Executive Perspective

Why It’s All Worthwhile

by Daniel A. Domenech

I noticed the blue note on top of the desk the minute I walked into the office. Mary Ann, my former chief of staff, always placed high-priority items squarely in the middle of my desk blotter so that I would see them and know it was important. This particular note was handwritten and I could tell it had been written by a child.

The note was from Ernesto, a 5th grader at one of our elementary schools where I had been tutoring and mentoring. We had started a support program in Fairfax County, Va., where I was superintendent at the time, with the intent of connecting every child at risk with an adult to provide assistance and support. I had granted permission for all non-classroom personnel to spend an hour of their work week mentoring a child. We also enlisted many of the businesses in the area to provide release time for their employees to volunteer as mentors. As superintendent, I felt obliged to set the example so I volunteered to be a mentor as well.

Ernesto was assigned to me because he attended a school close to my office. This allowed me to slip out for an hour each week, work with Ernesto and be back in my office within 90 minutes. I had been working with him since the start of the school year, and we had established a pretty good working relationship.

Ernesto was lagging in his academic work, and his behavior in school had not been exemplary. He shared a one-bedroom apartment with an older brother, a younger sister and his mother. The mother was the only provider at home, working long hours and thus unable to supervise the kids when they came home from school.

To make matters worse, Ernesto’s younger sister, Elisa, had been diagnosed with cancer. I got into the habit of arranging to mentor Ernesto during the last hour of the school day so that I could give him a ride to his apartment after school. This gave me a chance to look in on the sister and older brother at home. The family was a recent arrival from El Salvador and they appreciated the fact that I could converse with them in Spanish.

Consuming Tasks
We were having a rather difficult budget process that year. I was making the rounds with as many constituent groups as I could meet with to enlist support for my budget proposals. In a system as large as Fairfax, this was a time-consuming task. Because of our proximity to the news media outlets in Washington, D.C., our budget battle was receiving extensive coverage.

I began to read Ernesto’s note. “Dr. Domenech, where have you been? I see you on television, I read about you in the papers, but you have not come to see me in three weeks. I miss you.”

Suddenly, my budget concerns took a backseat to this call for help from a young boy. Without checking my schedule, I walked right out of my office, past the desk of Mary Ann, who with a knowing smile said, “Going to see Ernesto?” I nodded.

My staff also had taken an interest in Ernesto and his family. Just prior to the Christmas holidays, they had come into my office to inform me that, rather than buying presents for each other, they had decided to use the money to buy gifts for Ernesto and his siblings. On the last day of school prior to the Christmas break, I drove to the home feeling very much like Santa Claus riding a Ford sled.

By this point Elisa was home, bedridden and no longer able to go to school. We had gotten her a supply of video games to keep her occupied. I was proud of my staff for what they had done, and I happily shared with them the joy expressed by the children as I gave them each their presents. I also shared with them how the mother cried the whole time I was there. On her limited income, she had not been able to buy presents for her children. Come to think of it, I shed a few tears myself.

Time of Need
That spring, Elisa passed away. The wake was attended by many of her classmates and by school personnel. Ernesto took his sister’s death hard. During the last few months of her life, he had spent a lot of his time with her, keeping her company as she became weaker and weaker. I brought him to my house a couple of times so that he could get his mind off the tragedy at home and play video games with my daughter Jillian. On the weekend, I took him for a ride on my boat. We talked a lot and I continued to help him with his schoolwork.

Ernesto finished the school year and was promoted to the 6th grade. Several years later, when I announced that I would be leaving Fairfax County to go work for McGraw-Hill in New York, I received a beautiful card and a picture from Ernesto and his mom. Ernesto was in middle school. He wasn’t on the honor roll, but he was still in school, engaged and learning.

I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews lately about the trials and tribulations of being a superintendent. Often I’m asked why anybody wants the job. I think of Ernesto and the thousands of students whom I have been privileged to serve during my 27 years as a superintendent. That’s the joy that makes it all worthwhile. It’s why we became educators in the first place.

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