Interview: Former Dallas Schools Chief Hinojosa Speaks Out on How COVID Hit Schools, Texas Education’s Partisan Fights & His Political Future
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This conversation is the most recent installment in our ongoing series of comprehensive 74 interviews (you can explore our entire archive). Other notable recent interviews include a discussion with researcher Jing Liu on strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism, a conversation with writer Jonathan Chait regarding the education reform debate, and an interview with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on the challenges faced by Los Angeles schools.
Michael Hinojosa, former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, left his position earlier this year to take on several new roles. In one capacity, he will be providing guidance to other superintendents on navigating the culture wars and staying focused despite opposition from local school boards. In another role, he has become a key figure in a consulting group that has helped alleviate some of the challenges he encountered in Dallas.
Additionally, Hinojosa seriously considered venturing into the realm of urban politics, motivated by a desire to give back to the city where he was raised. However, on December 4th, he announced that he would not be running against Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. Apart from the incumbent’s strong likelihood of winning re-election, Hinojosa cited his busy schedule with consulting work as a factor in his decision.
Those who are familiar with Hinojosa have no difficulty viewing him as a politician. He has already displayed his ability to stand up against powerful opponents, including his defiance of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order in May 2021, which prohibited districts from implementing mask mandates.
"He is a respected voice in the legislature," remarked Chris Wallace, President and CEO of the North Texas Commission, an organization dedicated to the development of the Dallas region. "People pay attention when he speaks because he excels at empowering others. It is a true leadership skill."
Hinojosa, an immigrant from Mexico, received his education in the Dallas schools and initially worked as a teacher and basketball coach before transitioning into administration. He began his leadership journey in smaller Texas districts before seizing the opportunity to lead the Dallas schools in 2005, which was his dream job. After serving one term, he departed to take on the role of superintendent in the Cobb County district in metro Atlanta, in order to be closer to his son who resided in the area. However, in 2015, he returned to Dallas for another stint as superintendent.
Originally, Hinojosa had intended to remain in his position until the end of this year. However, he ultimately decided to leave in July, expressing his trust in Stephanie Elizalde, his successor who previously held the position of chief schools officer in Dallas and served as superintendent in Austin.
Recognizing the leadership potential in educators is one of Hinojosa’s strengths, according to Chaundra Macklin, principal at Joseph J. Rhoads Learning Center, a pre-K site in the district. Hinojosa interviewed her for her first principal role in 2007. She had been working at a highly regarded school, but he selected her to lead a struggling one.
"Even in my toughest moments, when things weren’t going well, he encouraged me as a leader," she shared. "He would say, ‘Just keep doing what you need to do.’"
Currently, Hinojosa serves as the newly appointed chief impact officer for Engage2Learn, the organization that guided the Dallas district through various challenges, such as the successful passage of a $3.2 billion bond issue in the aftermath of the pandemic.
He also acts as the "head coach" for a new initiative launched by the Council of the Great City Schools, aimed at providing support to superintendents during a time of unprecedented turbulence in the profession.
"He has consistently demonstrated his commitment to urban education," stated Ray Hart, executive director of the council. "He is already playing a crucial role in the organization’s efforts to train the next generation of leaders and ensure educational equity in major city school districts across the country."
In our interview, Hinojosa delved into his 27 years of leadership experience and expressed his desire to share his expertise with other superintendents. He also expressed his concerns about charter schools, discussed the challenges associated with managing large urban school systems, and recounted a controversial incident that resulted in protestors gathering outside his house (which did not involve mask mandates or critical race theory).
Former Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa attending a meeting about the $3.2 billion bond issue in October 2020. (Dallas Independent School District)
Please note that this interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.
Michael Hinojosa: Timing is never perfect. I derive immense satisfaction from being a superintendent. I have a deep affection for the city and the school district. However, I recently had an epiphany. While I could continue in this role until the end of my contract in 2024, I realized that I couldn’t commit to it for another decade. It was a selfish desire of mine to avoid becoming someone who is solely focused on achieving a record. I have witnessed many individuals cling onto their positions for too long, ultimately tarnishing the positive contributions they had made. I didn’t want to be that person.
Stephanie Elizalde, the newly appointed superintendent of the Dallas school district, addressed the topic of school security during a press conference in August. (Dallas Independent School District)
It was expected that Susana Cordova [who left her position as superintendent in Denver to become deputy superintendent in Dallas in 2021] would be your successor. However, Stephanie Elizalde was chosen for the job instead. Can you explain what happened in that situation?
The board included a clause in my contract to bring in someone as part of a succession plan, and I chose Susana for that role. From the beginning, I made it clear to her that the final decision was out of my hands. She understood this right from the start. The board has the authority to select the person they believe is most suitable, and they were fortunate to have two exceptional candidates, Susana and Stephanie, who had previously worked with me.
I have always emphasized that in order to navigate the challenges of Dallas, one must have a thorough understanding of the city. In the 1990s, the district went through five superintendents in just five years, and one of them even ended up in prison. Without a comprehensive grasp of the complexities involved in managing a large urban school system, particularly in Dallas, one is bound to encounter difficulties. The board had multiple options, and in my opinion, both candidates were prepared for the position. I was upfront with Susana about the process, but I must admit that I was somewhat surprised she didn’t receive the opportunity.
What sets Dallas apart from other cities?
Dallas has a history of being embroiled in urban race politics, with influential stakeholders who possess considerable power. Some of the previous superintendents engaged in actions that were unforgivable. The community was rightfully angered, as performance levels were inadequate and trust was lacking.
In major cities, dealing with the media is a factor, and even though Texas is a right-to-work state, collaboration with labor is essential. If one is not familiar with the key players within the community, it can lead to destructive consequences. Not every school district faces the same challenges, but Dallas does. We have now achieved a degree of stability. I served as superintendent for 13 years over two terms, and Dr. Elizalde is well-acquainted with the community, having been there for five years. She understands where potential roadblocks may lie.
Are you considering a future mayoral run?
I am keeping all possibilities open. The only hurdle I face is my age, as I am currently 66 years old. However, I am as healthy as ever.
To what extent did the political battles of the past two years influence your decision to leave the district?
They had no influence whatsoever. In fact, I am impervious to stress and tend to be a source of it myself. I relish being in the midst of a fight, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. The pandemic was the foremost challenge we faced. Additionally, Dallas experienced a destructive tornado, while other parts of Texas dealt with hurricanes. The cultural wars further added to the difficulties. As urban superintendents, we are accustomed to facing criticism, but the suburbs are often shielded from such experiences. Currently, I am consulting with the Council of the Great City Schools, and out of their 77 members, only 20 have held the position since 2020.
There are numerous people who line up to berate the school board and superintendent, including at Dallas schools like Thomas Jefferson High School, which was severely damaged in a tornado in 2019. (Dallas Independent School District)
You will be serving as a superintendent-in-residence with the Council. Could you provide more details about your role?
Considering that many superintendents are new to their positions, there is a significant demand for support. Some may require assistance with operational issues, and we will have individuals with the expertise to provide guidance in those areas. Many superintendents may also benefit from instructional support, particularly if they have little experience in working with school boards. We aim to offer a range of tools that can empower superintendents and increase their chances of success in this challenging environment.
You have previously collaborated with Engage2Learn in Dallas, and now you are transitioning into a consulting role with them. What were the accomplishments they assisted you with?
In today’s world, individuals seek problem solvers rather than complainers. Therefore, if you lack the capacity to tackle a challenge, it is crucial to seek assistance from someone who can help you. This is precisely why I have taken advantage of these opportunities. Even with the highly skilled team I had in Dallas, there were certain tasks that we were unable to successfully execute. Engage2Learn played a vital role in helping us develop a comprehensive long-term technology plan. This plan served as the foundation for our bond program. Furthermore, Engage2Learn facilitated communication between various stakeholders, including students, staff, and community members. They expertly synthesized all the information gathered and transformed it into actionable strategies that we could implement.
We have formed a partnership with Apple to revamp all of our libraries, making them resemble Apple stores. Over the course of the next four years, Apple will redesign 50 schools each year. The objective is to transform the library into the central hub for both students and community members. Engage2Learn played a crucial role in attracting individuals who could assist in developing and executing these plans successfully.
Another area where Engage2Learn provided valuable support was in our initiative called Achieving in the Middle, which focuses on enhancing middle school performance. Our high schools have made significant progress due to our P-TECH program, a STEM-oriented curriculum where students can earn a postsecondary degree or certificate while still in high school. Additionally, our elementary schools have been thriving. However, we faced challenges in achieving success in middle schools. The decisions parents make during grades four to eight greatly influence their choices, and it’s important to address this. When I once asked about our best middle school, there was an awkward silence in the room indicating that we hadn’t yet achieved excellence in this area.
Regarding the library redesign, did you encounter any opposition from librarians?
Some of our principals stopped utilizing the libraries and replaced librarians with instructional coaches or assistant principals. Our initiative aims to restore librarians to their role. It necessitated rethinking their approach to their work, but they have become incredibly enthusiastic about the library. Even the principals who initially discontinued hiring librarians have now expressed a desire to have them because the new model is exciting and innovative.
Given that you will be coaching several superintendents, the topic of declining enrollment and strategies to attract families to district schools will likely arise. Could you discuss your efforts in Dallas to reverse this trend?
We had a belief that if a school had 300 students or fewer, it was at risk of becoming extinct. People were not choosing these schools. Some individuals criticize charter schools, especially those from the Democratic party. While I am not a fan of charter schools, my focus is on promoting exceptional schools. In my opinion, many charter schools do not reach the level of greatness. We possess greater capacity, intellect, and potential. We must exceed charter schools in their own game by providing Montessori schools, STEM schools, single-gender schools, and biomedical schools.
In the past, we experienced a situation where we would lose approximately 75 students to a northern suburb every year, but we would gain around 75 students from that same suburb because they enrolled in our specialized magnet schools. However, in the last year during the pandemic, we lost around 60 students to that suburb, but astonishingly, we attracted 500 students from their school district. This allowed us to halt the decline in enrollment.
Your statements regarding charter schools are quite assertive. Are they based solely on your personal experience, or is it your overall perspective on charter schools?
In our educational system, we do not have the privilege of selecting our students. We welcome all children, as it aligns with my personal belief system. Nevertheless, I do not complain about charter schools. Instead, I strive to outperform them using their own methods and strategies.
Could you describe the most challenging period you faced during your tenure as a superintendent?
The most difficult period occurred in 2008 when I had to lay off 1,000 teachers. Fortunately, the board decided to allow me to continue in my role. I informed them that they could have dismissed me, but I explained that it would result in months of arguments surrounding the interim superintendent, the search for a replacement, and the selection process. In contrast, I assured them that by remaining in my position, I could resolve the issue within nine months.
Title: School Superintendent Reflects on Challenges Faced during the Pandemic and Engagements with State Governor and Union in Chicago
The superintendent’s recollection of the pandemic crisis and clashes with the governor surpassed the difficulties encountered during the outbreak. While the pandemic posed formidable challenges and lacked a predetermined course of action, it was the responsibility of leaders to rise to the occasion. The superintendent faced some criticism from the board for updates obtained through media outlets. Consequently, the superintendent learned from this experience and adopted a more inclusive approach, ensuring open communication with the board members before embarking on further confrontations with the governor.
Making Decisions in a Crisis:
During challenging times, commanding decisions are easier to make but harder to implement, whereas consensus decisions, although time-consuming, yield more comprehensive results. In a crisis, it becomes imperative to make prompt commanding decisions, while also ensuring that people are informed about the rationale behind such choices.
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