Hispanic BOCES leader Gladys Cruz traded dentistry for education career

Gladys Cruz, who is now leading the national school superintendents association while also mentoring school leaders, was going to be a dentist.

But after she graduated from high school in Puerto Rico, the Department of Education sent someone to her house every year – which required a significant journey into the country, at the time – to urge her to teach English.

There was a huge shortage of English teachers, and her AP English teacher had spoken highly of her. But she was attending college,La Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico, studying dentistry.

“I wanted to be a dentist! I was in natural sciences,” she said with a laugh. “But they kept coming to my home. They begged me to go.”

After three years, while still attending college, she agreed to teach in an elementary school. They matched her with master teachers. The experience led her to switch majors.

“And here I am, 40 years later,” she said in a break while leading a tour of an innovative high school in Albany, showcasing it to school superintendents from around the country.

Maybe it all started when her AP English teacher had to leave his classroom to her.

“He left me in charge whenever he had to leave,” she said. “I would have everyone on task. I had excellent classroom management.”

After changing majors and graduating, she was able to choose any elementary school she wanted, due to the teacher shortage, and selected the school across the street from her house. For ten years, she happily taught English.

And then life changed again.

She and her husband applied for a doctoral program at the University at Albany. He got in; she was waitlisted. They had two young children and they began to prepare for a long goodbye as he went to the mainland for school. But at the last minute, another doctoral student had to bow out due to family matters, and UAlbany called to offer her a seat.

“I ran into my house, sold everything, and arrived here with suitcases and a 6- and 8-year-old,” she said. “Things happen for a reason.”

It’s funny, now, that he was accepted first.

“I beat him, though,” she said. “I finished in 2000. He finished in 2001-2002.”

She spent the next three decades as an administrator, in BOCES and at the state Education Department, where her specialties were curriculum and staff development. She is the first Hispanic BOCES district superintendent in the state, and she’s mentored nearly 7,000 Hispanic students.

Now she’s focusing on the next generation of school leaders.

“Developing others” is her passion, she said.

She is leading, as its president, the national School Superintendents Association, where a transformational committee is now touring successful schools that they can model. She’s also mentoring superintendents through a national certification program. And she’s a lead teacher for the Aspiring Superintendent Academy for Latino and Latina Leaders.

Nationally, only 3 percent of superintendents are Hispanic, but those who have gone through the academy are beginning to take superintendent roles, she said.

“So it is a success,” she said. “It’s very practical. We really tailored it to the Hispanic community. We bring in superintendents from across the nation to speak to these aspiring superintendents. They give them so much wisdom and tips. It’s an amazing program.”

It’s important to have more diverse school leaders, according to a statement released by the superintendents’ association.

“We have a student population that is extremely diverse. Our young people need individuals who look like them in leadership positions so these students can aspire to become leaders in generations to come,” she said in the statement.

Now is the time for her to mentor teachers and administrators, because so many superintendents are retiring, she added. “Because leadership matters.”

She’s still being tapped for other tasks as well. She’s on the state committee to review the graduation measures, which she’s thought about deeply. Her BOCES district includes two regional high schools that offer very different ways of teaching: one is entirely project-based, while the other links students with college courses on specific career tracks.

She said reviewing the state’s graduation requirements was “long overdue.” The committee plans to make recommendations on measures that could better indicate whether a student is ready for college or career.

“We need to be thoughtful in ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education, no matter their background, ability, interest, or zip code,” she said.

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