Chip Zullinger, the man tapped to take over Denver Public Schools, isn’t intimidated by concerns that he’s unfamiliar with issues facing the city’s Hispanic community.

Just because he hasn’t dealt with large groups of Hispanic students in his previous jobs, he says, doesn’t mean he can’t.

“Disenfranchised people are something that I’ve dealt with a lot,” said Zullinger, 48, who comes from the Charleston, S.C., school district, which is 65 percent black. “It’s kind of exciting to me. I want to begin developing a system that is responsive to the Hispanic community.”

Zullinger, who will be named DPS superintendent this week, will have to work with a Hispanic community that feels its interests were not taken seriously by the previous regime.

Almost half of the 60,000 students in DPS are Hispanic, and with a new bilingual education program to begin this fall, Hispanic leaders will be watching Zullinger very closely.

Zullinger wants to get more Hispanic parents involved, to give them a sense of ownership in the schools.

But that may be hard to do.

Before Charleston, Zullinger was superintendent of the school district in Casper, Wyo. Some Hispanic activists and leaders are questioning whether his lack of experience in bilingual education will hamper the success of their kids. They have seen high numbers of Hispanic kids drop out of school or fail to graduate. They’ve witnessed their test scores constantly fall below those of their Anglo counterparts.

“It seems as though the district is intent on not hiring someone who is black or Hispanic or somebody that hasn’t had major experiences with Hispanics,” said Pierre Jimenez, a leader in the Hispanic community.

Desiree Sanchez, public policy director of the Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA), said a coalition of Hispanic activists called the Latino Education Campaign, which includes LARASA and others, urged the school board last week to continue the superintendent search.

Many others also felt the board should resume its search for a top-notch superintendent, after Zullinger and the three other finalists failed to impress community members at public forums earlier this month.

“We were unhappy with the work experiences of all four candidates,” Sanchez said.

However, Sanchez said that if Zullinger is appointed, the group would work with Zullinger.

“We hope he would sit down with us,” she said.

The Denver school board still still hasn’t officially confirmed its choice of Zullinger, which was first reported Sunday in The Denver Post.

“The school board expects to make an announcement (today) or Wednesday,” DPS spokeswoman Amy Hudson said.

Even Zullinger isn’t confirming whether he’s got the job or not.

“I haven’t been told anything,” Zullinger, 48, said Monday. “The board still has to speak as a group about this.”

By state law, the school board was required to wait until at least today –
14 days after the finalists for the post were made public – to name its choice. The board would then officially sign Zullinger to a contract and ratify it at its first meeting in August.

Zullinger’s imminent appointment doesn’t come without controversy.

For starters, Zullinger is on paid administrative leave from his job as superintendent of schools in Charleston, S.C., where he has clashed with a newly elected school board.

And Zullinger doesn’t have unanimous support from the Denver school board either. At least one board member – Rita Montero – said Zullinger’s not her choice for superintendent. She did not say who was but added that she has no plans to request a new search and that she will try to support him.

Zullinger was one of four finalist seeking the job held formerly by Superintendent Irv Moskowitz, who stepped down June 30.

The others were: Eugene Gutierrez of Fort Worth, Texas, James Harris of Buffalo, N.Y., and Robert Schiller of Baltimore, who was the board’s second choice.

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