As of this fall, the eight largest cities in Texas have Latino superintendents leading the school districts. The latest to join the list: Richard Carranza in Houston. He impressed the Houston Independent School District with his credentials — and his voice.
Carranza’s an accomplished musician who started learning mariachi at 7 years old. Now, his day job is managing Texas’s largest school system, where more than half the students are Latino.
If Richard Carranza had followed the advice of his high school counselor, chances are he wouldn’t be in Houston, running the seventh biggest district in the country.
His guidance counselor told him to skip chemistry and take advanced sheet metal fabrication.
Carranza already knew about sheet metal work. It’s what his dad did for a living. His mom was a hairdresser. Carranza told the board they were his first teachers.
“Simon Carranza and Dolores Carranza, may they both rest in peace, who taught my brother Reuben and I that the one thing that can never be taken away from you is an education,” he says.
As he wrote in his job application to HISD, that advice to lower his ambitions had the opposite effect. Carranza decided to become an educator. His parents also wanted more for him.
“They knew that college and education was the path to a future. And they knew that that truly is the American dream, a future. That is my ethos that I bring to Houston that same promise to every child in Houston.”
He started as a teacher and kept climbing
Carranza has started to meet students, like this class at Wisdom High School in Southwest Houston. It’s for teenagers brand new to the U.S. and learning English.
Like them, Carranza didn’t know English when he started school. Spanish is his first language.
Carranza stands before the group in cowboy boots. His eyes gleam and he smiles easily as he points to their teacher.
“So what I do, is I used to do what he did, I was a teacher.”
He taught bilingual social studies and music for 10 years in Arizona. He also created a mariachi course.
“After a while I decided I wanted to be in charge of a school so I became a principal.”
And he kept climbing. He was a first region superintendent in Las Vegas.
“And then I said well maybe a deputy.”
He got that job in San Francisco.
“Then a deputy and now superintendent.”
When he was superintendent in San Francisco, the district boosted its graduation rate, reduced suspensions and created a new bilingual diploma.
Those are some the credentials that convinced the Houston school board to hire him.
‘He’s overcome a lot of challenges’
But what do school leaders think about having a Latino as a superintendent? And does it matter?
“We need Latino leaders to be able to serve as role models, mentors for young people,” says Juliet Stipeche, the city’s education director.
Trustee Jolanda Jones wants to make sure the new superintendent will represent all students.
“Well I was concerned because there’s a lot of pitting by people who get their way in this district by blacks and browns.”
Jones even went to San Francisco to check out Carranza in action. She left impressed by the initiatives there to support black students.
At Stevenson Middle School near Hobby Airport a group of moms stopped Carranza in the hallway to welcome him. There was an immediate connection.
“Pero cuando me di cuenta que era Latino...”
Maria De La Cruz says she likes the fact Carranza is Latino. But not just because he can speak Spanish.
"Creo que es algo más profundo...”
“I think something deeper,” she says. “He’s overcome a lot of challenges and now he’s living his dreams.”
And then she convinced the new superintendent to use his talents – the musical ones – to wish the principal happy birthday.
This story is part of a collaborative series produced by KERA, Houston Public Media and the Texas Standard. Read Part 1 of the two-part series here.