Education News

Why Houston’s New Superintendent Richard Carranza Became An Educator

What do school leaders think about having a Latino as a superintendent? And does it matter?


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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on September 13, 2016.

When the Houston Independent School District hired its new superintendent, Richard Carranza impressed board members with some of his talents. That is, his musical chops.

He’s an accomplished mariachi musician. He started learning the traditional Mexican music at seven years old and has been inducted to a Mariachi Hall of Fame in his hometown of Tucson.

This week he transitions full time to HISD’s new chief.

But if Carranza had followed the advice of his high school counselor, chances are he wouldn't be in Houston, running the seventh biggest district in the country.

That guidance counselor told him, “Why do you want to take chemistry, Richard? Don't you know we have advanced sheet metal fabrication? You should take that instead."

Carranza already knew about sheet metal work. It's what his dad did for a living. His mom was a hairdresser.

As he wrote in his job application to HISD, that advice to lower his ambitions had the opposite effect. Carranza decided to become an educator. His parents also wanted more for him.

“They knew that college and education was the path to a future. And they knew that that truly is the American dream, a future. That is my ethos that I bring to Houston that same promise to every child in Houston,” he said.

Carranza has started to meet students, like one class at Wisdom High School in Southwest Houston. It's for teenagers who are brand new to the United States and learning English.

“Hi, my name is Luis Angel and I'm from Mexico,” said one student as they went around the room introducing themselves.

Like them, Carranza didn't know English when he started school. Spanish is his first language; his parents spoke it at home to him and his twin brother Reuben.

Carranza stood before the group in cowboy boots. His eyes gleamed and he smiled easily as he points to their teacher.

“So what I do, is I used to do what he did, I was a teacher,” he said.

He taught bilingual social studies and music for 10 years in Arizona. He also created a mariachi course.

“After a while, I decided I wanted to be in charge of a school so I became a principal.”

And he kept climbing, first region superintendent in Las Vegas.

“And then I said well maybe a deputy.”

He got that job in San Francisco.

“Then a deputy and now superintendent,” he concluded.

When he was superintendent in San Francisco, the district boosted its graduation rate, reduced suspensions and created a new bilingual diploma.

Those are some the credentials that convinced the Houston school board to hire him on a three-year contract, paying $345,000 a year.

But what do school leaders think about having a Latino as a superintendent? And does it matter?

Juliet Stipeche, the city's education director, said yes.

“We need Latino leaders to be able to serve as role models, mentors for young people,” she said. “It is also important to have a seat at the table to develop policy by an individual who has had comparable experiences.”

HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones wanted to make sure the new superintendent will represent all students.

“I was concerned because there's a lot of pitting by people who get their way in this district by blacks and browns,” she explained.

Jones even went to San Francisco to check out Carranza in action. She left impressed by the initiatives there to support black students.

“I think absolutely it's important to have a person of color as leader of HISD, but just as he appreciates his heritage, he respects ours,” Jones said.

At Stevenson Middle School near Hobby Airport, a group of moms stopped Carranza in the hallway to welcome him. There was an immediate connection as the group and Carranza chatted in Spanish.

Maria De La Cruz said that she likes the fact Carranza is Latino — but not just because he can speak Spanish.

“I think something deeper. He must have overcome a lot of challenges and now he's living his dreams,” she said.

Then she convinced the new superintendent to use his talents – the musical ones – to wish the principal happy birthday.

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