It’s quite possible that new Washoe County School District superintendent Pedro Martinez is the busiest man in Reno this week. After taking over for former superintendent Heath Morrison on August 1, Martinez has been going nonstop organizing community meetings and visiting area schools. Washoe County schools on the traditional schedule are back in session on August 27.
Martinez holds an MBA from DuPaul University and attended the Broad Superintendents Academy. Born in Mexico, he moved to Chicago and spent 35 years working in the business and education sectors. In 2003, he was the budget director for the Chicago Public Schools District. Then, in 2009, Martinez was the deputy superintendent for the WCSD. He then went off to Clark County School District for a quick 15 months before he ended up back here when Morrison moved to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina. We managed to catch Martinez while he was at the airport preparing to board a flight to Las Vegas.
You’re a hard man to get in touch with. How’s the first month been?
It’s going great. It’s been exciting to just be out in the community. I’ve already had eight community meetings. It’s been great to outreach to the parents and staff. So I’ve been doing a lot of outreach. There’s a lot of things to look at.
Let’s talk about you. Tell me about yourself. Not just as a superintendent but as a person.
I am married. I have a 21-month old. In ’09 my son was born here as a native Nevadan, and I’m very proud of that. I grew in Chicago, spent 35 years in Chicago. I was deputy in here back in ’09, and then went to Clark County, and then ended up back here.
You weren’t in Clark County for very long. How’d you decide to come back?
I was there for 15 months. Everyone was surprised when Heath decided to leave. It’s rare when you get to come back to a district. For me, I’m excited and honored. I have a very strong belief system in ensuring that students are ready for college. I was here in ’09 and we energized the community around the district. And then this opportunity came up.
Much of your education is in business, and which is a large part of being a superintendent. But how do you apply this to education? What is your experience working with educators? What did you do to prepare to be a superintendent after coming from a business background?
So I started in the private sector, and was very happy at Price Warner Cooper. When I was right out of college, you know, I was an inner city kid, so when I got to work at a big corporation as an advisor and consultant, it was really good. Unexpectedly, I got a chance to work in Chicago on a project, Catholic Charities, and that started my formal entrance into education. So then I was recruited by Arne Duncan [current U.S. Secretary of Education] to work with public schools. I was recruited to public schools. And I was there almost seven years, around six years, and it became my dream to be a superintendent. I did some work at the Broad Academy and then some summer training at Harvard. That was my formal training. Then I got the opportunity to come to Washoe.
You and Heath Morrison both went to the Broad Superintendents Academy. Were you classmates?
We were both part of class of 2009. Yes, we were classmates.
The Broad Academy has received its share of criticism from teachers, parents and education researchers—particularly, that it encourages a sort of “corporate” model for schools that doesn’t seem to fit with the purpose of learning. The Broad Academy focuses a lot on the idea of “reforming” schools. What does this mean to you? What would reform look like here in Washoe County?
I would say it was much more applicable in 2009. We were uniting school and staff around a common vision. We’re on a five year plan. We reflect on what we’re doing, well, where we have progress, and where we still have gaps. I helped to develop that with Heath. Here’s an example. We have some very high rates of remediation. Students are graduating but having high rates of remediation, so we’re working with UNR and TMCC to help reduce this earlier. We want to take the district to the next level.
I study education in grad school so I talk to a lot of teachers on a regular basis, and I hear a lot about this tension between teachers in the classroom and the administration that makes many of the choices that impact what teachers do. How do you plan to minimize this tension?
There’s no magic bullet in education. I’ve been doing public education for 10 years. The lessons I’ve learned are good teachers, good principals, good supportive environment for teachers, are what’s important. At the end of the day, not being a teacher has made me a great listener. I see myself in a support role. Central offices have a tendency to put on programs and we become very shut down. The problem solving has to happen at a school level. We need to make sure we put support resources for teachers. Those for me are a priority and frankly we need to get our community more invested.
Formerly you were the deputy superintendent for Washoe County. What’s the difference between being a deputy superintendent and the superintendent of the schools? Is it like being a vice president?
I was driving many of the academic initiatives day to day. The biggest difference is now I’m working with the legislation and many of our stakeholders and staff, making sure the community sees our vision. Outreach to the community, to key stakeholders, so they know what our vision is, know where it’s going for the future. Making sure that they know where we’re going with our goals.
And before that, you worked in Chicago. What are the differences between there and here?
I think one is that here in Washoe County, we have a very close knit community and very developed community. The community has really embraced the schools. I’m amazed at just the amount of support from community and legislators and from the staff. In Chicago, we had to build that trust. Trust had broken because of failed leadership. We had to build that trust again. As you can imagine it’s difficult to build that. Even though the community knows we can do better, they really embrace our schools. They want to be part of the process with us. We’re more nimble.
You mentioned the five-year plan, and how we’re three years into it. What is the five-year plan, and what will the next two years look like?
The five-year plan is about getting children college and career ready, providing good learning environment for children, have a good culture internally for staff, hold staff to high levels. Where we’re at now in third year, we’ve had some good success. Our graduation rate went from 56 to 70 [percent], so now it’s time for the next level of work. Now children are graduating, so what does it mean to be college and career ready? If they choose to be an engineer, we want them to get into the engineering school at UNR. If they want to study business, we want them to get into the business school at UNR. If they want to do biotechnology, we want them to go to TMCC, or if they want to do education, then we can get them into the college of education. We want them to know what opportunities they are going to have. And we want to start closing achievement gaps, especially with special education students, students with disabilities, multilingual children, children in poverty. We got to get people involved.
You’ve worked with Heath on several projects before, but what are some things you want to do differently from him? What ideas of his do you plan to keep?
I definitely want to build the support that has been generated from the community. Heath did very well, so I want to build on that. I don’t have major changes. But I want to look at where schools are at now compared to where they were in 2009. McQueen is at 89 percent [graduation rate]. Before, they were at 70 percent. How do you build on that? Are they getting into UNR or TMCC or higher programs? At Hug, the principal just finished her first year, so we have a bit more to work on. We have to go lower to elementary and middle schools to find where students are at today.
So how do you feel about the rising technological education movement—new technologies, online learning, digital resources. How does that fit into this?
One of the things I want to do, Ashley, is expand the use of technology and the amount of magnet programs. Around the country, there are some amazing ideas that we can steal from. Aviation programs, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] academics, extending math and science. We’re in the beginning of those conversations but we need more, especially at the secondary levels. Many children are proficient but are not being challenged. It was different from a few years ago when we were trying to get rates up, but when schools make progress, how do we continue that? Technology is a big part of it. I plan to pursue it aggressively with legislation. I am a believer in how children learn today is very different than how I learned 30 years ago. Technology is a big part of getting them engaged or motivating them.
Obviously, the budget is an ongoing problem. How do you plan to recruit teachers, improve school facilities, implement new programs, etc. on a limited budget? Where does the money come from for new projects or hiring?
It is building on community, making sure they’re embracing us. I’ll give you an example. In Southern Nevada, Rancho High School has one of the most amazing aviation programs I’ve ever seen. A group of children won design awards. There’s no reason why those programs don’t exist in Northern Nevada. We need capital dollars so we can have the technology, so we can have the buildings. Part of it is that it’s going to be an investment in our community.
How do you plan to show them that these projects are important?
You’ll see me, Ashley, doing a lot of outreach, giving them tangible examples, giving them the possibilities of what we can do. There’s a pre-med program where students can get a bachelor’s degree in the first year as they’re in medical school. We need to get pre-med program in high schools. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing that. So it’s my time to talk to the community. It’s part of my vision, getting people into the work we’re doing and learn how to build on our previous success. So a lot of it is talking to community members, parents, legislators. I think what’s going to happen [is] that as the community understands it, they’re going to embrace it.
Do you plan to keep programs around such as the Northern Nevada Writing Project, which has gone through some serious budget cuts, around? Is there a place for these in the district? What’s the plan of action for that?
My plan is not to add a bunch of new programs, but to be more aware of how we’re applying them. If students are high performing but not growing, we need to focus on using resources that help them to grow using our growth model. So we’ll ask teachers, are you implementing these programs? How are you pushing rigor? For students falling behind, we want to use these resources to catch children up so they can grow faster. So basically it’s the same initiative but the way we apply them will be different. The programs have to be customized for where schools are at. That’s what I want to change. In ’09 we were putting out initiatives one size fits all, which we had to do just to get things going. Now three years later, we see how we’ve been successful, and now we can start to customize programs based on schools.
So I have to ask: What are your thoughts on No Child Left Behind?
I am very excited that we got the waiver. It embraces the growth model that we’ve established as a state. My problem with No Child Left Behind is that it forced teachers to focus on kids with low proficiency. We need to measure the growth of all children. If a child is already proficient, we still need to know how to challenge that child. Some children, they just need more time, or they have disabilities and obstacles like not speaking English as a first language.
So to sum up—what are your short term goals? Long term goals?
This year I plan to work with our families, do a lot of outreach, work closely with staff. I’m very intent on how to support teachers and students. If we do that well, hopefully we’ll start to see some more progress.