With a new school superintendent taking over this fall in Houston, every one of Texas’ eight largest cities now has a Latino running the school district. That’s a big deal in a state with a surging Hispanic population and a history of political underrepresentation. In the first chapter of a statewide collaborative series, KERA digs into the implications for students, schools and the politics of education.
In a school district where nearly 45 percent of students are Hispanic, Arlington superintendent Marcelo Cavazos’ bilingual skills come in handy. During a recent visit to a class at Carter Junior High School, Cavazos asked the students in Spanish what they want to study and what career they want to have.
One student said he wants to be a doctor. Another said she’d like to be a teacher.
“Gracias,” he told her. “When can you start?”
The kids in the class laugh.
It’s not just the language that helps Cavazos connect with these students, it’s his roots. As a kid, he helped his parents pick crops in the fields of south Texas.
Experts says that kind of life experience among leaders is critical as the country’s population grows more diverse. More than half of the state’s 5.1 million public school students are Latino and more of these students than ever are in districts run by Latinos.
Today, half of the state's 20 largest cities have Hispanic superintendents. And in North Texas, Latinos lead four of the area's school districts. Besides Cavazos, there's Michael Hinojosa in Dallas (his second time in that role), Kent Paredes Scribner in Fort Worth and Jose L. Parra in Irving.
Most recently, Richard Carranza was named superintendent of the Houston Independent School District – the largest school system in the state and the seventh-largest in the country. Like Cavazos in Arlington, Carranza, Hinojosa, Scribner and Parra are also bilingual.
“I would say that this is a milestone in the history of Texas,” said Stan Paz, executive director of the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or TALAS.
It’s not just speaking the same language that can make a difference. Paz said understanding someone’s culture can create a classroom students can thrive in.
“It has a very significant impact and that’s based on research over the years on identifying effective competencies necessary to educate Latino children well…you have to have cultural competency.”
Marla Guerra, superintendent of the South Texas Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley, has been at the helm there for 15 years. She is also one of the few Latina superintendents in Texas.
“I think education is so complex now that it requires someone with that sensitivity and with that background,” she said.
In her long tenure, Guerra’s noticed that the parents who don’t speak English or speak very little of it will ask her questions they wouldn’t ask anyone else.
“When I attend parent meetings, open houses, school visits and we have parents in audience, they feel very comfortable in speaking to me because I understand them for one,” she said. “And then, secondly, I can relate to them as an individual having grown up in this area.”
She said parents get more involved in their kids’ education when they feel understood. Guerra’s experience tracks with what the research so far shows – that Latino leaders can make a difference in Latino students’ classroom experience and get parents more engaged.
Fort Worth's superintendent Kent Scribner said what's important to him is having culturally competent leaders who understand the student population they serve.
When he was a principal hiring teachers in a predominately Latino school, Scribner said he recalled telling people that he'd "rather hire someone with a bilingual heart than a bilingual tongue."
“So it’s a question of hiring someone who has the values to serve,” Scribner said. “[And] understands the complexities of multiculturalism, which is actually going to be a mainstream conversation moving forward.”
The implications, however, extend beyond school grounds and into the realm of state politics. Frank Hernandez is associate dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. One of his primary areas of research is Latinos and school leadership.
“What we find is that they [Latino superintendents] often are having to implement policies that are made at the state level and those individuals who are making policies may not necessarily be connected to the kinds of needs the community has,” Hernandez said.
That can force superintendents into positions where they have to advocate for their districts or even argue with lawmakers. Hernandez said those conversations are important, and thinks education needs more Latinos -- and in particular Latinas -- at the table.
"Historically, Latinas spend more time in the classroom, more time as school administrators like principals and really have, historically, needed more support...to take on leadership positions that have historically been for men," Hernandez said.
To achieve this, Hernandez recommends more mentoring and something called superintendent leadership academies.
“These academies will take district leaders or Latino school leaders and really work with them over a year long period to prepare them for the superintendent,” he said.
And that means more Latinos ready and willing to take on the role of superintendent when the time comes. Not just in Texas’ largest cities, Hernandez said, but in suburban and rural districts, too.
Paz of TALAS believes there needs to be a "ground swell from the teaching ranks."
"Right now, we're barely, barely scratching the surface," he said. "When you consider that, nationally, we represent less than 3 percent of all superintendents in the country, then you can see how far away we are from meeting the demand. Then, when you break that down into the number of Latina superintendents, then it's a bigger challenge."