When Jesse Gonzales was only 6, his father was fatally shot by his godfather over a poker game. Then his mother was taken to a sanitarium with tuberculosis, and he and his 12 siblings were separated into foster homes.
In his teens, when he and his family were reunited, Gonzales says he wanted to drop out of high school. But the support of one high school teacher in particular nurtured his natural talent for leadership and peacemaking.
"I stayed in school because there were adults who cared about me," says Gonzales, the son of Mexican migrant farmers and now superintendent of Compton (Calif.) Unified School District. "We have to find out what the child needs, how [children] learn, what gets them excited. ... I want [teachers] to make the child feel welcome. It's really about respect. Treat people the way you want to be treated. And eventually that permeates throughout the community."
An educator for 32 years, Gonzales started in Compton in August 2001, the first local superintendent since the state took control in 1993 due to failing academics, financial problems and facility pitfalls. The state turned the district back over to the Board of Education in December, but state officials still monitor the district's finances, facilities, academics and human resources.
In a district where 60 percent of students are Latino and 38 percent are African-American, Gonzales instilled new programs that resulted in a turnaround. He expanded the middle school music program and created Lincoln Magnet School, focusing on science and math. By the end of the year, Gonzales will have created two new magnet schools, one for the arts, and the other for television journalism. Lincoln requires parents to volunteer, in part to help tutor students.
Gonzales also implemented new professional development programs, aligned the curriculum to textbooks and started holding principals accountable to increase student and staff attendance. If approved, upcoming bonds will help rebuild and fix damaged school bathrooms and windows, as well as a dilapidated track.
"It's exciting, yet it's extremely challenging," Gonzales says. "There's a mutual trust with the staff. It's not easy in urban schools. But I didn't want that to be an excuse."
Ann Cooper, Tibby Elementary School principal and a 32-year district educator, says Gonzales has built confidence quickly. Staff members and parents discussed concerns through community forums when he was first hired.
Cooper told him about her building's potential safety hazards, and Gonzales had the doors repaired. "He listens very well," she says. "He's a hands-on leader. ... And he has a lot of integrity."
A Detour from Law School
After graduating from Hobbs High School in New Mexico, Gonzales worked various jobs, married and studied pre-law at New Mexico State University. While he says he lacked "good structure" and essential English skills, he graduated with honors. He then taught to earn money for law school, but never attended.
He taught middle school Spanish and social studies at Bassett Unified School District in La Puente, Calif. And one day changed his life. A riot broke out on school grounds as African-Americans and Latinos clashed in a turf war. "I called them by name and asked, 'Why are you doing this?' " he recalls. "I was always able to talk in a calm voice."
In the end, the two groups parted in peace. "I realized, in a way, that what I was doing was meaningful," he says.
Gonzales was promoted to dean of students and then principal. He served as principal of Whittier High School before returning to his alma mater as personnel administrator-the first Mexican-American administrator at Hobbs Municipal School District.
?I think he's an awesome individual," says Isador Hall, school board president. "He's proven to be an innovative leader. Not only that, but he's outstanding as an administrator." Hall adds that Gonzales won voter approval for a $14 million bond for the William Jefferson Clinton K-5 school-the first new school in 35 years.
"He's a good chief," Hall says, adding that Gonzales doesn't like tooting his own horn. "Humble and quiet, yet powerful."
Angela Pascopella, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.