Sal Cavazos, NHI’s 2014 Hall of Fame Winner
When Sal Cavazos and his five siblings were growing up in a rural outpost in the Rio Grande Valley, their TV time was seriously restricted. They were encouraged to read—but because the nearest library was 14 miles away, they knew to make the most of their library trips. Cavazos recalls, “I remember my mom telling me, ‘Get as many books as you can,’ and leaving the library with my arms filled with what I’d be reading for the next few months.”
For Cavazos, this is a happy childhood memory from a loving family who so valued learning that his mother, aunt, uncles, brothers, and sister all pursued careers in education. Even before he finished high school and pursued bachelor’s and master’s studies at UT-Pan American, Cavazos knew education was his calling. When he became one of 11 students from the Rio Grande Valley tapped for a Ph.D. program in Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, he knew that his career path was directing him to lead schools.
And, as a result, literally thousands of students have had their lives transformed.
The 51-year-old Cavazos, winner of this year’s NHI Hall of Fame Award, has an impressive track record of transforming schools and school districts throughout his career.His success is measurable through the traditional metrics of test scores and improved attendance rates, but in recounting his work with schools across Texas, the most important transformations have to do with a belief in students’ ability to succeed, and belief in teachers and communities to support and inspire students.
One of Cavazos’ early success stories took place in Austin in the late 1990s, while he was still completing his Ph.D. When he was asked to take the helm at Fulmore Middle School in Austin, it was a low-performing school with deplorable attendance rates. Cavazos led efforts to launch a Humanities Magnet program at Fulmore – a program that today is still bringing in talented students from throughout Austin – and ushered in a climate of accountability that inspired students to come to school and learn.
The work didn’t go unnoticed by Austin ISD Superintendent Pat Forgione, who asked Cavazos to take over troubled Johnston High School in 2000, in the middle of a school year. In a semester when Cavazos was overseeing both Fulmore and Johnston, he began the work that would take a school receiving unacceptable ratings three years running to an acceptable rating in a single year.
The work he’s done since then – including five years with Austin-based national non-profit organization Southwest Key Programs and top administrative roles in public schools, including Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in Brownsville ISD and Superintendent in Alice ISD Sal and Goose Creek CISD in Baytown – all helped build the foundation for his current role as Superintendent of Schools of the East Austin College Prep.
Currently serving nearly 900 Austin-area students from 2nd through 11th grade, the two East Austin College Prep charter schools establish a goal that 100 percent of its students will go to college upon graduation. Cavazos’ approach draws upon lessons that he’s acquired throughout his career as an educator – including developing an academic profile for each student upon arrival at the school, determining what the students need to develop in order to succeed, and then believing in every student’s potential.
“We have high expectations for them, but we also believe that they can achieve at those levels,” he said. “There’s no magic wand – it’s hard work, with an entire team of educators who believe in them. There’s real power in believing in students and maintaining high expectations.” While at Johnston, Cavazos forged an important partnership with NHI at the urging of Austin ISD board member and NHI alumni Rudy Montoya. A number of Johnston’s highest-performing students participated in NHI programs, and the lessons learned through NHI helped transform the school. “When I first came to Johnston,” he recalls, “a lot of students simply would not go to class and stayed in the hallways. I had to impress upon them that it was a privilege to be in school and attend classes.”
Cavazos believes that the students who involved themselves in NHI were instrumental to changing Johnston’s culture in that era. NHI founder and president Ernesto Nieto notes that Cavazos “has expressed trust and confidence in the work of NHI from the moment he became a policy maker in the public school system,” noting that he’s not only opened doors for the organization wherever he’s served as superintendent, but has encouraged and facilitated student participation in the programs. As Nieto observed, “There are few public school leaders who appreciate and value the work of NHI as much as Sal Cavazos does.”
As East Austin College Prep grows its high school population, with its first senior class set to graduate in 2016, Cavazos will continue to encourage students to participate in NHI. Like NHI’s leadership team, Cavazos is inspired by the potential of the students he encounters, and demands greatness.
“I believe in these students,” Cavazos said of the East Austin College Prep students, “and I believe that they can achieve great things. They are the future teachers, lawyers, mayors, and the leaders of tomorrow.”
This article by Phil West originally appeared in the 2014 print edition of NHI Magazine.