Championing the Latino Administrator

How the author’s own odyssey navigating unaccommodating school systems contributed to the startup of a new advocacy group by CARLOS A. GARCIA

Back in 1979, I was applying for an administrative job for the first time. I sent out at least 100 applications. I heard back from five people. I interviewed with two.

I got one offer.

It was as a vice principal at a K-8 school in Watsonville, Calif., in a school predominantly filled with migrant workers' children who reminded me of when I was a kid. Not only did I feel a lack of support as a Latino as I began moving up into school administration, I also continued to see what I had seen as a teacher -- which was how underserved our minority students were. These were the ones being placed in shop class, the ones teachers weren't even trying to reach, the ones who were dropping out. An attitude prevailed that students should be adjusting to the system, not the system to them.

Carlos GarciaVeteran superintendent Carlos Garcia found little formal support for Latino school leaders earlier in his career.

This is what I call the "Leave It To Beaver" approach to a school system, meaning a setup that worked for certain kinds of kids. There was no sense of accommodating the needs of minority students.

A Fortunate Turn
That got under my skin. I grew up in a poor section of Los Angeles and saw a lot of kids smarter than I was who didn't become successful because they simply didn't know how to navigate the system. If you didn't know how, you got lost. My friends dropped out. They got into gangs and drugs.

But I was lucky. By the time I was in junior high, I had a teacher who literally pulled me aside and told me I had leadership qualities. She placed my name on the ballot for the student-body elections, and next thing I knew I was the student-body president. Then I got lucky again in high school when my guidance counselor gave me the direction I needed and channeled me through the process of graduating high school and getting into college.

At my high school graduation, my dad, who worked in the commissary for Pan American World Airways, asked me for the first time what I was planning to do. I was happy to inform him I already was accepted to college.

I became a classroom teacher almost on a fluke. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Claremont College and getting ready to go to law school. I took a child psychology class and spent time observing a high school English class in Ontario, Calif. I loved what I saw there. I was hooked. I got my masters in education instead.

My first teaching job was at La Puente High in Nogales, Calif. I was head coach of track and field and taught social studies. It was fun for me, and I wanted to be a teacher for the rest of my career.

But as I was getting ready to complete my thesis, I became aware of the need to get more federal categorical funds into the public education system. I talked to a friend working at a nearby high school who gave me access to a lot of their data. I wrote a grant for them and developed my thesis about it. The school district subsequently offered me a job as a coordinator for state and federal programs.

No one had ever offered me an opportunity like that before. I didn't even really know what administrators did. I had to figure it out.

More importantly, what I saw again, but this time for myself, was the same Leave It To Beaver system in place at the administrative level, too. There was a real lack of Latino administrators, and if you didn't learn how to navigate the system in place, you were on your own and likely to drop out of administration, just as so many Latino students would do with school. At that moment, I saw an opportunity to champion the Latino administrators.

Movement in Motion
For the next two decades, I worked in other school districts, always choosing to work where I saw strong minority leadership, where I could find professional mentoring or be a mentor myself. This took me to Watsonville, San Francisco and Fresno, Calif.; and Las Vegas and then back to San Francisco. In most of the jobs I held, I was the first Latino hired for the position.

In 2002, while leading the Clark County, Nev., School District, I saw it was time to formalize support for Latino education leaders across the nation. I called a meeting of dozens of people I knew in administrative positions, including Darline Robles (Utah), Lee Vargas (California), Stan Paz (Arizona), Ricardo Medina (California), Augie Orci (Nevada), Carmella Franco (California), Jose Torres (California), Art Delgado (California) and Fernando Elizondo (California).

I posed a simple question to them: What value is the work if we don't reach out to other Latinos who want to be in school administration and help them get where they need to be? Subsequently, we met in Albuquerque, N.M., over a weekend and crank out what we needed to set things in motion.

This became the launching point of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or ALAS.

Latino students are now the fastest-growing sector of the student population, but out of 14,000 school districts across the nation, only about 250 of them have a Latino superintendent, according to research by my colleague Medina, immediate past president of ALAS. The National Center for Education Statistics classifies 1,300 districts as Hispanic-serving districts, meaning at least 25 percent of the enrollment is Latino.

A Ready Resource
As I look back at my career in education and as a young Latino growing up in a non-inclusive school system, I know a pressing need exists to fill schools with administrators who understand what it is like to be a Latino student. ALAS is needed.

ALAS identifies, recruits, develops and advances Latino school administrators to improve the educational accomplishments of all youth, with an emphasis on Latino youth. But it also serves as a resource for school districts around the nation as they see the increasing Latino enrollment in their classrooms.

Last year, ALAS sent Latino administrators to Oregon and Colorado, places that have experienced a surge of English language learners, to help school districts connect with experts as they deal with issues such as bilingual education, how to include Spanish-speaking families in the school community and what to do about undocumented students.

Another thing ALAS does really well is act as a clearinghouse for administrators. Members share ideas and practices with each other and pick each other's brains on a regular basis. Recently we brought together all the affiliate Latino organizations into ALAS with free membership, expanding exponentially our idea-sharing power.

Responsive Leadership
As a public school superintendent with more than 35 years of experience, and as a Latino, I can say that one idea we don't need to share anymore is that "Leave It To Beaver" system of days gone by. Schools today aren't like that old-fashioned TV show so it's time we operate our education system with strong, culturally responsive leaders whom students can look up to during their school day.

Every month, at least 50,000 Latinos turn 18 in this country, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities. We know the majority of these kids are coming through our public schools, and at ALAS we are working to serve them better with well-supported Latinos who are running those schools. We also are actively encouraging some of those 18-year-olds to become educators themselves, and part of a public school system that makes Latinos active, engaged and successful citizens.

Carlos Garcia is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District in San Francisco, Calif. E-mail: Carlosgarcia@sfusd.edu