Hector Montenegro

56, superintendent, Arlington
Hector Montenegro
Illustration by Andy Friedman

Green buildings, awesome movie theaters, and high-speed semiconductors won’t be worth much if we fail to educate our kids, more and more of whom can’t speak English when they enter the school system. Good thing this California native, who was picked by the League of United Latin American Citizens as its 2005 Educator of the Year, has risen to the challenge. After stints at schools in Austin, Dallas, and San Marcos, Montenegro took charge of the Ysleta Independent School District, the least affluent of El Paso’s three ISDs, in 2003. Ninety-one percent of Ysleta’s 46,036 students are Hispanic, and its schools faced chronic problems with test scores and dropout rates. Montenegro was able to effect a remarkable turnaround—between 2005 and 2006, the number of campuses in the district recognized by the Texas Education Agency for their scores on the TAKS test rose from 9 to 23. In November the Arlington Independent School District, a larger, more ethnically diverse ISD (35 percent white, 33 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black), named Montenegro as its superintendent. His first day on the job is February 1. Someone get this man an apple.

How were you able to get the results you did at Ysleta?

We took a more systemic approach to addressing academic issues, with a special focus on strengthening bilingual, dual language, and ESL programs. We standardized our curriculum and set up protocols for quality control on instructional standards. We created a new professional-development department, which didn’t exist before, and introduced the principles of Professional Learning Communities, which require higher levels of collaboration between faculty, staff, and administrators. In our experience in YISD, dual language has been very successful because it is very inclusive. But it’s also very controversial.

Where does the controversy come from?

The school of thought that says we have to transition children into English as soon as possible. The research in Ysleta shows that the students enrolled in dual-language programs that include monolingual English students excel far beyond those students in ESL and bilingual programs. It does have a maintenance component, in which their dominant language is reinforced, but it also has a transition component, meaning that once you strengthen the native language, then it’s easier to transition to English. We found that to be the case, and also, we have blond-haired, blue-eyed youngsters that are very fluent in Spanish before they even get out of the eighth grade.

That’s impressive.

Yes. The program builds on the strengths of all children. It’s not a deficit model; it’s an enrichment model that not only teaches survival English but also academic language and socialization skills. It eliminates the stigma of social segregation that other programs create. We have a long, long waiting list of parents whose children only speak English that want to enroll.

Your home state of California is another that has a booming Hispanic population, overburdened school districts, and chronic money problems. How have the two states handled these educational challenges differently?

The systems are quite different. They have income tax, we have property tax. They’re very anti-bilingual, where we’re very bilingual-friendly. I will say that the demographics are similar. Educators have to be sensitive to that and prepare these children for a future that will include them in one way or another. There is among educators that I know in California and Texas a sense of urgency, and if there’s anything that’s going to stand out in my interview here it’s that we need to have a sense of urgency in preparing this generation of children to become responsible leaders in a very diverse and inclusive future. Our future is dependent on the success of all children regardless of background or primary language.

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