A Son of Migrant Farmworkers Is the 2020 Superintendent of the Year

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 14, 2020 2 min read
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The nation’s top annual recognition for school superintendents is in! This year, the Superintendent of the Year award goes to Gustavo Balderas, the superintendent of the Eugene 4J district in Eugene, Ore. He has held the position since 2015.

The son of migrant farmworkers in eastern Oregon, Balderas was educated in Oregon K-12 schools and holds his doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Oregon. Before returning to his home state to become the superintendent in Eugene, he led the Madera school district in Madera, Calif., and the Ocean View district in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to meet all four of the finalists for the award while moderating a panel for AASA, The School Superintendents’ Association, which runs the Superintendent of the Year award program. On the panel, Balderas spoke about some of his district’s most recent challenges. Among them, he said, was making newly arrived Guatemalan families feel safe at a time of divisive, often highly charged discourse about immigrants from Central American nations.

“I think it’s impacting some of our most marginalized families,” Balderas told a room of other school leaders. “Just the trauma the kids have coming into our buildings, the support we need to do for wraparound services for our families.

“I think that’s been my number one concern this past year, the impact of kids not feeling safe on our campuses, and how we as building leaders and district leaders provide that safety net for our communities,” he said. “Our schools are sanctuaries, and making sure all families feel safe and respected. We’ve done quite a bit with resolutions but also staff trainings and community building on how to work with our most marginalized families.”

Among other highlights of his leadership, Balderas helped the district successfully put a $319 million bond to voters in 2018, which helped fund new school construction, along with technology and safety upgrades. Balderas highlighted the new buildings’ designs, which have more open spaces and collaborative work areas for students and teachers. He’s also worked to improve partnerships with teacher-preparation programs and make the leadership pipeline in Oregon more diverse.

And when I pressed the finalists to complete this Mad Libs sentence: “We want to prepare students for college, careers, and _____,” here’s how Balderas filled in the blank:

“The ability to have students define their own success in an ever-changing landscape that is our world,” he said.

The national superintendent of the year is selected from among the state superintendents of the year.

Image: Gustavo Balderas. Used with permission of AASA.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.