Within a school system, the chief operating officer is usually a “jack of all trades,” making sure the organization runs smoothly so educators can do their jobs effectively. Although his name is not Jack, David Suppes manages many of the supporting departments that serve the employees and students of Denver Public Schools.
Nearly a decade ago, David saw the district’s COO role as an opportunity to leverage some of his background and skills to help support improvement efforts in public education, and he knew what a great opportunity it was.
“I didn’t have the educational background to be in an academic role, but I did have significant background in operational functions, the areas that directly support schools,” he said. “If we are doing the things that are important to helping schools — and our school leaders are doing their job, and our teachers are doing a great job — collectively, we are going to have success.”
David oversees several of Denver Public Schools’ largest departments, including finance, information technology, safety, school choice and enrollment, planning and strategy, food services, transportation and facilities management. He also led the implementation of the district’s 2008 and 2012 bond programs.
To help prepare him to take on the role of district COO, David drew from his background and experience as a consultant.
“One of the things I learned in consulting across multiple industries is that you walk in not knowing the business of the people you’re working with nearly as well as they do… and that brings a bit of humility,” he said. “You have to spend time asking a lot of questions, listening a lot and looking for opportunities where you can bring your skills, background, knowledge and experience to help.”
When David started at Denver Public Schools, he focused on doing all three. At the end of his first listening and learning tour, David knew he was lucky to work for such a mission-driven organization.
“The passion that people have for serving students and families is incredible. It really goes beyond what I had experienced in most of the private-sector places I worked,” he said. “So was the openness that many people had to ideas that came from outside of education in order to try and do things better. It was really a willingness to say, ‘We’ve been educators all our careers, and we know certain things really well, and we don’t know a lot of the other things.’ I found that how open people were really was a pleasant surprise.”
It was Denver Public Schools’ openness that created a space for several Broad Residents to serve its schools and students.
“Residents are just very high-quality professionals who are really eager to learn. It brings a new set of ideas into public education that hopefully you can blend with some of the things that we do well here. I’ve just found it to be a tremendous way to cross-pollinate ideas from other industries with public education,” he said.
Over the years, David has had a number of Residents work either directly for him or very closely with him at DPS.
The first was Connie Casson (The Broad Residency 2005-2007), who David met when she was serving as special assistant to the superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools. He hired her to work in DPS, where she stayed for more than five years, most recently as the district’s executive director of accountability, research and evaluations. “I would hire her again, almost anywhere and into almost any role,” he said.
The idea that school districts can access highly-talented professionals who really have a calling and desire to work in public education is what makes The Broad Residency so great,” David said.
“We’ve seen people with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, energy and willingness to learn — also the humility to recognize what they don’t know — while leveraging the skills from their previous careers”
Several years later, Brian Eschbacher (The Broad Residency 2011-2013) came under David’s supervision as the district’s director of planning and analysis. Bringing a different lens to DPS from his background in operations and strategy from consulting and the private sector, Brian stayed at DPS for another five years after his Residency, leading planning and enrollment services for the district.
“Brian helped make our school district a national leader in choice and enrollment practices as we push for equity,” said David. “He [did] extraordinary work. We had a really interesting and challenging role for him, but Brian made the role his own and brought success with it.”
When Lauren Trent (The Broad Residency 2014-2016) came to Denver Public Schools as manager of strategic partnerships, one of the first projects she worked on was the development of DPS CareerConnect, which offers students rigorous, relevant career education opportunities while connecting them with local partner companies and higher-education institutions. She led the creation and implementation of strategic initiatives to expand work-based learning opportunities, including job shadowing, mentoring, internships and apprenticeships. David felt confident that her background in management and consulting would give her a leg up in the role, understanding the needs of their partner businesses and the opportunities they could offer students. And he was right. While Lauren briefly left DPS after completing her Residency, she was hired back a year later as executive director of CareerConnect.
One of Denver’s newest Residents, Tanya Pramatarova (The Broad Residency 2017-2019), works in the transportation division. “She has done a tremendous job making significant process changes that have helped us improve the quality of the transportation services that we’re offering,” David boasts.
Although some new to education may struggle initially without the background knowledge about school systems, David says Tanya has been willing to bear down, work hard and build relationships. Not only is she a valuable member of the team, he also says she is someone who is looked upon to provide leadership on a lot of the work.
“Tanya’s direct supervisor now has someone with a completely different background from anyone else on her team — someone who approaches problem solving differently, brings a set of skills that she hasn’t had on the team.”
To David, the openness of the entire school system to do things differently, combined with the passion of those serving students and families, has helped Denver Public Schools provide better outcomes for students.
“There is an element of diversity in thought and having people come from a variety of backgrounds that is incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with hard and challenging problems,” he said.
And just as someone took a chance on him coming into the education sphere to leverage his talents and skills, David has extended that same welcome to many Broad Residents as Denver Public Schools tackles a number of big issues to help them better support students, educators and schools.
“The majority of our work is a few steps removed from direct contact with kids. But a lot of it is simply asking ourselves, ‘How do you make the life of a school leader or a teacher as easy as it can be — so they can do what they need to do, which is to educate our kids?'” he said. “If the transportation system is working great and the nutrition system is working great, kids come to school on time, they are well fed and in better spirits, and they are more able to learn. Ultimately, we help provide services for students to give them the best chance at being successful.”
Lauren Ramos-Mendoza is The Broad Center’s associate director of communications.