As a girl, she swept school floors. Now she leads family engagement for Denver Public Schools.

“I’m living proof of the difference education can make for a family.”

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat 

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 is head of DPS's Family and Community Engagement office. (Courtesy of Georgia Duran)
Georgia Duran is head of DPS’s Family and Community Engagement office. (Courtesy of Georgia Duran)

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.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.