A retired superintendent who began his career as a teacher nearly 40 years ago in Denver has been named interim leader of the state’s largest district while the school board searches for a permanent replacement for outgoing Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
Ron Cabrera retired last year from the Boulder school district north of Denver, where he’d served as an assistant superintendent focused instructional leadership and equity. Prior to that, he was superintendent from 2008 to 2012 of the smaller Thompson School District in Loveland, which has about a fifth as many students as does Denver Public Schools.
The seven-member school board announced Cabrera as its interim pick Thursday on the shady front lawn of northeast Denver’s Stedman Elementary, where Cabrera served as principal for three years starting in 1988. His first day as interim will be Oct. 20, the day after Boasberg is set to step down after 10 years at the district’s helm. Cabrera, 64, will serve until a new superintendent starts, which board President Anne Rowe said will likely be in January.
“Seeing these children here remind me of my own grandchildren,” said Cabrera, gesturing to the six Stedman students who stood patiently on either side of the podium. “I have nine, and so I have no desire to be the long-term superintendent.
“But I do have a desire to see successful kids, curious kids, and keep them learning,” he continued. “And I think we’re doing the right work here in Denver.”
Cabrera said his task will be “to keep these things full of energy, have them moving forward, have them moving upward, setting the right type of foundation for the permanent superintendent when the board makes their really important decision.”
Denver Public Schools is nationally known for a number of school reform efforts, including giving more autonomy over budget and curriculum to school leaders, and putting in place a universal choice system that has families use a single form to request to attend any school. There is heated debate in the community over whether these efforts have helped or hurt.
In choosing an interim superintendent with no interest in the permanent job, the school board avoids making a politically fraught decision. The last time the board appointed an interim, when Boasberg went on a six-month sabbatical in 2016, members chose Susana Cordova, a senior official who is now deputy superintendent and has said she’s interested in the top job.
Rowe said the board chose Cabrera in part because of his breadth of experience in school administration, and also because of his knowledge of the Denver district. Since retiring from Boulder, he has been coaching district leaders and working on several key initiatives, including helping to ensure schools are using culturally responsive teaching techniques.
About 77 percent of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students are students of color, and 67 percent come from low-income families. More than a third are learning English as a second language.
A letter to district staff announcing Cabrera’s appointment includes some biographical information, including that his parents are native Spanish speakers who immigrated to the United States. He grew up mostly in California, where “conversation around the dinner table often focused on civil rights and frequently included his aunt and uncle, who worked with César Chávez as organizers for the United Farm Workers movement,” the letter says.
Cabrera said his experiences helped shape his approach to education and his belief that all students can succeed. “There’s power in education,” he said on the lawn at Stedman.
He also peppered his remarks with funny stories from his tenure as principal there, including the time a student asked the then-first lady of Colorado, who was at the school to talk about the importance of reading, if the governor’s mansion had a hot tub.
Boasberg announced in July that he would step down as superintendent in mid-October. The school board has set an Oct. 15 deadline for those interested in the job to apply. Board members hope to name finalists by Nov. 26, and pick a new leader by Dec. 10 — a timeline they extended after students, parents, and community members complained that their original timeline, which would have had them name finalists in October, was too short.
After the announcement, Cabrera, Boasberg, current Stedman Principal Greta Martinez, and a small contingent of district staff headed inside the school. Their first stop was a bilingual kindergarten classroom, where students were practicing letter sounds.
“Buh, buh, buh,” the students recited in unison as the teacher held up a flashcard with the letter “B” on it. She flipped it over to reveal a picture of a flag.
“Bandera, bandera, bandera,” the students said, waving their hands like tiny flags.
Their second stop was in the classroom of Dawn Romero, who’s been teaching at Stedman for 35 years. She was a teacher when Cabrera was principal, and she hadn’t yet heard the latest news. Romero was delighted when Cabrera walked into her classroom. She gave him a big hug as Boasberg introduced him as the new interim superintendent.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.