, they will seek support from peer consultancies to refine and strengthen their practice. 
  3. Work cross-functionally across your central office to develop strategy, recommendations, resources and guidance for schools. DPS is proud of our partnership with NYC Leadership Academy and they have helped us to develop Equity Leadership Dispositions that we have begun to share with school leaders. DPS offers programs and events focused around equity and inclusion that are open to both DPS employees and the Denver community. Our equity “boot camps” have allowed educators a space to build professional and personal skills with colleagues, to deepen our ability to infuse equity, inclusion and culturally responsive practices in schools and teams throughout the district. Name excellence for our BIPOC communities one of your top three priorities as we return to school this fall, as the DPS Board of Education has recently passed our Black Excellence Resolution and NYCLA is helping DPS create a plan for coaching on equitable practices for African American/Black students, providing research-based frameworks and tools that are adapted to our context. This year, we hosted multiple rounds of instructional walks in our schools using our Equity Walk Support Tool and hosted conversations with central staff about dismantling White Supremacy Culture using Okun’s seminal article.
  4. Support. Support. Support. Principals need to see and hear from us now more than ever. Host regular check ins with every principal in your system. From March to May, I held weekly check-ins with each school I support. They started off as informal check-ins, using the questions above, but morphed into pulse checks, emotional supports and tactical meetings to both support the implementation of remote learning and continue to refine our plans for the upcoming school year. Hold space for principals to talk to, learn from and observe other principals. Peer to Peer Learning is a great way to celebrate together, hold space for sharing across schools and provide an opportunity for updates from our superintendent as revealed in this meeting agenda for our region back in May.
  5. Build by Borrowing. Highlight fantastic national resources for reinvention and planning like Transcend’s Playbook of Tools and Guidance or Instruction Partner’s Reentry Toolkit Phase 1. The Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) framework, just released, helps start conversations with evidence-based approaches to advancing equitable learning environments. In my region, we plan to use pages 8-16 of this framework that deal with specific classroom and school-wide systems and structures as language that principals can use to refine their culture and instructional plans for this school year. Build on the bright spots of our strongest leaders. One of my principals leveraged students to create a weekly online video that was shared with the whole school community each week this spring, with reminders about assignment completion, mental health support students can access as well as celebrations of the rich diversity across the student body celebrating athletic achievements of our Unified sports program. In just a few short weeks, our principals in Denver will finalize their plans to launch the school year – and we are eager to share these resources with them when they return from their summer breaks.

A popular cry these last few months has been “connections before content”–we are doing it with our students; are we also doing it with our principals? Call a principal, express gratitude for their leadership and ask “what do you need right now?” There is  no doubt how much our principals need to hear that–now more than ever. 

Sean Precious is a regional superintendent with the Denver Public Schools. He has served as a teacher and a principal. He is a proud graduate of the The University of Virginia School Turnaround Program (UVA-STP), Leverage Leadership Institute and the AASA Urban Superintendents Academy



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