Meet Xavier De La Torre, Santa Clara County's new Superintendant of Schools, who wil take over the county Office of Education on July 1.
De La Torre, a former California educator who is now the superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, attracted attention with his work to turn around the 41-school, 41,000-student district in his three years there.
“He will be a game-changer,” said Board President Joseph Di Salvo, “not only for the students and schools of the SCCOE, but for all 31 school districts in the county.” Di Salvo made the announcement Thursday, and the official approval is expected at the Santa Clara County Board of Education’s March 7 meeting.
During De La Torre's tenure, the Socorro district was named a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, intended to recognize and encourage the country's most improved urban school districts. The districts cannot apply for the prize; each year, 75 districts are declared eligible, and then only four finalists are visited and evaluated for the award. The winning district receives $550,000 in scholarship money.
“I’m excited and humbled to join such a great organization, with an outstanding reputation,” De La Torre said Thursday, calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead."
De La Torre now moves to a sprawling county that has 265,453 students and 405 sites. The Office of Education directly educates 4,513 students running preschools, special-education classes and schools for youth who are incarcerated or have been expelled from their home schools. The county office also offers business, technology and other services for the county's school districts.
Before going to Texas De La Torre had spent his career in California education, starting as a teacher, principal and then administrator. He was chief human resources officer and labor negotiator in both the and Fairfield-Suisun Unified School Districts in California. He was recruited by the Porterville Unified School District to open the district's third high school, as the first principal of Granite Hills High School, in 1997.
He was born in Weed, Calif and earned a B.A. from California State University-Chico; an M.A. from the University of San Francisco; and his Ed.D. from UC-Davis.
Di Salvo said the board’s research found exemplary references for De La Torre. “He was described as honest, fair, compassionate…with a great sense of humor.” He added that De La Torre, who is bilingual, has extensive experience in working with diverse students and is a strong advocate of multi-lingualism. The Socorro Independent School District, which is just across the Mexican border from Juarez, is a large, urban district, with 75 percent of the students on the free and reduced-price lunch program ad 23 percent who are English language learners.
In his first year, De La Torre cut $2 million from the budget through attrition and reassignment of personnel, according to a January article in the American Association of School Administrators.
De La Torre angered Texas parents last winter by cancelling four days of spring vacation to make up for weather-related closures. He did it to help kids prepare for state testing, a move he said he later realized was "insensitive to the needs of families."
But it was a rare gaffe. Besides the district finishing twice as Broad finalist (and garnering $150,000 in scholarship money) it successfully proposed a $297.4 million bond measure in a weak economy, one that meant residents would tax themselves $60 more a year to pay for building two high schools, a middle school and three elementary schools to help handle the 1,500 new students it sees each year in the rapidly growing area.
"During an economically depressed period, we got them to tax themselves," De La Torre said. The community had rejected a larger bond in 2007, before the economic crisis.
De La Torre has five children, four of whom are school-age. His wife, Amy, is an elementary school teacher and personal trainer. Bringing the children back to California had become a driving force, he said. Every holiday visit home had been a joyous reunion of his children with their grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins, he said. And increasingly, as the day to leave drew near, "there's sort of this funk."
"Life's too short, they need to be with family," De La Torre said. He added he was looking forward to bringing them to the "rich and diverse culture of the Bay Area."
De La Torre said it was the opportunity to work with Santa Clara County's 31 school superintendents to innovate and address the achievement gap that appealed to him.
With the county's range of high-performing school districts and those that are struggling, he wanted to see how "the same successes being enjoyed by those school districts, can be enjoyed by the other school districts," particularly with access to some of the "best minds in education," close at hand, at Stanford, Santa Clara University and San Jose State University.
Educators must also address a second achievement gap, that of American students and their peers from other nations, from China, India and Europe.
"Have we better prepared our best students?" he asked "Unless we can address those barriers, we are putting our economic future at risk."
"Just look at the increase in charter schools and virtual schools know there's some lack of trust in public schools.