Superintendent Ivan Duran takes over at the Bellevue School District, known for high-performing schools but persistent achievement gaps for some nonwhite students. His own shattering experience of racism as a Latino kid in Denver fuels his drive to help all students here.

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As a Latino student growing up in Denver, new Bellevue School District Superintendent Ivan Duran attended two kinds of schools: ones that were diverse and welcoming and where learning thrived, and ones in which he heard racist taunts and disparagements and learning shut down.

“It shattered my life in ways I can still feel viscerally,” Duran told a group of new teachers at an orientation last month.

As he begins his first year at the helm of a district with strong academic success, but lagging achievement for some ethnic groups, Duran said he’s deeply driven by his personal history to think about how to create equitable learning environments and about how the district can support its classroom teachers in achieving those goals.

In person, Duran, 52, is soft-spoken and modest about his accomplishments over a 27-year career. He’s been a teacher, principal and, most recently, an assistant superintendent in both Denver and Dallas public schools. Former colleagues describe him as respectful and collaborative.

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But he is also willing to share his experiences as a student, including being bused from a racially diverse neighborhood middle school to a mostly white, suburban one, where he heard anti-Mexican slurs for the first time (his parents grew up in New Mexico).

He also tried to attend a private high school for a year but ended up angry at the harassment and at his parents for not sticking up for him. Returning to a public high school, he said, he only stayed in school because of his parents’ insistence.

In retrospect, he said, the schools weren’t prepared to bring together students from different backgrounds.

“Ivan has experienced firsthand what happens when you don’t get a good education and what happens when you do. That’s motivated him to ensure that all kids have access to high quality and rigorous instruction,” said Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent for Denver Public Schools, where Duran spent most of his professional career.

Cordova worked with Duran when he oversaw a network of about 22 elementary schools and focused on early literacy and using data to inform classroom teaching.

Cordova said Duran also concentrated on improving the lowest-performing students and the lowest-performing schools and making sure the district had interventions and safety nets in place so both students and schools could succeed. Six of the poorest-performing elementary schools experienced significant turnarounds, she said.

Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District, praised Duran as a collaborative leader who brings people together. Hinojosa was one of Duran’s teachers at a yearlong leadership training program organized by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.

He then recruited Duran to become a deputy superintendent at Dallas, where Duran worked for the 2016-2017 school year. “He has a phenomenal human side,” Hinojosa said. “ He knows how to connect with people and make sure everyone’s ideas are heard.”

Listening and learning

In his first two months in Bellevue, Duran said he’s concentrated on listening and learning about what’s working in the district and where the challenges lie.

“I really believe our role and responsibility is to ensure that we’re giving our teachers everything they need to be successful,” Duran said.

In October, he said he plans to summarize his findings and develop a three- to five-year strategic plan for the district in concert with the School Board.

Duran said he was impressed, as a candidate for superintendent, by the high level of student achievement in the district. Almost 8,000 high-school students took Advanced Placement classes in spring and 77 percent passed. He noted that success in rigorous high-school courses is the biggest predictor, not of who will attend college, but of who will graduate from college.

Duran said he was also impressed by the number of Bellevue teachers who hold National Board Certification — about 21 percent of its 1,500 teachers. It’s an indication, he said, of the number who have taken on a demanding program in which they must demonstrate their knowledge, classroom mastery and passion.

“I’m very excited to get into the classroom and see some of this in action,” he said.

But Duran also noted the achievement gap for minority and low-income students. Asian and white students, who now each make up about 38 percent of the Bellevue student population, had about double the pass rate in reading and math across the grades as did Latino and low-income students on tests administered last spring.

So few African-American students attend Bellevue schools — less than 3 percent of the total — the district isn’t required to report their standardized test scores to the state.

Initiatives to address the achievement gap were already underway in Bellevue when Duran accepted the job. He said that the ongoing efforts around racial equity and inclusive practices were part of what attracted him to Bellevue and “are exactly the type of work we need to do to address the achievement gap.”

Shomari Jones, the director of equity for the Bellevue School District, said Duran has brought to the district an expertise and an openness to engage in conversations around race and equity.

“He’s shown a willingness to be vulnerable, to say, ‘This is what I believe in,’ ” Jones said.

Outlining commitment

Just days after the white-supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, Duran emailed the district’s leadership team. He said he was upset and disturbed by the weekend’s events, and by any act that places one group above another.

“As an educator who gladly serves every student who walks through our doors, I am motivated more than ever to work with you to … create systems of equity for all students.”

After President Donald Trump said he would end the program that has allowed millions of young people brought to the country illegally as children to obtain work permits and attend college, Duran wrote to all the district’s families. He said, “The Bellevue School District will continue to provide a safe, inclusive and welcoming learning environment for all our students without regard to immigration status.”

Michele Miller, an instructional mentor in Bellevue and president of the Sammamish UniServ, a consortium of local teachers unions in Bellevue and seven other Eastside school districts, said both of Duran’s letters underline his commitment to equity and inclusion.

While Bellevue has a reputation of being a white, suburban enclave, she noted that the district now has students from 115 countries speaking 100 different first languages.

“He shared with us the responsibility he feels for the work we’re doing and told us that he’s in this with us. That’s an impressive start for me.”

Duran said he was drawn to Bellevue Schools’ mission statement: “To provide all students with an exemplary college preparatory education so they can succeed in college, career and life.”

He told the new hires he greeted in August that he shares those goals.

“I really believe in the idea that all means all,” he said.