Latino School Leadership: Redefining "The Road Less Traveled"
The Latino Educator and Administrator Development (LEAD) program aims to strengthen the Latino voice in both the classroom and school level nationally. LEAD’s inaugural cohort continues to learn ways to better understand the opportunities and challenges that exist as Latino leaders in their schools.
An important aspect of the LEAD program is the mentorship that each LEADer receives on a monthly basis from a Latino mentor currently in a leadership role in Catholic education. Each month, LEADers join other members of their team, including a LEAD mentor, on a conference call to focus on a wide variety of themes related to Latino leadership in Catholic education.
Throughout the year, the CSA team will highlight various members of this inaugural LEAD cohort—both LEADers and mentors—beginning with Israel “Buddy” Martinez, principal of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in McAllen, TX, member of the eighth cohort of the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI), and LEAD mentor.
Can you tell us about your path to leadership in Catholic schools?
My path to leadership in Catholic schools spans 17 years in education. I spent the first eight years in traditional public schools and the next nine years in the charter school network before answering a call to serve Christ through education.
Along the way, I held positions as a middle school science teacher, a middle school and high school basketball coach, a chemistry teacher, an assistant principal of instruction and an instructional coach, a principal in residence, a Regional Director of Operations overseeing 14 schools in a region of the lower Rio Grande Valley, TX, and then as VP of Regional Operations. My role as a VP of Regional Operations was the last position I held before making my transition to a Catholic school setting.
One of my primary roles in this position was overseeing operations across 64 schools across Texas and Louisiana, specifically targeting recruitment and enrollment of new schools. As we targeted low-income minority communities in efforts to offer a free, high-quality education to neighborhoods and communities that were in need of change, I often flew to regions and went door to door recruiting for our new schools. In my interactions with families living in impoverished areas, I often felt empty walking away, despite having secured their commitment to the organization. I felt that my calling was to offer them more than just a high-quality education, and I saw many of my interactions turning to discussions on faith.
It was those discussions of faith that got me thinking, “There’s more to recruitment and my relationships with these families than just striving to reach an enrollment target.” It was then that I made the decision to take a leap of faith, step away, and spend some time reconnecting with Christ as I searched for my vocation, not simply a job. My three months in prayer and reflection led to the vocation of principal of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in McAllen, TX. I can say that for the first time in over 18 years in education, I am fulfilled and truly serving others as I was called to do.
What does it mean to be a Latino leader in Catholic education?
When I think of being a Latino leader, I think of being a role-model and an example for younger individuals who may not see a pathway to leadership or may not consider themselves to be leaders. I take pride in representing a minority group that can be often overlooked or may not feel that being a leader is possible. My parents, who grew up as migrant workers, instilled in me the value of hard work, being resilient, and faith above all. I was always taught that failure cannot only reveal character, but it can also build it.
From an early age, I was taught by my parents that when you put your trust in Christ, anything is possible. As a Latino leader, I found it powerful along my journey to share my experiences and story with others as a testament of someone who grew up imperfect in this imperfect world, but learned to lean on Christ as my most influential mentor and leader. I feel that it is now my calling to give back, inspire, and help develop others to find their calling and to seek opportunities, redefining the phrase, “the road less traveled!”
Can you speak to why representation matters in this role and in our schools?
Leadership is about connections, building trust, and relationships. I live in and lead a community that is about 97 percent Latino. Within this reality, however, certain stereotypes often persist, which could discourage other aspiring Latino leaders to seek leadership positions in schools. I can say that being a practicing and devout Catholic, along with my ability to connect with my families, regardless of socioeconomic status, has paved the way to sustaining enrollment at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School. As a leader, it is critical that you lean on faith to find the balance between school leadership as a business and, above all, as a ministry. Being Latino, being an active parishioner at our church, and serving our school and parish community allows me to do both.
Why is this work of developing Latino leaders in Catholic education important to you, and why is it so important for our schools?
I have seen the decline in enrollment across Catholic schools in the United States and in my own diocese. I am a product of the public school system, but I made the choice to send my two younger children to a Catholic school to continue to instill the values taught to them at home. I have witnessed the discussion among Catholic school leaders shift from closing the achievement gap and establishing rigorous academics, to becoming somewhat of a recruitment machine, competing for student enrollment as a driver of funding.
While my vision does include academic achievement and closing the persistent achievement gaps, my focus is much more on closing the spiritual gaps that exist in our society. I have learned to value the spiritual development of children and the value of finding creative ways to make a Catholic education affordable to all families, regardless of their income. When we define a holistic education, it must start with faith. In our society today, it is imperative that we re-focus our teachings on the Gospel so that we develop our children to be servants of Christ.
Are you interested in developing your educational leadership skills, joining a network of individuals with similar aspirations, and working with a mentor like Buddy Martinez? Consider joining our second LEAD cohort!
We are looking for Latina/o educators who are passionate about improving educational opportunities for Latino children and have an interest in learning more about and pursuing leadership opportunities in Catholic schools. Click below to learn more about the program or to nominate an aspiring leader who you think might be interested.