Meet Guadalupe Guerrero
Guadalupe Guerrero brings a deep knowledge base and skill set as an instructional leader, systems thinker, and strategic planner. His extensive educational leadership has been honed through work in two larger urban school systems, as a senior district leader, school principal, and classroom teacher. He has also completed executive leadership programs that have helped to refine his thinking about public education.
As a result of his formal studies and personal experience, Guadalupe has developed a key set of core beliefs about the role of public education. That all students should have an equitable access to enriched opportunities in school. That we have a collective responsibility to ensure our schools are caring, supportive places where every child experiences academic success. That our school communities should support the healthy, positive socio-emotional development of students and that we should help children and youth discover and grow their unique gifts and talents. He believes this is possible when all levels of a district work in aligned and coherent ways, especially when our schools work in close partnership with families and communities. Our work should be to always try to be better, the complex work of schools and school systems should focus on continuous improvement, and that all should adopt a student-centered and equity-focused lens in all decision-making.
Guerrero learned the power of education at an early age. In his family, school was recognized as a key door to other opportunities. As the oldest of four siblings, he observed and strived to emulate the work ethic and core values of his hard-working single mother. Guadalupe and his two brothers all earned the rank of Eagle Scout and each developed through daily musical practice their talents on guitar, piano, and violin.
Like many others, Guadalupe worked his way through college and balanced a range of jobs -- including working in restaurants and banks, late shifts as a janitor, as well as appearing in professional music videos and performing at weddings. Ideas about community service and servant leadership were also developed from an early age. In high school, Guadalupe was active in student government, serving both as junior class president and as his large high school’s student body president his senior year. Guadalupe also participated in varsity wrestling and football, and developed an interest in both literature and history.
As a young child, Guadalupe entered public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area as an English Language Learner. When his family moved to the Central Valley, the school did not offer the same support for his language development, requiring him to put in much additional effort and study from him as an individual student. In elementary school, a music teacher took interest in Guadalupe and invited him to join music instrument classes. With this teacher’s encouragement, Guadalupe continued formal studies in classical violin. Eventually his discipline and hard work were recognized as a solo performer and in lead roles in school orchestras and led to his successful audition into the School of the Arts at UCLA as a music education major.
During college, Guadalupe had the opportunity to work with inner-city youth, and while he believed that the arts should be an important part of every student’s experience, he also noticed that many students struggled academically. He has always been drawn to working with children and youth – and spent his high school summers working as a camp counselor -- so midway through his undergraduate studies, it was clear that he wanted to work in public education. While he enjoyed music, his ambition was not to become a professional musician, so he decided to change his major to history.
First work: As paraprofessional and then teacher
On the day of his last final at UCLA, he drove back up to San Francisco and walked into a community-based organization in the Mission District and was immediately hired to provide students in the largely Latino immigrant neighborhood with academic tutoring and to support parent engagement efforts. He worked as a classroom paraprofessional or aide and applied to join a teacher education program that spring. While earning his teaching certification, he student taught first grade in one Oakland school in the morning, while teaching math and science to middle school students in the afternoon. Upon earning his Spanish Bilingual teaching certificate, Guerrero then taught for three years in the San Francisco public schools before moving to Boston to teach for another four years. He continued to teach across various grade levels, becoming a literacy specialist, and providing teacher leadership.
Guadalupe applied to and was admitted to the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; he was simultaneously named a James B. Conant Fellow, which recognized him as “a teacher with outstanding leadership potential.” Upon completing this principal certification at Harvard, Guadalupe had multiple job offers to serve as a new principal at various schools in the Boston-area.
Taking on a challenge in his first principal post
Boston’s well-regarded superintendent, Dr. Thomas Payzant, asked Guadalupe to take on one of the most struggling schools in the Boston Public Schools, Paul A. Dever Elementary School. Always willing to accept the biggest challenges, Guadalupe accepted the superintendent’s charge, to apply his talents to supporting and turning around a large, underperforming school in an underserved community serving a large percentage of second-language learners and students with disabilities.
Upon entry, it was clear he would need to significantly improve conditions and supports in the school, while simultaneously beginning to rally teachers around strengthening the academic programming. Guadalupe and his team leveraged local neighborhood agencies and health clinics to cobble together sorely-needed wraparound supports for many students with issues of trauma and poverty. Many students were newcomers learning English, often with limited prior schooling. In addition, the school hosted one of the largest programs in the city for students identified with emotional disturbance and other severe disabilities.
The team at the school set about the hard work of improving student learning outcomes. A great deal of work was put into developing a professional learning community among the educators, frequently collaborating and planning lessons together, looking at and analyzing student work and data, and opening their classroom doors with their colleagues and instructional coaches. After a lot of effort, the school demonstrated a strong sense of structures, consistent instructional practices, much improved family engagement, and much happier students focused on learning. Students with disabilities, once relegated to classrooms off the back hallway, were being integrated into general education classrooms as much as possible. An audit conducted by the state department of education reported that the conditions were dramatically improved and that the school and its leadership were engaged in the right kind of work. In fact, the district began to take notice of the promising practices at the school.
The school started to demonstrate some encouraging early gains, but then would suffer setbacks, and struggled to keep momentum. Issues related to teacher stability, greater demands on professional development and planning time, a constant stream of students appearing with significant needs, and a lack of sufficient resourcing and supports from the school district ultimately made it an uphill battle. Guadalupe realized that without the central office playing an active role in mitigating some factors outside the school’s control, the school alone, despite heroic efforts, would continue to struggle to be successful.
Interested in exploring this question of how school systems might support school improvement at scale, Guadalupe applied and was accepted for a second tour at Harvard, this time in the highly-competitive Urban Superintendent’s Program, which selected only six individuals annually from around the country.
Back at the Dever Elementary, a couple of successive principals struggled to move stagnant test scores until ultimately, the State of Massachusetts decided to take over the school.
The lesson for Guadalupe was clear: “You can’t dramatically transform the conditions of struggling school communities without exercising system-wide levers. The school system has the responsibility to ensure the essential school supports and conditions are in place in order for learning to take place. I don’t believe in boutique school reform, but rather in transforming entire systems to better tailor and differentiate equitable supports to all schools and students.”
Transforming systems to better support all schools and students
When he left his students in the San Francisco’s Mission District to move to Boston, he told them he needed to keep learning, too – but that he would be back. When his doctoral residency brought him back to San Francisco, he kept that promise. As an intern, he helped create the plans for a new school turnaround initiative, dubbed the Superintendent’s Zone, and co-authored and was awarded $45 million in federal school improvement grants.
When he launched the Superintendent’s Zone in the Mission District, a set of PreK-12 schools labeled as “persistently low-performing” as a newly hired Assistant Superintendent, the first thing he did was to move out of the central office. To help the schools carry out the bold plans, he wanted to be closer to the action.
“I did not want to be just another bureaucrat sitting in the central office sending memos to the schools, telling them what to do,” he said. Among his first steps what to set-up camp within the schools, in order to “be better embedded in their daily work.”
He and his team spent the next two years working hand in hand with this cohort of schools, most within walking distance. When he did return to the central office, he’d commandeer a conference room and rotate all the department heads through to describe how they could help those schools – brokering the vital central support.
The work brought promising early results, as the schools got more coherent about teaching and learning. Instruction was more rigorous. Conditions were getting better for the students. Test scores went up – not uniformly at every school – but significantly and impressively given their past struggles.
“More important, the working class neighborhood was beginning to feel a sense of hope,” he said. When he visits the neighborhood barbershop for his regular cut, everyone calls him “Maestro” and shares how positive they now feel about enrolling their children in the neighborhood’s schools, places they would not have necessarily considered previously. “That’s the biggest compliment. There is still work to do, but we’ve demonstrated what’s possible, and we’re taking those promising practices to scale across all city schools.”
Taking strategies to scale, district-wide
Two years after Guerrero took on the Zone schools, the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation & Social Justice was promoted to be Superintendent, and Guerrero applied for his spot. As deputy superintendent, Guerrero incorporated the successful strategies from the Mission District into a districtwide strategic plan that includes three universal goals for access and equity, student achievement and accountability:
- Make social justice a reality by ensuring every student has access to high-quality teaching and learning.
- Create learning environments in all SFUSD schools that foster highly engaged and joyful learners and that support every student reaching his or her potential.
- Keep district promises to students and families and enlist everyone in the community to join in doing so.
Those goals are not just ideals on paper: They are backed by action plans, budgeted dollars and measurements of accountability. Demonstrating servant leadership, being true to your core beliefs and always student-centered, supporting the challenging work of educators, staff, and leaders, and ensuring all schools are caring, supportive places where students can thrive –this is what drives Guadalupe Guerrero.
This is the brand of leadership that Guadalupe hopes to contribute to the Portland Public Schools. As has been the case many times before in his career, despite encountering a current set of challenges, he feels an incredible sense of optimism about working with the talented educators and broader community of PPS to elevate it to become the premier school system in the country.