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Arlington's Cavazos Wins Superintendent Of The Year In Texas, Thanks To Mom And Okra

Krystina Martinez
Marcelo Cavazos is the superintendent of the Arlington Independent School District.

Marcelo Cavazos, the man who leads Arlington’s schools system, was named Texas Superintendent of the Year this afternoon. The honor came at the annual Texas Association of School Boards conference in Houston – and it includes a $5,000 prize. The five finalists also included another North Texan, DeSoto superintendent David Harris.

Before he left for the conference in Houston, Cavazos sat down with KERA for this week's Friday Conversation, which is part of a statewide public radio project on the rise of Latino superintendents. Now that Houston has a new school chief, all eight of the state's biggest cities have Latino superintendents.

Cavazos is one of them -- and he says his success was rooted in South Texas okra fields.

Interview Highlights: Marcelo Cavazos…

…On how being Latino makes it easier to connect with other Hispanic families:

“Obviously, language is really important, but also the experiences. Growing up in South Texas, in the summers I worked in the fields picking okra, so I have a connection there to laboring in the fields and understanding what an education can do to break the poverty cycle. For our family, it did that.”

…On how he and his brothers grew up to be school superintendents:    

“My mom was very focused on making sure that studies and education was the priority. The work we did in the fields – as much as that income would’ve helped our family situation – my mother insisted that the money that we earned throughout the summer working in the fields was used to buy the supplies and the clothing that we needed throughout the school year. 

The other thing was that when school started, we stopped working. Even though some of the crops continued, my mother said that was the time we were going to go to school. That was our job now.” 

…On the disconnect between lawmakers in Austin and public school leaders:

“I don’t know if just ethnicity creates that gap. What creates that gap is an understanding, or lack thereof, of what the public schools are accomplishing for young people every day. Unfortunately, sometimes the consumption of time is on other, smaller segments such as charters and vouchers when the bulk of the population that’s served and will continue to be served are public education students.”  

…On the biggest challenge Arlington students face:

“Our biggest challenge is poverty. About 70 percent of the students in Arlington ISD are economically disadvantaged. That brings about a number of challenges, but also brings a huge opportunity because there is a clear path to changing that trajectory, and the clear path is education. We know that as poverty cycles are broken, they’re broken for a family, and eventually a community.

We opened an early college high school where 90 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. They are pursuing their associate’s degree and high school diploma upon graduating from high school. What an opportunity for students to break that cycle of poverty, not only for themselves, but for generations to come. Life as you know it today, if you live in poverty, doesn’t have to be that way tomorrow.”

This story is part of a collaborative series produced by KERA, Houston Public Media and the Texas Standard.

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.