The world is upside down right now—especially schools—as we struggle and come together to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
I feel fortunate to have been able to sit down with Gustavo Balderas, superintendent of Eugene School District 4J here in Oregon and 2020 National Superintendent of the Year, to talk to him about how his district is responding to closures and his views on education in general. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on being named National Superintendent of the Year! A lot has changed since you received this award in February. Can you tell me a bit about how your district is responding to COVID-19 school closures.
Thanks so much. And of course!
It’s really all revolved around teams and structure and getting people trained on that pretty quickly. We’re also focused on helping people understand their jobs and responsibilities during this time and making sure people are responsible for their areas.
[W]e’re going to get through this together. Keep communicating, keep working together, and remember to keep kids at the center.
We’re also thinking a lot about how we communicate. It’s always communication that seems to be the issue. Right now, that’s compounded by the tension people are having because this is fast-moving and evolving.
Part of me keeps thinking about the revolutionary work that’s going to be. It’s completely making us change the way we think about things, don’t you think?
Absolutely. I was telling my team that there’s a real opportunity to look at systems that we don’t have that probably should’ve always in place.
I’m sure you’ll be able to take so much of what you learn now with you when you transition to your new role as superintendent of Edmonds School District in Washington in the fall. Can you tell me a bit about when you were first inspired to become an educator?
I appreciate the question. I think my inspiration has always been the people who helped me growing up. It has to do with my personal story that I think a lot of people already know.
I come from a migrant family. I was a second language learner. My first language is Spanish. But I always had teachers who really supported me throughout. They served as mentors almost all the way throughout the system. And they made a tremendous impact on me as an individual. It’s the public education system that’s guided me and put me where I’m at and just keeps inspiring me to do what I do every day.
When I went to Western Oregon State University (it was Western Oregon State College back in the day), I was invited to apply for a teacher prep program and I just loved it. I loved the people I was with who I worked with, and they supported me all the way through. That’s when I really realized I really wanted to be a teacher.
As you think about your path, starting in that teacher prep program and moving into the classroom, what were some of the critical turning points that led you to become a superintendent?
I had access to leaders when I was a teacher who supported me in becoming a vice principal, then a principal and executive director and moving up the line. Everybody who maybe saw something in me pushed me forward.
[E]very kid can learn and every kid has a place in our public schools. We just need to make sure we’re paying attention to every kid.”
Sometimes you don’t view yourself as a leader but other people do. I was lucky that I was always having someone tap my shoulder and say, “You know what? You’d be really good at this,” or “After you do that for a while, why don’t you take on this new challenge over here?”
That makes sense. And your spirit, I mean, I just have to say from working with you a little bit in Eugene, your spirit is just so infectious. I feel like that’s probably the wrong word to use right now.
Ha! You’re very kind. I think the one thing I’ve done is I’ve never changed. I’m the same person I was when I was a teacher, when I was a counselor. I’m still the same person. That is something that’s a core value for me. Making sure that we stay true to ourselves.
That’s helped me get to where I am today and even deal with the unprecedented situation we’re in. Right now, I have multiple networks of people I connect with to get daily information on how they’re responding to closures. I have established and taken care of those networks over my 30-year career, and they’re helping me lead during these uncertain times.
One of the reasons you were honored as National Superintendent of the Year is your laser-focused commitment to equity in your school system. In what ways have you been challenged to take this up?
That’s morphed over my career. I’m at a point where I don’t apologize for my actions, not that I ever apologized a lot. I think when I was younger, I was more cautious. Now I don’t apologize for the work being done because it truly is just equity work.
I’ll also say that I think equity is about intentionality. Equity means intentionality around access and opportunity. I also talk a lot about having a global perspective. I don’t believe that the most affluent should have the most influence. How do we make sure that we’re doing what’s right for all kids?
What’s one thing you think teachers and leaders could do in their district to intentionally improve equity, access, and opportunity?
Look at data, look at information, have the right data systems, and make sure people look at data and not just feelings. (Okay, that was four things!)
Don’t relent to the loudest voice. Relent to the broader voice. Seek the broader voice to help inform decision making.”
Educators are feeling people. They care about kids, deeply, and there’s no malintention in what people do each and every day for our kids. But we also need to make sure that we have the highest rigor and the highest expectations for all kids. We get there by using data to really help inform the system and to develop a system that is rigorous for all kids every day.
That’s something I think we, as a nation, can do a better job at. We need to be working with a laser-like focus on that. And not just academically. Nationally we need to be looking operationally at systems, making sure we have the right policies in place to ensure equity.
With testing possibly paused across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to have really critical conversations about what data talks look like in the next six months or so. How have you been addressing that in Eugene?
Data will be very difficult to obtain the next few months. Our goal right now is to help support our students and our families, beginning with supplemental learning with the goal to expand the opportunities for learning as this crisis continues. When we get our kids back in school, we will continue with our formative and interim assessments to ensure that we are meeting students at their rate and level.
It really should all center around the kids. But it’s so easy to lose that focus. What are some lessons you’ve learned about how to keep kids front and center?
I think the biggest lessons learned are that every kid can learn and every kid has a place in our public schools. We just need to make sure we’re paying attention to every kid.
Sometimes in our educational system, the people who have a lot of resources, who make a lot of noise, are heard the most. A perfect example: Go to any school board meeting and the same people show up to every one.
I think we need to pay attention to the voices that aren’t in the room and really have intentionality about reaching out to those voices and bringing them to the table somehow to make sure we’re really understanding the whole system and the whole community.
I hope that we invite more people of color into educational spaces, as teachers, administrators, so kids can see a reflection of themselves and the possibility that could be them.”
I guess that’s really the biggest lesson learned over my years: Don’t relent to the loudest voice. Relent to the broader voice. Seek the broader voice to help inform decision making.
What are some of the main goals you’ve set for yourself as the new superintendent of Edmonds School District in Washington?
I think what’s going to continue driving is my work in equity. Edmonds is a more diverse community, so 53% of my kids, my future kids, are kids of color. That’s out of about 22,000 kids. There are going to be 150 languages. It’s a school district with multiple communities, so my goal is to bridge them with a lot of listening, a lot of learning, and a lot of focus on doing this work together. Because, again, the one thing I’ve learned about equity work and doing the work that champions kids is we always have to do it as a collaborative, always as a team. It can’t be me versus you.
Do you have any closing thoughts as you continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and prepare to transition from your role in Oregon to your new position in Washington?
On the pandemic, I’ll say, we’re going to get through this together. Keep communicating, keep working together, and remember to keep kids at the center.
I owe a great debt to Oregon. I’ve spent my 30-year career here and it’s where I had all my public school experiences as a kid. I went to a community college here in Oregon. I went to Western Oregon for my BA, to Portland State for my master’s, to the University of Oregon for my doctorate. I’m so thankful to the public education system in Oregon.
There are a lot of kids like me right now in our schools. I hope that we invite more people of color into educational spaces, as teachers, administrators, so kids can see a reflection of themselves and the possibility that could be them.