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A Q-and-A With DeKalb's New Superintendent - Her Goals As She Prepares To Start During A Pandemic

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Spencer Tritt
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DeKalb High School

DeKalb Public Schools has hired a new superintendent. Her name is Minerva Garcia-Sanchez. She’s currently the Pilsen, Marshall Square and Little Village chief of schools in Chicago. WNIJ education reporter Peter Medlin talked to her about her expectations and goals as she starts at a new school district during the pandemic.

Peter Medlin (PM): I want to start you off with just a few broad questions that are more open-ended. What are just one or two of the bigger issues that you're looking forward to tackling once you're officially in your role [on July 1]?

Minerva Garcia-Sanchez (MGS): Are you familiar with -- I'm sure you are -- with the diversity plan?

PM: I am, yeah, I was gonna ask about that.

MGS: After reading it, there are definitely some areas I feel we need to make sure we take a look at. So one of those is around retention and attendance of adults that work with our students; making sure we're building an instructional culture where administrators and teachers feel connected to the district office and they see us as a support and resource.

PM: Yeah, I know I saw you mentioned the diversity plan was something that stood out to you about DeKalb.

MGS: Right. What does the community really want from their school? I think that that's a piece that's really important for me -- getting out in the community. I'd like to be able to make some alignments to the community college, the university, our businesses.

PM: Have you found in your current position any creative ways that you can do that, even during a pandemic, to make sure that you do have a finger on the pulse of what the community wants for their school, even if you can't be in it in person?

MGS: Sure. Well, there are lots of ways. I mean, I supervised three communities in Chicago: Pilsen, Little Village and Marshall Square. Each one of them has an alderman and, every week, each one of those communities has an online meeting. We do a virtual meeting, we have anywhere between 45-150 people depending on what the topics are. I speak at each one of those. It's an opportunity for me to share what's happening, but also an opportunity for individuals to ask questions -- not just of me, but of all of us. The other thing is that I give out my phone number and my email to anybody who wants it because I work for them.

PM: An aspect of the community I feel like school districts don't often utilize as much as I think they maybe could is getting suggestions from the students themselves and talking to those students.

MGS: That's our customer base, right? It could be anywhere from having a student voice committee at each one of the schools. It could be once or twice a year I do a town hall just for students. So, right now, it could be any of those aspects. Yes, surveys are great, but the thing is, surveys are only as good as what happens after you collect the data and you review it.

PM: Is there an aspect of education right now that you think is going to stick around post-pandemic? Like, the thing that comes to my mind is potentially the schedule flexibility that technology has opened up during the pandemic.

MGS: Absolutely! No more snow days! [Laughs]

PM: [Laughs] Oh, but snow days are so much fun!

MGS: I agree! Everybody likes to go sledding, make snowmen and things like that! But here’s the thing -- I feel like this is this is a calling that says, ‘Hey, wake up, we’ve got to do something different!’ because the world is no longer what it used to be back on March 17.

PM: So, what are the lessons learned? We see that technology needs to be able to be used more appropriately. The most vulnerable students who struggle using technology on their own. It sounds to me that our assistive technology needs to be better suited, that we need to be able to teach them and their caregivers, their guardians, how to use this technology. We need to provide resources and support.

MGS: One of the things I want to make sure is I want us to build a relationship with families as they're having children. How do we make connections with them when they're born, giving them going home gifts, maybe a few books that they can read with the child?

The other thing, and I'm going from the youngest and most vulnerable to our eldest. Ninth-graders...As much as we try to do what we can at the middle school to get them ready for high school, it's still a transition experience that's not as easy. A mechanism or support system framework has to be built in as they move from eighth to ninth grade.

PM: We talked a little bit about equity and the diversity plan. DeKalb is a minority-majority school district. The district is 30% Hispanic and 23% Black. But with the educators, it’s only 6% Hispanic and 3% Black. This is not an equity issue that's unique to DeKalb, this is an issue everywhere. But how do we start to put policies and practices in place to try to make sure we can start addressing that to get staff that is more representative of the community?

MGS: We're talking about a value system. One of the things that has been very important to me is that the adults mirror the demographics that they serve. Children need to be able to see people that look like them so they feel they can make connections. This is really about making connections with adults.

I think that deliberately developing growth mindsets across the adults and the students is really where I want to focus before we can even start talking about justice in policy or being able to address concerns around equity. We need to all work together to lead. This work is something that takes time.

And I can say this because, in the last five years in my network, that's exactly what happened. I had staff that wasn't interested, that eventually, turned over and they're now leading that kind of work in the school building. I think it has a lot to do with me also sharing my vulnerability, being empathetic, showing grace and making sure people see me very transparently.

PM: All right, Minerva, last question: you're from Chicago, right?

MGS: Yes!

PM: You know, DeKalb, I think is a unique area in that it's more diverse than just about the rest of the county. And it's a college town that's surrounded by small rural communities. I'm just curious, are you excited about the change of scenery?

MGS: I am! I'm one of those people that like to visit where my parents were born, and it kind of reminds me of that, you know?

PM: Where are your parents from?

MGS: Well, my parents are from Mexico. They're from small towns. Where my mom's from there's a lot of cattle and pigs.

PM: Oh, yeah! We’ve got that! [Laughs]

MGS: Farmers and things like that. I'm looking forward to being able to be even more vested and getting to know what that feels like and understanding people's nuances about how they see education within that realm. Family priorities are a little different when you're in a space like that, especially if families have farms versus somebody who goes to work in a building every day. I'm really looking forward to getting to know that aspect of the district!

Editor’s Note: This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.