By Sherida Mock
On April 15, the Austin Independent School District named Paul Cruz as Interim Superintendent. Dr. Cruz had previously served as AISD’s Chief Schools Officer for five years. We sat down with him to find out more about his family, his background and his thoughts on education.
Tell us about your family.
This December, my wife Diana and I will have been married 25 years. We have four children: (a daughter) Mari is a junior at UT; another daughter, Selly, who’s going to be a senior in high school; a son, Paul, who’s going to be a freshman in high school; and another son, Manny, who’s going to be a fifth grader. We also have two dogs. Laredo is a big old Bassett hound, and we have a little Shih Tzu, Abigail, who’s our baby of the family.
We moved around a lot. When we first got married, I was a teacher in Corpus Christi and my wife was studying at Del Mar College. Then we moved to Brownsville, and then San Antonio. It wasn’t until we moved to Austin and I started working on my Ph.D. that we had our first baby. Mari is our Austin baby, Selly is our Harlingen baby, Paul is our Laredo baby and Manny is our Round Rock baby. Every city, we had another child, until we started having dogs. (Laughs) No more moves, no more children!
Who influenced you the most growing up?
Probably my grandfather. He really instilled the value of an education. He’s the one who always inspired me and said, “Whatever you do, you need to get an education.”
Do you remember your first day of school?
I do remember! This was in Robstown, Texas. We lived right across the street from our church, St. Anthony Church, and the St. Anthony School. I remember the nun, Sister Carmen, took us out for recess. Well, recess was right next to my house, so when everybody went in (after recess), I went to my grandma’s house, because my grandma lived next door. I don’t even know that they knew I was missing! (Laughs)
When did you decide to become an educator?
When I was in high school I wanted to do something with music, because I really enjoyed performing. I played the saxophone. But then when I started school at UT and took some classes in English and literature, I really enjoyed that. At that point, I said, “I want to teach.”
What made you decide to go into administration?
My dad was a principal, and so I think I wanted to do anything but be a principal. But once I started to teach and get more involved with the school, I saw my very first principal—Ms. Ramirez, in Corpus Christi—was just a really great principal. She was another connector for me, getting to see her work, being part of the school.
If you were back in the classroom as a teacher today, what changes would you notice?
First would be technology, because it’s a different world. As a teacher you have to be so familiar with what kids are doing, how they use technology, so that it’s relevant for them. Also, you have access to the entire world. When I was a teacher, you had access to a textbook. What is similar is that you need to develop a positive relationship with your kids. That’s how they will learn and excel. Even today, that rings true.
Pull out your crystal ball: If you stepped into a classroom in 2034, what changes would you see?
I would hope to see that we don’t necessarily have schools as they exist today, as big facilities. I hope that it is a different opportunity; that kids come together at different points in time in the semester to meet with the teachers. Kids get projects, and they go off and get busy and work on those projects as teams, and then come back together. The teacher checks on them from time to time, but it’s not something where kids sit for an eight-hour period. I just don’t think that life works like that. I think our schools need to reflect today’s workforce and what kids are going to experience.
What lessons have you learned as an educator?
It really comes down to the importance of relationships, because there are great times in education and then there’s some challenging times. You know, when times are good, everybody’s happy. But in the challenging times, those relationships really come into play. That has been the most valuable experience: not so much the skills base—how to educate and balance budgets—but relationships and hiring very talented people to actually do the work.
What challenges does AISD face?
AISD is a big, complex system. We have 86,000 students; we have 12,000 employees; we have 129 sites. This year our graduation rate is at an all-time high at 82.5 percent, but nonetheless we have a significant gap, particularly for students who are Hispanic or African-American and on top of that, Hispanic male or African-American male.
Another thing that’s a challenge is developing different environments. There are some kids in high school, particularly—because high schools are a special interest of mine—where we have kids who want the traditional experience, who want the big high school—band, choir, art, athletics. And there are some kids who really don’t want that; that’s just not their thing. We’ve specialized some specific schools of choice where they’re self-paced, kids do their courses online and it’s just a much better environment for them.
The other big piece is that we are a Chapter 41 district, and so we pay back to the state under the Robin Hood plan. This year we paid $125 million…and if the formula continues, we’re going to pay back $270 million by fiscal year 2018. We may be property-rich, but we don’t look like a property-rich district. We are 64% economically-disadvantaged; we are 70% minority; we have 26,000 students who are English language learners. We need resources to provide support for the kids and their families.
Let’s say you had a whole day to spend in Austin with your family. What would you do?
There are so many good things to do in Austin! Well, even though my kids have seen it, we haven’t been there in a while, so I’d bring them to the Capitol just to explore the richness of Texas history. Then we’d go on a boat ride. We went on a boat ride as a family last summer. We had a great time. The kids were dancing on the boat and the scenery was amazing. It was just wonderful. It’s hard in our times, with working parents, to focus on each other and your own relationships, to sort of fill that bucket again and just enjoy each other’s company.