A collection of short takes on what defines Gustavo Balderas of Eugene, Ore., newly named National Superintendent of the Year for 2020.
For all the challenges he faced as a child, Gustavo Balderas does not dwell on such notions as hard times or roadblocks.
“I don’t know if they were obstacles,” he says of the poverty, language barriers and stuttering he experienced in his youth, the son of migrant field workers from Mexico. “I guess I would call them opportunities to understand where I come from and where many of our kids come from.”
He adds: “I learned that if you work hard and you’re a good person, good things will happen to you. I think maybe that’s a mantra. It’s what I still do.”
He remembers “an incredibly happy childhood.”
“When you’re poor, you really don’t know you’re poor,” he says. “I just remember being around a lot of family.”
Coaching Your Kids
Balderas’ sons are in college and law school now, but he has some helpful advice to school administrators trying to find time with their children despite their punishing schedules: Become a coach.
“I coached my boys in every sport I could,” he says. “I always had the opportunity to spend that family time with my two sons.”
Mike Scott, superintendent of the Hillsboro School District, where Balderas worked for 19years, can attest to that.
“I’ve seen him do it a million times,” he says. “I’ve seen him race out after work, change into his coaching gear in the car, coach a football practice and be back to school by 7 o’clock for a parent meeting or a board meeting. His commitment to family and creating a balance for his sons and his wife is absolutely amazing.”
Balderas, who is 52, urges his peers in the profession to seize the moment in their own ways. “Be sure to spend family time when your kids are little,” he counsels, “because the kids are going to be gone pretty darn soon.”
His Finest Year
Balderas says he cannot identify his best professional day. He insists he has experienced a best professional year. That would be 2018–19.
“We passed a $319 million bond measure, the largest general obligation bond in the history of the county, as well as renewed a local operating levy that provides $17 million annually,” the equivalent of 161 classroom teachers in Eugene. “We also raised the on-time graduation rate to the highest it has been in a decade, up to 77 percent from a low of 64 percent in 2013 and narrowed achievement and opportunity gaps among our student groups while raising achievement for all students over that span.”
The Virtues of Patience
Those who have worked with Balderas say his ability to move the community forward on potentially contentious issues has a lot to do with his listening skills and extraordinary patience.
“He’s a listener, he forms a relationship, and then when the time is right or when the situation presents itself he will ask questions and prod,” Scott says. “And quickly when you’re on the other end of that, you will realize there’s only one right answer here.”
Echoes Eugene school board chair Anne Marie Levis: “He is an exceptional listener and has patience like nobody I know. We have a very interesting and active and engaged community, and he has the patience to work with community members, to sit and listen and to incorporate that into his decisions and the work that he does.”
Like many superintendents, the most memorable flub on the job has something to do with the decision to call off school because of weather conditions.
Balderas made one such call a couple of years ago based on dire weather forecasts. But the forecasters were quite wrong. The day was “balmy,” he says with some rain.
And the aftermath? “I really enjoyed reading my e-mails from the community that day.”
Top of His Reading Pile
Two books currently resides on Balderas’ bedside: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Recovering From an NCLB ‘Hangover’
Balderas says an upside of the No Child Left Behind law was that it forced schools to focus on children of all different races and income levels. But he faults the law for its singular focus on test scores, saying K-12 education still suffers with a “hangover” from the federal law.
“We need to really work with each community to have each community define what they feel is a successful student and really work backwards,” he says. “Test scores are one part of that, but it’s not everything. Is the kid happy, the kid engaged, the kid learning, and what are the metrics that we use to really work toward that?
“With No Child Left Behind we’re still dealing with that competitiveness between districts and between schools within a district.”
(Paul Riede is a freelance education writer for AASA’s School Administrator magazine, and Jay P. Goldman is editor of AASA’s Conference Daily Online and School Administrator magazine.)