Dr. Michael Hinojosa's life goal was to work in
Dallas. A student, coach and teacher in The Big D, you'd figure he'd be a shoe-in as superintendent of his home district. Not so. "Ironically, when I decided to enter administration I couldn't even get an interview." But by administrative standards, he was a kid. Just 30 and already an assistant superintendent, he recognized that "it doesn't happen in the urban districts so young."
So Hinojosa logged superintendent years in Houston, at the Hays Consolidated School District south of Austin, and at the Fabens Independent School District near El Paso. And in 2002 he became Harris County's first Hispanic superintendent. He landed his current treasured post in 2005 by unanimous vote of Dallas' school board. Dallas was ripe for change. Hinojosa was only the 23rd superintendent in Dallas' history. As the seventh superintendent in 10 years, however, Hinojosa exceeded the tenure of eight of his predecessors after just a year and a half of service. The district had high hopes but little direction, and he had to be quickly creative in governing his district toward cohesive success in spite of its immense size and constant scrutiny within the media. "A vision is a dream with a deadline," Hinojosa says.
Strategic use of his principals and hometown mentality has not only moved Hinojosa into the good graces of his professional kin; his personal background has brought him credibility, understanding and acceptance among his students and their families. "I'm an immigrant, born in Mexico," he says. "I know this city like the back of my hand." He understands the 85 percent of Dallas students who are economically disadvantaged, who struggle with even having the material possessions necessary to attend school. "Public education is so important because it's a great equalizer. My parents brought us to the greatest country in the world for education. I'm one of the kids who got smarter. That's how to break the cycle of poverty: through education."
Going the distance: Hinojosa relies heavily on a well-crafted web of principals who help him advise and supervise Dallas' expanse. With their help, the district developed the Dallas Achieves Initiative with its sites on Dallas becoming the best urban district in the country by 2010.
'Dallas Achieves' on course: Through the initiative, Hinojosa's staff has developed two International Schools, which help elementary-aged students become bilingual and even trilingual by fifth grade. Seven more schools are on the way. Also in place are "Career Academies" that will prepare students for jobs in fields such as medicine, the auto industry and many others.
Travelin' man: Wednesdays are Hinojosa's school-visit days. At the time that this was written, he'd hit 197 of Dallas' schools, doing it on a 15-to-20-schools-a-month schedule. "You need to discipline yourself to do it."
School visits: "I go in unannounced; I talk with the principal, meet with the head custodian, the cafeteria supervisors, the librarians." Everyone must call him "Michael," and if they can't say it, he's simply "Doc." "I've done that my whole career, and it's made a huge difference. People see me as a regular person. I don't go to 'snoopervise' ... I'm an advocate."
The principle of his principals: "Since [Dallas] is so big, I have a principal that serves on the Executive Leadership Team, who serves a six-month rotating term. I also have a Principals Advisory Committee, which visits with me quarterly. The principals are the CEOs of the campuses; they have the pulse of the school and the community. They know what the parents, students and teachers are thinking."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing editor.