Insights From 2020 AASA National Superintendent of the Year
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In February 2020, Dr. Gustavo Balderas was named the 2020 AASA National Superintendent of the Year for his excellence in district leadership. And about one month later, in March 2020, everything about public education changed.
School buildings had to close, and swift decisions and changes had to be made to ensure the wellbeing of families.
Dr. Balderas has served as superintendent at Eugene School District 4J since 2015. Equity advocacy is at the center of Dr. Balderas’ work. Accepting his AASA award, he identified himself as “a proud son of a migrant family from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, México,” an English Language Learner growing up, and a “proud product of the public education system.”
In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Superintendent Balderas gave his perspectives on data-driven equity, collective impact approaches, and diversifying school leadership settings.
You were named National superintendent of the year, and you were the first Latinx person to receive this award. You've been very outspoken about the issue of equity in the public education system. What is your approach to equity, and what are some new ways in which you're thinking about equity in the face of the pandemic?
Thank you for that. I think equity is also offered an overused term. And I do say that often just because it's to me, it's about access inclusion and opportunity, and about actually using metrics to be able to define where there are gaps in systems and address them. I was talking to the national group of superintendents just the other day and we were talking about the need for connectivity now in 2020, being no different than needing electricity or running water for our kids. It's just a necessity. So how do we push for that?
What I've learned is there’s just so many more needs than we typically consider. How do I as a school leader work with other community leaders to fulfill our families’ needs? So that’s how I've been thinking about this lately: As more of a collective impact approach.
I've made public comments recently about working with our tech partners. We have here, in Lane County, roughly 500 Tech startups here. The ‘Tech Forest’ is what they call it, and we’re developing those partnerships to address gaps.
I think what happens in schools is sometimes not really known in the broader community. So how do we share our voice so it reaches the right people? I've been doing that with op-ed pieces locally. I think the more I speak and the more I write about it, the more people are more aware of it. Because when I go to the Rotary, the Rotarians don't look like me in Eugene. And I doubt the Rotarians look like me in most communities.
I think the more I speak and the more I write about it, the more people are more aware of it. Because when I go to the Rotary, the Rotarians don't look like me in Eugene. And I doubt the Rotarians look like me in most communities.
We read that you had said how you want more people to be a part of the decision-making process in school boards, especially people of color, because of how they are being affected so heavily right now.
I think you bring up a really good point. In terms of having authentic two-way discussions with communities of color, something I did this year was that I had a group of Latina mothers come to the school board meeting, and my all English-speaking board heard from them in Spanish, which is not what you usually do. So the language translation was done for the Board members, not the families. So, it was the board members that wore the headsets, and the parents could speak freely in their native tongue. And this one board member of mine said that that was probably the most powerful thing in 12 years of service that they had experienced because they said that now they knew how people feel on the other side.
I had a group of Latina mothers come to the school board meeting, and my all English-speaking board heard from them in Spanish, which is not what you usually do. So the language translation was done for the Board members, not our families.
Wow. That’s exactly what we meant in the sense of learning new ways to approach access and equity. With this shift to distance learning, what has it been like for you as a superintendent, having to be the person to make some really tough calls and often deliver so much bad news?
It's been a very difficult time for everyone. So we try to make sure that we're very intentional about the positives as well as the challenges. And there's positives happening every day.
In terms of delivering the message, I've said this from day one: We're not going to get this right. This is not anything that anyone signed up to do, but that being said, we are resilient, and we are going to continue to step up for our kids. And we have come a long way in doing that. And that's something that I continue to promote because I'm just amazed at all our educators and what they've done in a short time.
And people now are very tired. I'm seeing teachers fatigued, I'm seeing kids fatigued, I’m seeing administrators fatigued. So you have to continue to make sure there's positivity in your messages and also your actions, whether it's having a car parade for an elementary school or just recognizing individual staff members by writing a letter or just making a comment.
Have you seen over the last two months a lot of progress in terms of how the teaching and learning has evolved online, and what is the need like for professional development?
That's a great question. I think there's a range there's just a range depending on the grade level as well between high school and elementary level teachers, but there's still a range even within those levels. And we’re getting better, but we will still continue to do more quality professional development for teachers.
Last month, I heard one of my board members has a teacher in the system, and he mentioned to me how his daughter called him and said, “Hey Dad, I don't know how to get on, I don't know what they're asking me to do.” And again this is a month ago. Now, when I checked in on him just last week, he said the daughter feels much better because there’s more comfort and more of a routine now.
And we are also thinking about how parents can be engaged and supported on how to work with their kids at home. I think one of the lessons that this crisis has provided is that we have to cater to parents’ needs, and teach them how to work the technology and materials that we’re asking kids to use. So I do think there is not only a need for PD for staff, but also for parents helping their kids at home.
I think one of the lessons that this crisis has provided is that we have to cater to parents’ needs, and teach them how to work the technology and materials that we’re asking kids to use. So I do think there is not only a need for PD for staff, but also for parents helping their kids at home.
What are the ways that you're trying to serve your historically underserved families right now, as well as the families who are facing significant challenges this year?
So we implemented wraparound service teams when the pandemic hit. And over here we have a large Latinx population, so we’re working with our community partners, such as the Latinx Alliance. We've been leveraging such groups to provide for our families, because they have greater access to the broader community.
And even within our schools we've created wraparound service teams. So for example, two Fridays ago, one of the teams was working late on a Friday to try and provide meals and diapers and so forth for our families for the weekend.
There's already people impacted by this because of language, and socioeconomic status. So hourly workers were laid off quickly, and we have a portion of our population that is undocumented, and is not receiving any relief or resources whatsoever. So our wraparound services model allows us to work with agencies to provide support for those families that have absolutely no means.
And another thing we’re trying to do is provide them with socioemotional support in their native language as well. We have folks that do door-knocks, for example, and if we can’t get a hold of the family, we leave a door tag in their native language. So they know we came by and we care.
Another thing we’re trying to do is provide them with socioemotional support in their native language as well.
That's amazing. You are going to another district at the end of this year. What are some things that are going to keep in mind when you move to Edmonds School District?
You have to make sure that we understand that we work for kids. It's always been the same lens for me having been an educator for thirty years and having led equity work for a long time. It's kids at the center. Doing well for kids — all kids, and continuing to identify and address the gaps we have.
And what I'm taking from here is the systems that we have created and the successes that we've had. In Eugene, we've been able to close opportunity and learning gaps, our kids with special needs, their graduation rates have increased 23% in the last six years, our Latinx kids by 19 percent, and our kids navigating poverty by 19%. So we're doing the right work. It's now about replicating that work elsewhere.
And it’s always about the relationships, right? In every district I've been at, shared knowledge and values has been very instrumental in my success and has been instrumental to the success of this district and prior districts. I’ll make sure that I continue to learn and grow going into Washington state.
You are a national advocate for equity, and as someone who is part of the communities he advocates for, what are your concluding remarks on your equity work?
So I make no excuses for ever calling things out. I quit making excuses a long long time ago. When you first become an administrator, you're always kind of doubtful about how people are going to view you, especially because of the color of your skin. So I quit making excuses a long long time ago. So I call things out openly and assertively, and I make sure that we have plans of action and data to inform our decision-making. I’m very transparent about showing people where we're at, because sometimes people just don't know about these issues.
I've had mentors throughout my time in this field. Once upon a time I was the youngest person in the room, and I learned a lot from my elders. I stand on the shoulders of my people that have come before me, that were the trailblazers in equity work in schools. My goal now is to continue to mentor as many people as I can to make sure that they have an opportunity to step into more leadership roles if they wish.
I stand on the shoulders of my people, that have come before me, that were the trailblazers of equity work in schools. My goal now is to continue to mentor as many people as I can to make sure that they have an opportunity to step into more leadership roles if they wish.
Because unless we diversify every leadership setting, whether it’s city councils, school boards, or district administrations, we will continue to find it really hard to find the right response for our problems. Unless we have a seat at the table, unless there's a voice there, it's not going to be heard. And then what?
Unless we have a seat at the table, unless there's a voice there, it's not going to be heard. And then what?