Leadership Lessons

Abelardo Saavedra – Going the distance

Abelardo “Abe” Saavedra knows the rhythm of running long distances. The cadence is designed to exert and preserve energy, regardless of the challenges one may face. As a high school cross-country athlete, he learned how to breathe for endurance and look off into the horizon to adjust to his pace and focus on his destination.

Running was Abe’s personal form of Zen until his knees started to give out a decade ago. Now, pumped up from listening to Tejano music during the car ride to the gym, his 5:00 a.m. runs are done on an elliptical machine. He adapted but still pushes himself as the endurance runner he used to be.

“Staying active is important for living longer,” said Abe, 67, a life-long morning person. “It’s a great way to start the day — open minded as you get to work.”

He is getting to work in his fourth year as superintendent of the San Antonio South Independent School District, a heavily Hispanic district that serves nearly 10,000 students and has captured many high-drama headlines in recent years.

“There was total dysfunction at all levels… But one thing I discovered was that in spite of the adult dysfunction, there was good teaching going on in a lot of classrooms,” said Abe, a father and grandfather of a 20-year blended family that includes two daughters, two step-daughters, one grandson and five step-grandchildren.

“We needed to inspire young people to want to go to college. We needed to change the mindset of the community,” Abe said. “When you didn’t go to college and all you hear is how expensive college is, you think you have to be satisfied that they graduate from high school. We’ve tried to change the mindset that college is not available for everyone.”

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Abe’s parents preached the value of college. They used to ask him and his three siblings what they wanted to major in — not whether they would attend college. His father was his high school’s valedictorian and the first to attend college in his family. But he had to drop out after one year because tuition was too expensive. His mother had a third-grade education. With Abe’s father’s job as an insurance salesman and his mother’s holiday tamale and Avon sales, all four Saavedra kids graduated from college, debt-free. And they all became educators.

The youngest of the four, Abe decided to fast-track his educational goals, earning his bachelor’s degree in three years from Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville). After completing a master’s program, he earned a Ph.D. in school administration from the University of Michigan at age 25. He then taught middle-school social studies and high-school vocational education before becoming an assistant principal.

“We have to teach [students] how to recognize an opportunity, because they come in all different forms. Young people need to be able to see that,” said Abe.

In 2013, Abe was five years into his retirement from superintendent leadership, teaching at the university level and serving as an education consultant, when he was approached by the South San school board to serve as interim superintendent for three months while they searched for a permanent hire. When no one else would take the job, he agreed to become the district’s fifth leader in three years.

To follow South San media coverage over the past decade is to watch a political telenovela unfold, replete with federal investigations, FBI informants, a board-member indictment, secretly-recorded conversations and forensic audits of finance and governance issues. Now, it is a district that is working to redefine its identity.

In early 2016, following a particularly wild board meeting rife with accusations and name calling, Abe thought about negotiating his departure. But an attorney and alumnus of the district asked him to reconsider, offering to provide pro bono legal services if he stayed. “He told me, ‘You are the only hope this district has in turning things around. If you really came here to make a difference, I have your back.’” He decided to stay and, shortly thereafter, the Texas Education Agency responded to a 153-page complaint filed by Abe, appointing a conservator to oversee corrective actions.

A year later, three new board members were elected to the South San school board, forging a more focused path. Together, Abe and the entire board are now working to build South San into the kind of school system its community needs and deserves.

The district now meets state accountability standards. It has not had a school designated as requiring improvement for three years. And earlier this year, its state-appointed conservatorship ended.

“Being one of the smaller and more dysfunctional, we’ve been the piñata of school districts. I want people to respect the education of this district. I think that’s starting to happen,” Abe said. “We’re here to make a difference for these kids. Every decision needs to be in the best interest of kids.”

South San opened several new offerings in the last few years, including an early college program that will help one-fifth of its high school graduates earn both diplomas and associate degrees. “In a community with 92 percent poverty, that will be a game changer,” Abe said. This fall, the district will also open three new middle-school magnet academies in STEM, health science and fine arts as well as a reboot of a health-science high school designed to graduate students with licensed vocational nursing certification.

Even in a small district, staying relevant matters when parents have more educational options for their children. “I respect that parents should have a choice. I respect that parents may want to send their kids to a charter. I have no reason to criticize those parents — that’s an opportunity that belongs to the parent and not to the public school system,” Abe said. “We as educators need to recognize that charters are here to stay… We need to learn to survive alongside these charters. If I want to maintain my enrollment, I need to be able to provide good options inside the system.”

Over more than 40 years working in public education, Abe has always focused on providing strong options for all students, even when faced with disagreement about the approach. In 1993, he became the first Hispanic superintendent of Corpus Christi Independent School District. Altogether, Abe spent 28 years in his hometown district, helping achieve state and national recognition for world-class pre-K through 12th grade academic expectations more than a decade before the nation’s governors and state education chiefs began developing the Common Core State Standards. But that work didn’t come easy.

“Superintendents have a shelf life. I didn’t recognize that at the time. I probably needed to move on after five years,” Abe said of his time in Corpus Christi. “As you make hard decisions for the benefit of kids, you might have to step on other adults’ toes. Sometimes, it’s powerful political people’s toes.”

He left Corpus Christi after being cleared of an allegation of misusing public funds, related to two misallocated purchases of alcoholic beverages among more than 1,000 expense receipts. “It started as a small thing, and as it ran on the front pages of the papers, it became bigger and bigger and bigger. Even though I was cleared, my credibility was destroyed.”

Abe grew up in Texas when Mexican Americans faced discrimination in education, housing and the labor market. He speaks as a man who recognized challenges as obstacles to side step rather than resent. He learned to see the superintendent’s role with new eyes after Corpus Christi.

An attorney once told him, “’Any defense lawyer worth their salt has been held in contempt of court,’ meaning that you’re pushing so hard for the benefit of your client that you take it all the way to the line,” he said. “I see that in being a superintendent. I see that in pushing for what’s right for these kids. That’s why job security can never be your focus.”

He decided to take a pay cut to serve as a regional superintendent in the Houston Independent School District, later becoming its first Hispanic superintendent. While there, he led a similar vision of excellence, where being a state-rated “exemplary” or “recognized” school became the norm rather than the exception. During his tenure, he increased starting teacher salaries by more than 25 percent, expanded full-day pre-kindergarten and drove a college-going culture in the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

In the end, Abe said his departure from CCISD was a blessing. “It was the type of thing that can destroy you, if you allow it. Or you can stand strong and keep pushing forward. Even though it was a dark moment in my life, I wouldn’t have been in Houston, otherwise.”

Abe predicts his own days as South San’s superintendent will end when he completes his contract next year. His legacy will be the transformation of the district to a place where college graduation is the new distance on the horizon where all students can aim, with the right supports, pace and focus.

When his time as superintendent is over, he’ll likely return to college teaching and helping his grandchildren learn Spanish. He enjoys being a grandfather even more than being a father. “The rule of thumb is not to spoil your kids. But you can spoil your grandchildren.”

For now, he persists just as he did as a distance runner — one foot in front of the other, focusing on his destination. “Anything is possible. It makes no difference that you’re Hispanic or Black or come from a poor family,” Abe said. “Any of these young people can succeed at a high level. You can’t let those perceived obstacles stop you. You’ve got to work harder, try harder and you’ll eventually succeed.”

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