Executive Perspective

Making the Most of an American Opportunity

by Daniel A. Domenech

I remember the thrill of walking out on that big stage and looking over the thousands that had assembled at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans 10 years ago. This was a moment that had been years in the making. I was the president of AASA and this was my annual conference. I had reason to be proud, and at that moment I looked at the audience and said, “What a country, this America!”

A friend and colleague on Long Island was fond of exulting that way every time an opportunity came along that he felt would not have occurred had he not immigrated to this country. “What a country, this America” became a way of acknowledging that America is indeed the land of opportunity. Millions of us have come to America as the immigrant children of parents in search of a better life.

In 1998, I accompanied Paul Houston and Nolan Estes on the International Seminar to Cuba. It was my first and only time back since I had left the island in 1954. On a visit to one of the revolution’s museums near the Bay of Pigs site, Paul noticed the photo of a young man named Domenech who bore a striking resemblance to yours truly. The young man had been killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion and he was being celebrated as a hero of the revolution. Had he lived, he would have been nearly the same age as I was then. I assumed that he might have been a cousin. Certainly the resemblance could not be denied.

Missed Chances
At that moment, I became very much aware of the life, or lack thereof, that might have been mine had my family not left Cuba. Instead of having been shot at the age of 18, I was there as a visiting dignitary from the United States, superintendent of one of the largest school districts in America and president of AASA. What a country, this America!

In 2005, more than one million individuals entered the United States as legal permanent residents. That same year, 47,000 recently immigrated students dropped out of school out of a total dropout population of 414,000. That’s 47,000 youngsters who undoubtedly came to the United States with parents or other relatives seeking opportunity but unable to find it.

What a shame, because the greatest opportunity this country has to offer is access to a free public education. Over the years I have talked to thousands of students and their parents, advising them to take advantage of what our public schools have to offer. Education is the great equalizer. All that is required is that students attend, learn and use that knowledge to advance.

Statistics show that someone with a college degree will earn at least twice as much as a dropout, and individuals with doctorates or professional degrees will earn five times as much. The operating principle here is to take advantage of the opportunity. It is not automatic. It is not a given. It has to be pursued and acted upon.

As educators, we bear a strong responsibility to ensure our students take advantage of what our schools have to offer so students may realize their full potential. We are also advocates on behalf of our students, doing everything we can to secure the resources they will need and to make sure that laws, rules and regulations always are enacted in the best interest of our children.

Solidifying Relationships
The American Association of School Administrators plays a major advocacy role on behalf of our students. Much of what the organization does is intended to secure full educational opportunities for all of our children. We do that by maintaining a strong presence in Washington and by providing our members with the professional development that will assist them in fulfilling the mission of their school systems. I am honored to have been recently appointed executive director of AASA.

This is a very exciting time for our profession and for our association. In less than six months a new administration will be attempting to define and shape the future of public education. AASA must be part of that process and must participate in those discussions. Our association’s new govern-ance structure was designed to maximize member involvement in the setting of policy and direction for the organization so that when we speak on your behalf, we are truly expressing the wishes of the membership.

We also have a great opportunity to solidify the relationship that we have with our state affiliates and to further clarify the roles that we can best play to serve the needs of our constituents. I intend to work closely with our state executives to ensure we always collaborate rather than compete.

There is much to be done in the area of professional development and here again we have the opportunity to work in tandem with foundations, schools of education, business schools and other organizations and associations that have an interest in the area of leadership development. We intend to engage in an aggressive development program that will provide us with the resources that will allow us to offer our members the support and training they ask for.

It is a great country, this America. But we also recognize there are great challenges facing our schools. I am honored to be in a position where I will be able to work with all of you to overcome those challenges and maximize the attainment of the opportunities we face.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org