August 27, 2018

Spotlight on male Latino educators: Portland Public Schools’ Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero

Welcome to part two of the Equitable Education portfolio's three-part series focused on Latino male educators.

According to the most recent Oregon Statewide Report Card, 22.6 percent of Oregon's public school students are Latinx while only 4.5 percent of Oregon teachers match these students. That gap in visual and cultural representation in our classrooms contributes to the persistent achievement gap for Latinx students as compared with their white peers. This lack of diverse representation is consistent throughout Oregon's education leadership.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Portland Public Schools' (PPS) new superintendent, Guadalupe Guerrero, just one of three male Latino superintendents scattered across Oregon's 198 districts, to talk about the journey to his current leadership position as well as his hopes for a more diverse and representative Oregon education workforce. The superintendent took the helm of PPS just after the 2017-18 school year began and recently celebrated the completion of his first school year with graduates around the district.

Superintendent Guerrero often shares his belief in student-focused leadership, but for Oregon's Latino boys and young men, he may represent a specific hope for the future. In the Education Week article linked in the first blog of this series, one of the students interviewed said, "You can't be what you can't see." The superintendent is making himself visible and providing a leadership model for all students in the district, with a keen eye on empowering Latinx students.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero speaking
2018 Statewide MEChA Conference at Lincoln High School

Like other students of color, Latinx students are lagging behind in achievement and graduation rates across the state and country: 69.4 percent of Latinx students in Oregon graduate on time as compared with 76.6 percent of white students. Recently, as the keynote speaker at the Mente Summit, an event created to inspire male Latino students through role models and mentorship to graduate and pursue higher education, Superintendent Guerrero encouraged the young men in attendance to work hard for their dreams and reassured them that success should never mean leaving behind their culture. In the current political climate, that's a powerful message that is in many ways contradictory to messaging they may receive in some of their schools and greater communities. This interview has been edited.

Bekah Sabzalian:

How did you find support as a young male Latino teacher? Do you think the needs of male Latinos differ from other teacher candidates, teachers and administrators?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

When I entered education, it was as a classroom aide [paraprofessional] and serving in a community where I lived alongside students. I shopped at the same markets, went to the same laundromats, ate at the same places. For me, working in schools was and is about serving the community.

As far as the question around the needs of male Latinos, I think that many of the supports and needs are the same that any new teacher would have. Hopefully, there's mentorship, there's district and building support, there's coaching available to all of our new educators. But hopefully, we're putting an especially mindful eye on our new professionals that may feel more isolated or feel a little bit of a cultural disconnect when they're working in a school where they may represent the only adult of color in that community.

Bekah Sabzalian:

Since moving to Oregon you tweeted, "Can we increase efforts to better ensure there are more teachers and educational leaders of color in the state of Oregon? We need to effectively recruit, prepare, hire and support diverse candidates." What are your ideas for getting this work done?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

There are some proven strategies we should be incorporating, here in Portland Public Schools, everywhere, especially in urban school districts. There's a diversity that exists with support staff or paraprofessionals. This is the group of employees that's the most embedded and familiar with the community; they're very known to the families and the students. We should encourage them to get their certifications, and we should support them.

School districts should be working closely with all of their surrounding higher education institutions. I've made it a real priority to get very familiar with all of the local university presidents and college of education deans. I've now met with all of them, and my line of questioning is similar when I first meet with them: "Tell me about the connective tissue between your institution and PPS. Tell me about your teacher education program. Tell me how you recruit, what kind of candidates you're looking for? How are you promoting diversity in those programs?" Because I well understand, if candidates of color are not completing their programs, then I'm not going to have a pool in the end.

Also, I've led in school districts where we partner with universities to create an urban teacher residency program. That's another pool of folks who, in partnership with the colleges, we're able to embed in our schools and have the benefit of a full-time resident working under a mentor teacher while they're going about their studies. Generally, a principal will have a resident working under a teacher in their school; then something opens up, somebody retires, the resident teacher tends to be the natural candidate for a slot because they're already woven into the fabric of the school. Urban teacher residency programs and other residency programs like that featured in the article are very important components.

We can also start at the high school level. We think of traditional career and technical education (CTE) programs, but you can create one for teachers, too. Here, students are getting that experience while in high school, learning about some of the pedagogy that drives the profession and finding on-ramps into some of those higher education programs. You see a lot of college of education deans now rethinking how you get a four-year education degree and certificate. I think that's forward thinking. I think it's tough for folks that are contemplating the profession to do another year of graduate study. The tuition and the investment of time it takes can be a barrier when you're not necessarily entering a high-paying career. I think if this country had its priorities right, it would emphasize the importance of public education. We would think about how to incentivize the career for talented individuals, those who are fantastic with kids but just can't afford to make teaching a career.

Bekah Sabzalian:

Recently, a PPS high school student of color asked you at City Club about diversifying the teacher workforce before he graduates. You responded that education leaders must move carefully to ensure that implementation is effective. How do you balance the urgency of the issue, clearly demonstrated by this passionate student, with careful implementation that often takes a great deal of time?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

First of all, I applaud that student for bringing it up and for having the agency to say, "I know you're building a school system out, and I want to experience and get a taste of that before I walk across the stage."

How do you balance the urgent with systemic building? There are some pools where educators or support staffs of color do exist. What I would say is, how do we begin to identify some of those individuals and elevate their visibility for our students? We see some small examples of that happening now. I'm very interested in seeing how do we take that paraprofessional who is very dynamic, who has great relationships with the students and the families, and involve them in visible positions? Like student advisers, student success coaches, how can we have them lead culturally specific student unions? We should have them lead affinity groups so that we increase the access that students may have to adults of color who work in their school communities.

That's one immediate mechanism we might be able to move on more rapidly so that the student doesn't have to wait for a chance to work with diverse educators. We have a number of schools that are piloting that work.

Bekah Sabzalian:

The article talked about the barriers male Latino teachers face, one of them being community perceptions of low pay, lack of visibility and a knowledge gap around advancement opportunities. What do you see as significant barriers to creating a steady pipeline of Latino male teachers?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

When you bring up community perceptions of the profession, that doesn't necessarily only apply to future educators of color. I think the education profession in this country certainly doesn't always carry the level of status or commensurate compensation that we say is important when they're serving our children. So there's that, then you layer on top of that educators of color, or college graduates of color, who we already know don't represent a high percentage of those who finish higher ed. They're posed with a question, internally, around, "What are my career choices going to be?" Often times, they're first in their families to graduate college, so when they're faced with making a choice like that, I think, in many families, they tend to lean the conversation toward certain vocations. Teaching doesn't tend to, unfortunately, come up first. For those with a Latino background, we know that in Latin American countries, "El Maestro" carries not just a term of endearment, but a pretty high level of esteem. There is certainly some respect for the profession.

But it is a challenge. How do we not only encourage more college graduates to consider the profession, but how do you attract graduates of color to entertain the idea of serving, often times in an underserved community, with students who perhaps might look like them?

Bekah Sabzalian:

Statistically, there are not many Latinx professionals serving as principals or in district leadership roles. What was the push that made you make that leap into administration?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

I have to say part of what drew me to education was that I didn't generally have a positive K-12 experience. Starting off as a young teacher, I didn't generally have a positive experience. In this profession, one can't help but notice that things could be a lot better. I think what sustained me through those early years is a feeling of fortification and nourishment from the community around me. I was a Spanish bilingual teacher. Naturally, the 30 fourth- and fifth-grade kids in my combination class, they all looked like me as did all of their parents. For me, I felt good about the teaching and learning experience that I was able to provide. Those were sort of the best years of my career in some ways, were my first years as a teacher. I know people often say those are the toughest years. I can tell you my first year as a teacher was by far my best year. I just had a great time. I loved the connections with my students and their families.

When I made the decision to move into administration, there weren't a lot of Latino principals but I knew some and I knew they were doing good work and I appreciated hearing about their experience. I think part of it is, we apply a lot of these characteristics to our Latino students; in many ways they're similar to Latino young professionals. There's a certain tenacity, persistence and grit that exists in the community. We tend to only use those words with people of color, but we're used to modeling those characteristics.

Bekah Sabzalian:

What supports would be helpful as more diverse educators take the leap into administration and district leadership?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

We need monthly dinners for our new administrators. Let's bring together our first-year principals, especially those of color, and make sure they're there. Reach out, give them that personal invite and let's order pizza and talk about how it's going. Let's talk about what the challenges have been, what's going well, and let's talk about some of the "just in time" learning the districts can provide for them. You're coming up on evaluation season or budget development time or hirings. We need to make sure to give you white-glove service all the way through.

Sometimes new educational leaders may be a little shy to raise their hand and express, "I don't know how to do this." Maybe it goes back to some of the persistence mindset like, "I'll just figure it out." We don't want any of our folks to work in isolation. We want them to feel very supported in this already challenging work.

Bekah Sabzalian:

To end things out, I'm wondering, what has kept you in education all these years?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

Well, public education still has not guaranteed the opportunity that it promises to students of color. They continue to represent the bottom end of a very persistent achievement and opportunity gap. There is a lot of important work that remains to be institutionalized. We need to reimagine public education so that it serves all students, all diverse learners. Not just kids of color, kids with disabilities, kids who are language learners, immigrant students, historically underserved kids.

We have not yet delivered on that promise and what keeps me motivated is to do my part, to try to be the best servant leader that I can be to elevate this, both as an important topic and also to concretely do something about it. There's something fundamentally wrong with the system when you see the kind of disproportionality that affects our students of color. They're the most often referred to the office, they're the most often suspended, they're most often the ones who drop out, they're most often the ones who are not prepared when they enter kindergarten.

Our new teachers are less likely to look like our students. It's hard to find principals to lead our communities of color who are themselves diverse. We are in the state of Oregon where out of 198 school districts there are only two other Latino male superintendents in this entire state. It's no different when you look at the 10,000 school districts in America.

I think it's important to make sure that the demographic is more representative of a country where our students are increasingly of diverse backgrounds to raise the lens and sensitivity to the needs of students, to approach this work in a more culturally responsive way. I am here, taking up the challenge, doing my part in a school system that unfortunately demonstrates many of the same patterns and see if we might disrupt that. Key to the work is joining hands with a lot of partners and supporters who are like minded and who see that serving our children is of the greatest importance. That can't be just a conversation, that can't be something that maybe happens 10 years from now, but something we can do today, tomorrow and begin to put into place networks of support for our students and our educators who are motivated to serve our students of color to be more successful. That doesn't mean you have to be a person of color to contribute to that. We just have to share the same equity and social justice commitment.

–– Bekah


In this interview, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero uses the term Latinos when speaking about the entire community. At Meyer, we often use Latinx as an alternative to Latino or Latina to refer to people of Latin American descent. Latino male specifically references males from the Latinx community.