Libia Socorro Gil

Crusading Against a Political Tide by JAY GOLDMAN

Just three miles north of the Mexican border, Libby Gil is steaming about the storm of anti-immigrant sentiment that pervades much of California and the nation these days.

As superintendent of Chula Vista Elementary School District in conservative San Diego County, Gil has crusaded on the need to provide public services to legal and illegal immigrants. She describes herself as "personally disturbed and outraged" by election season rhetoric to withhold public education from the children of illegal aliens and the new federal welfare law’s impending elimination of other services to the needy.

"My bottom line is we don’t punish children for the misdeeds of adults," says Gil, who moved to the 20,100-student Chula Vista district in 1993 after seven years as a central-office leader in the Seattle Public Schools.

In the months before Californians passed Proposition 187 in 1994—an initiative that cut off aid to illegal aliens—Gil protested the measure at news conferences and picketed at a major rally.

"I told my board that if this proposition passed, I would resign," she contends. "The reason I came here ... was not because I was looking for a job but as an opportunity to make a difference." Today, even with Proposition 187's implementation blocked by legal challenges, the superintendent still fears the country’s crackdown on illegal aliens has cast a wider net that hurts immigrants with legal standing in this country.

Gil’s passionate belief about the public schools’ responsibility to all children stems from her own background. The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Costa Rican father, she moved with her four younger siblings to Los Angeles at age 16. "My parents uprooted us for the classical reason—to pursue a higher education in this land of golden opportunities."

Gil considers English her third language, a point championed in the policies of the Chula Vista board, which is committed to a multiliterate student body. She aggressively defends classroom practices such as bilingual instruction that she believes best serve the wide range of talents. (In her linguistically diverse school district, the second most-spoken of 39 foreign languages after Spanish is Filipino Talalog, owing to the presence of the Navy’s nearby bases and air stations.)

"When I first got here, I asked, 'What happens when [the students] leave us?' No one knew."

To get those answers, Gil this year authorized the creation of a common data base linking Chula Vista with neighboring high school districts to track pupil performance in middle schools and beyond. She also hired Gordon Black, a top polling research firm, to dig deeper into student, parent, and community perspectives of school performance. Some 7,000 students in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades were among those questioned last spring, and the data has been disaggregated by building to target schools in need and commence a more directed improvement process.

The first question to be raised, she says, is: How does the decision improve student learning?

The same crusading spirit that Gil brings to the immigration front shows up regularly in her leadership. She halted the long-standing practice of using seniority as the sole criteria in personnel reassignments. It was her idea to add a parent representative to the contract negotiations team, a rare practice among school districts, in order to show that "every voice counts in an education community." She also is one of the few public school leaders to reach out to her state legislature’s most vocal school critic, Assemblyman Steve Baldwin, who chairs the education committee.

Gil has accompanied the brash conservative legislator on school visits and invited him to the district’s "best practices" council composed of Chula Vista teachers. "I wanted to give him another perspective," she says. "He validated that very few superintendents talk to him."

An independent thinker, she’ll sometimes break from the ranks of her colleagues as when she suggests she does not oppose vouchers, so long as they do not harm public schools.

Her boosters on the Chula Vista school board say she has brought a galvanizing vision to the district and its stakeholders. "In Libby, we have one of the educational superstars," proclaims Joseph Cummings, a 21-year board veteran. "I just hope we can keep her for a while."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: