While the environment might have been an initial shock, Denver’s new superintendent of schools and New Yorker through and through, Dr. Alex Marrero, knows that his comfort is not his highest priority. ‘Job one,’ he said, is creating a healthy, nurturing, learning environment and degree of normalcy that will return students to the things COVID-19 took away.
Dr. Marrero was formally announced as new DPS superintendent on May 26th. He was selected after a national search of more than eighty candidates was pared down to three. Prior to his selection, he served in a similar position in New Rochelle, New York.
The Bronx-raised Dr. Marrero is the son of a Dominican mother and Cuban father, though his mother, he said, had a far greater influence. As a young boy, one of his jobs was to accompany her on the block as she sold Avon beauty products to the largely Puerto Rican/Dominican community. “We set up shop on Fordham Road,” he remembered.
His mother would teach him about the products and prices at home, and when they hit the street, he would stand by and watch as neighbors would turn out to make their purchases. “That’s all I knew,” he said. “It was perfectly fine.” But the experience also taught him as he grew that people are people. “There are Fordham Roads all over this great nation.”
As he was introduced at an early summer news conference, Dr. Marrero said that and other lessons he learned growing up in his neighborhood, were preparation for life and the career he landed in. “Little Alexi,” he told the audience, “is now Dr. Marrero because of the hard work of all those in front of me and also what I had to overcome.”
But Dr. Marrero is nothing if not a realist. He knows that COVID’s impact had a devastating impact on kids everywhere, not just DPS. Getting them back, returning them to proficiency, he said, will be neither simple nor quick. “I am one hundred percent concerned,” he said. “We should all be concerned.” But solving the problem isn’t one that belong exclusively on the shoulders of DPS teachers. It’s one that needs to be shared at home, too.
“I’m looking at 2019 in Denver in terms of where students were---before and now,” he said. “Unless you have it (the information) in front of you, you cannot assume a thing. Even privileged kids fall into this category.” How things turn out remains a question without an answer.
Vanessa Diaz Trussell, will begin the new school year as a new principal. She understands Dr. Marrero’s and the district’s challenge. “It feels daunting to attempt measuring exactly what our students have lost,” she said. “But rather than looking to remediate lost learning, we need to focus on how we will accelerate learning.” The freshman principal who paid her dues as a classroom teacher said she’s imploring her new staff, “to know where our students are, and that will include baseline assessments.”
Long time Pueblo educator, Evelyn DeHerrera Armijo, is not optimistic. “It’s going to be very hard to catch up,” she said. Remote learning didn’t work for everyone. The retired teacher said kids need real face time with teachers. They “needed the assistance from a teacher and doing their schoolwork remotely was not possible.”
Dr. Marrero is not unlike his educational peers. He freely admits that he has no special skill that will tell him how long it will take to recreate the environment that COVID took away. It is education’s big mystery. The pragmatist in him also tells him, “It could take academic years.” Whatever it takes, he said, he is willing to do, including engaging with families, community leaders, counsellors and mental health professionals.
Because of the virus that shuttered schools still lingers along with a variant, DPS teachers, staff and students will be required to wear masks while indoors whether or not they have been vaccinated. The new policy will be in effect for the foreseeable future. Masks won’t be mandated outside of buildings. Charter schools will be free to create their own masking policies.
Despite only having been in the city a short time, Dr. Marrero said he is looking forward to having his family join him for a full Denver and Colorado experience. He and his wife have two young children. “We want to take advantage of everything that is Colorado,” he said, a hint of excitement in his voice.
Acclimating to Colorado also means learning about local sports. Though he can recite line and verse about his beloved Yankees and Giants, Dr. Marrero has already met Colorado Rockies owner, Dick Monfort, and promises to take the family out to Coors Field. Though he likes all sports, baseball is tops and Mike Mussina is his baseball hero, but not just because he’s a Hall of Fame pitcher.
“He was a finesse pitcher and made it to the Hall of Fame during the ‘juiced ball’ era. But more than that he said of Mussina, he was a scholar, a Stanford graduate. Mussina, he said, did not compromise. He took his love of sports and learning to the top. Dr. Marrero also unapologetically likes oft-maligned, sports anti-hero, Barry Bonds. “He was Mr. ‘T’ and Rocky rolled into Babe Ruth.”
But sports will have to wait. Dr. Marrero knows that his job right now is to negotiate a way around a virus that still haunts the nation and the world while making certain that DPS students are reinoculated with the learning that COVID took away. “My worst fear is that we have tragedies, in any way that you define (them). Loss of life, either students or staff, what can be worse than that? That is not something we even want to think about but it’s part of the discussion.”