Champions of Change Blog

  • Roots and Wings

    Patricia Cortez

    Patricia Cortez is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    On my first day of kindergarten, my mother and I walked to my classroom hand-in- hand and eagerly awaited our turn to meet the teacher. When we finally approached her, she gave us a warm smile and greeted us with words that were familiar and comforting. She spoke to us in Spanish, my first language and my mother’s only language. My parents had made the decision to place me in a bilingual classroom, not knowing that this decision would set the trajectory for my life’s work in the very same district.

    It was 1976, and bilingual education was in its infancy in my school district. There were a small handful of teachers at this school who wanted to prove that bilingual educate could work. And I am grateful that these extraordinary teachers helped me develop my Spanish language skills, enabling me to nurture my cultural bonds with my parents and other relatives. The ability to communicate fully with them, I now realize, was a gift that kept me grounded in and connected to my cultural values and to my heritage.

    I am proud to teach at a school where the expectation is that ALL students in our bilingual immersion program will be fully bilingual and biliterate. In addition to being a teacher, for the last five years, I have also served as the school’s resource teacher, facilitating curriculum development. However, it’s not just about the language. Students are also taught a sense of pride, understanding, and respect for their culture and for other cultures. Their ability to speak multiple languages connects them to the world. What an honor it has been to teach and support my students on this journey.

    I often think of that fateful first day of school—and how the encounter with my first teacher inspired a feeling of trust that served as a foundation for what I do as a teacher almost 40 years later. My hope is to inspire my students to pursue their dreams and to always remember and honor their families and community so that they in turn may serve as an inspiration for future generations.  

    Patricia Cortez Hidalgo is a first grade teacher at Alianza Charter School in California.

  • Investing in Our Children Through Urban Education

    Pedro A. Rivera

    Pedro A. Rivera is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Growing up in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia shaped me into the person I am today. Urban education has always been a part of my life. I was raised by a single teenage mother, and I am the only person in my family to attend and graduate from a post‐secondary institution. My passion for service started while attending Penn State University. While I was enrolled as an engineering major, I began tutoring at a local high school and figured out that I belonged in education. Little did I know at the time, this life-changing experience would lead me down such a rewarding path.

    Upon graduating with a degree in education, I returned to my hometown to teach English Language Learners at Kensington High School and basic literacy to adults in the evenings. My passion became clear as I took great pride in changing the lives of kids and serving the greater community. After several roles in the classroom, union, and central office administration, I moved my family nearly 80 miles west to become the first Latino Superintendent of the Lancaster School District.

    This new role provided me with an opportunity to advocate for change. While education is an ever‐evolving process, I was now able to lead the charge. After placing a large emphasis on high-quality instruction and hiring the best and the brightest teachers, positive results followed. Our graduation rates continue to rise, and our students have made steady gains in state assessment scores. We have also provided a nationally acclaimed music and arts program and received a recent recognition by the Washington Post as one of the top twenty high schools for academic rigor in Pennsylvania. 

    Nestled in the heart of Lancaster County in southeast Pennsylvania, the School District of Lancaster serves a diverse student body of 11,500 students, which educates approximately 1,000 homeless students during the course of a year. 17% of our students are learning English, and more than 38 languages are spoken throughout our buildings. 

    We know that we must remove barriers to success in order for our students to thrive. For the past several years, every student in our District has received free breakfast and lunch each school day. Through our community schools, students can receive eye glasses, dental care, and comprehensive medical services. Education is much more than teaching the core subjects. We must cater to the whole child to ensure we meet and exceed their individual needs.

    I am deeply honored to receive the Latino Educator Champion of Change award. I continue to be humbled and inspired by the many professional team members I surround myself with each day. Together, all of us can strengthen America’s future by supporting the many students who fill our classrooms.

    Pedro Rivera is the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • Serving the Underserved with Excellence

    Leonel Popol

    Leonel Popol is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    As a Bilingual School Counselor at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC, I have hoped to create change that will last generations after I’m gone. I believe that the sign of a true educator is someone who creates impact that can exist long after the educator is gone.

    I have worked with the English Language Learners student population at Cardozo since September of 1998. At the time, I knew that I wanted to serve and give back to my community. Cardozo provided me with the perfect opportunity. From the very beginning, I felt that every child was essential and a reflection of the divinity of the universe.

    At Cardozo, I have counseled students who have achieved valedictorian and salutatorian status and have also witnessed students succumbing to gang violence. I have celebrated joyously with students who were awarded college scholarships and have watched others instead go to jail and lose their futures because of their poor decisions. To keep myself going, I have to take pride in the successes and use the failures as motivation to work even harder.

    When I meet parents at Cardozo, I already know the shoes that many of them have walked through. I immigrated to this country 29 years ago and initially worked in construction and housekeeping. I have lived many of the challenges and hardships those parents and their families face every day. I want my students and the community to dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true. I think of students as the little seeds that have the potential to become mighty oak trees. Dreams do come true after all for those who dare to dream and have the determination to achieve great things.

    Leonel Popol is a Bilingual Counselor at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC. He is also the coach of Georgetown University’s women’s soccer team.

  • Preparing Students to Succeed

    Pat Sánchez

    Pat Sánchez is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Nestled in the historic community of Commerce City and bisected by busy roadways and industry, Adams County School District 14 (Adams 14) is Colorado’s 26th largest school district, serving more than 7,500 students annually. In Adams 14, nearly 83% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, nearly 87% of students are children of color, and nearly 60% of students are English Language Learners.

    In advance of the 2012-13 school year, the Adams 14 Board of Education initiated the complete reconstruction of District administration in order to accelerate reform and improvement in this historically low-performing district. The Board selected me, a lifelong educator, as the new superintendent, based on my past performance in transforming inner city schools.

    Because people support what they help create, my first order of business was to engage in regular communications with all District stakeholders – students, families, employees, and community members – in order to foster a climate and culture of mutual trust and respect.

    This approach helps me address the disparities in Adams 14 that are preventing equity amongst our students. I believe that important discussions with our community partners will help us understand some of the challenges that our students are facing. That’s why I transformed Adams 14’s District Advisory Accountability Committee meetings from a dumping ground for negativity to a community platform where ideas, opportunities, and discussions about children are celebrated.

    In Adams 14, I have tried to ensure that all students are provided culturally-responsive learning environments and are engaged through powerful instructional strategies that facilitate English-language acquisition. Now, our schools have a culture that is based on high expectations for all students and employees, combined with one that supports both academic and social growth for all students.

    Today, there are undeniable, national academic disparities between students of different races and ethnicities. Adams 14 is boldly addressing these disparities that are preventing racial educational equity. I am committed to ensuring that race is no longer a predictor of academic success.

    I initiated a Latino Parent Committee to engage a large proportion of Adams 14’s parent population that had been historically undeserved. I have worked tirelessly to empower all families and community members to become engaged partners in their child’s education by creating welcoming environments District-wide that reflect and support a culturally diverse population.

    A substantial piece of my overall leadership message is the critical importance of creating a paradigm shift in the way we think about our children – and how it is essential to view our children as assets. With this attitude, I’m confident that we will continue educating children of all backgrounds, preparing them to succeed regardless of where they come from.

    Pat Sánchez is Superintendent of Adams County School District 14 in Colorado.

  • A Destiny to Serve and Be a Champion of Change

    Dr. Gonzalo La Cava

    Dr. Gonzalo La Cava is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Not long ago, my seven-year-old daughter asked me a seemingly easy question: “Daddy, does your job make you happy?” While simple in nature, her innocent words made me reflect on my career path. The answers came flooding in and were superficial at first. But as I sat still and pondered her question, I came to some realizations about my profession.

    Although I firmly believe that all children can learn and deserve a high-quality education, serving those who are underrepresented is my mission as an educator. Circumstances such as poverty, inadequate cultural support, or a lack of familial education can create an unequal playing field for these students and limit their exposure to opportunity. By no fault of their own, these children are underrepresented in leadership roles in our country. On many occasions, our education system seems to underestimate what they can accomplish.

    While some people think that children from traditionally disadvantaged groups are a “lost cause,” I know that each child has the potential for success. In Orange County Public Schools in Florida, I led two majority/minority Title 1 schools to ‘A’ ratings and increased the scores of students in reading, math and writing. I have been able to turn around challenging schools by changing the culture of the staff, reducing suspensions, focusing on literacy, and engaging the local community. Our success did not come overnight; it took our dedicated staff years to reach our objectives. Some naysayers question the expense of educating disadvantaged children, but I assert that there is more cost in not doing it. Without a shadow of doubt, results are achievable and there is an immense return on investment.

    Today, I am responsible for more than 18,000 public school students in 23 schools in Fulton County, Georgia. It’s very different from Orange County, Florida, yet many of the challenges are the same. More than 60% of our students are economically disadvantaged and are in need of specialized educational and community support.

    To address the challenge head-on, I joined the Sandy Springs Education Force (SSEF), a non-profit that engages the resources of civic leaders, community stakeholders, and businesses to deliver supplemental programs and services in our schools. This organization provides mentoring, grants, after-school programs, teacher assistance, books, and literacy help. The SSEF proves that, when school, business, and community leaders work collaboratively, students can succeed. SSEF is a core reason for Fulton County Schools’ success in increasing graduation rates and closing the achievement gap of our economically disadvantaged students.

    The work that educators do is never-ending and often unacknowledged, but seeing our students succeed is its own reward. I have experienced professional highs and lows, but witnessing our students walk across the stage to receive their diploma is priceless. Working with this at-risk population is hard work, but it is very gratifying.

    So the answer to my daughter’s question is, “Yes. My job makes me happy.” My profession influences and improves the lives of underrepresented children. I believe I was destined to be their champion of change. 

    Dr. Gonzalo La Cava is the Area Superintendent for the Central Learning Community of Fulton County Schools in Metro Atlanta. He also sits on the board of directors for the Sandy Springs Education Force.

  • Driving Gains for All Students

    Susana Cordova

    Susana Cordova is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    At Denver Public Schools, our vision is for every child to succeed. My work as our Chief Schools Officer is to ensure we’re moving closer to achieving that vision every day in our schools. For me, education is deeply personal work. I am a graduate of Denver Public Schools. I began my career here as a teacher. Over the years, I have worked in multiple capacities in our public schools to support student learning and growth.

    I come to work every day because I care deeply about each of our students, and I believe that every one of them has tremendous potential. I believe every student can succeed, and I am committed to providing every student with the supports and resources each needs to unlock his or her potential. Transforming that commitment into action – both for myself and for our thousands of educators – is where the challenge as a leader arises.

    There are many issues that are outside of our control in education. My work as the leader for all of our public schools is to ensure we remain focused on the areas we can impact and that we pursue the high-impact strategies that lead to results for our kids.

    I’m most proud of the work I’ve done to lead our students who are learning English as a second language.

    There are more than 120 languages spoken in Denver Public Schools, with the majority of students primarily speaking Spanish in their homes. It’s important for our students who speak a language other than English to have a clear path toward English language acquisition once they enter our schools. We provide English language educating while also recognizing that a student’s native language is an important bridge to their culture and heritage. We don’t want students to lose that connection.

    We have a variety of structures in place to help our students learning English. Every summer, we hold an intensive English Language Acquisition academy for students in elementary and middle school to help them build their language skills. During the school year, we have teachers who are trained in teaching English as a second language working with our students in nearly every school. And we’re constantly working with schools to monitor our progress and make adjustments throughout the course of the year.

    This targeted approach has led to strong gains: Since 2010, we’ve increased a 15 percentage point increase in the state assessment for English proficiency among our students learning English as a second language.

    Our approach allows us to have a significant impact on our students learning English as a second language. While there is still much work to do in this area, we are on our way to reaching that vision of success for every child. My role is to keep us focused and on-track to achieving our goal, and I look forward to working with our educators to get us there.

    Susana Cordova is Chief Schools Officer of Denver Public Schools.