JANUARY 2023 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
Dr. Dani Portillo is the talk of the town in Phoenix, Arizona! This week she begins as the new school Superintendent of Roosevelt School District, this great school community, after serving there as the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for almost four years. She was a highly successful school principal in Phoenix Union and Pendergast School District, and has taught in higher education. One of her many strengths is the value she places in and commitment to multilingualism.
A native of Honduras, Dr. Portillo brings a rich cultural and social political perspective to her leadership. She believes that every student has a wealth of experiences to contribute to the learning environment, which means that schools and districts need to be prepared to fully engage and give voice to each and every child. Dani is described by her professional colleagues as a leader who delivers. Dr. Lupita Hightower, long-serving Superintendent of the Tolleson Elementary School District in Arizona and respected national leader in AASA, states, “Dr. Portillo is a proven leader that works tirelessly to make a difference for students by working with every stakeholder in a systematic way. Every school Dr. Portillo has led has increased retention and outcomes for kids.”
Dr. Portillo joined a group of exceptional leaders during the fall of 2022 to participate in the Voice4Equity Policy Leadership Academy. This Academy serves as a network for executive level women leaders in education who convene over a semester to discuss education policy and their equity agenda. This is one of many ways in which Dr. Portillo continues to show up at the equity policy table. Listen to Dr. Portillo’s interview to learn a little bit about her story: Listen Here.
Hi Dani. It’s so good to see you. I know you have a day off, so you’re running around, but next week is going to be a really busy week. I probably should start with Congratulations! You’re the new superintendent of Roosevelt School District. How are you feeling?
Thank you. You know, I’m very excited. I also feel just so grateful to our school board for considering me and having faith in my leadership. So I’m very excited to help and lead for equity for South Phoenix.
That’s fantastic. And I know the number of women getting into the superintendency is something that we all continue to talk about nationally. 27% of the nation’s district superintendents are women. And yet 80 plus percent of teachers are women. So we know there’s a lot of gatekeeping happening there. I’m wondering what your experience was like in pursuing the superintendency. Was it positive? How did that go? Were there any delays? What was that like for you?
“One of the things that I do is make sure I stay connected with my purpose, my why, so that I continuously feel that fire and I don’t get disconnected with why I decided to pursue education and the superintendency.”
— Superintendent Dr. Dani Portillo
You know, I think that when I started my career, I had the fortune of having some very strong leaders look at me and support me in my leadership journey. And as I got a little bit older and got more committed to establishing a family and having that responsibility as well. I imposed a lot of those stops along the way on myself because I was trying to fulfill all parts of my life. And sometimes, I think that even in anticipation of some of those things happening, I slowed down a little bit. If I could go back, I probably wouldn’t have slowed myself down until the time came where I had to slow down. But as I look back on it, you know, I paused my career aspirations once in order to move closer to my husband and his children. If I were to do that again, if I had the opportunity again, I would probably do the same thing. It did cause me delays in moving on to the next step but I was able to gain something else in my life that I wouldn’t trade.
And then I paused again when I had to take care of my mom. I had the opportunity to take care of my mom before she passed away. And there’s no way I would ever have changed that path. Though, I think that as women, we take that on, especially as Latinas, we take that on as part of what makes us whole, right? But I do notice that some of my peers, my male peers, maybe they haven’t had to stop, or even my brothers, they didn’t have to stop their careers to care for my mom. Or they maybe chose not to, because it wasn’t forced on me. I wanted to do that for her.
I appreciate your sharing that because I think as women, it’s important to share our stories about the intentional decisions we make to care for ourselves and the people we love, and putting that balance into our career pathway. We’re just excited collectively, to have Dr. Portillo join the superintendency rank and join a body of peer women who are doing some tremendous work in this nation and are role models for other young girls around the fact that the CEO seat is accessible for women and women of color. And so we are very proud of you. And we congratulate you.
You and I had a chance recently through the Voice4Equity Policy Academy, to have some time and space with other women to interact around policy, knowledge, and voice. And I’d love to hear from you – how do you ensure that you’re intentionally showing up at the policy table as a person of color, woman, and passionate advocate for equity?
Thank you and thank you for that question. So, yes, one of the things that I do is make sure I stay connected with my purpose, my why, so that I continuously feel that fire and I don’t get disconnected with why I decided to pursue education and the superintendency. So if I feel a little bogged down with all of the nuances of the everyday work, and some of the challenges of hitting obstacles, people that maybe don’t agree with the same passion that we have, I take a drive through the community that I serve. I go and I park in the parking lot at the Ranch Market, or I take a drive to the local park and just park there and that observing of the community around me and observing the joys and the hardships they experience every day, that fortunately, I don’t have to experience every day, reconnects me with that passion, right? Because as we continue to grow in our profession, we don’t always have the same hardships that they experience firsthand anymore. And it’s really important to keep rooted in that. So that’s one of the things that I do to make sure that my passion is real and authentic.
And then also, I’m selective with what my fights are, what my major fights are, so that we’re trying to reach our goal with the least amount of fights necessary, but that we’re winning all of those battles. So I educate myself. I try to see the perspective from the other side. And before I even interact with them, I try to anticipate what might be some of the concerns that they have, and what am I willing to bring to the negotiation table when we’re establishing these policies, so that I’m not blindsided when something may be posed by them, I’ve already considered how I might respond to their position. And the only way to really do that is to have enough integrity to not only be committed to us, to what we believe, but really what we want the outcome to be. And knowing that giving the other side a win isn’t necessarily giving up on what we want the outcome to be. So we have to be bigger, it’s not about us. It’s about what we want the outcome to be for our kids. For us it is equity.
I love the way you couch that all within the context of community. And physically being present and going out in the car to be in community, again, to remind ourselves that public education belongs to the people of the community. And I love that example that you gave about how you’re living that, both at the policy table and just in being present in the community.
You have so much wealth of experiences, both at the personal level and in terms of the workplace in policy work that you bring to the superintendency. Tell me about your background. We would love to share a little bit about your experience across two nations and coming in with your family into the United States. Tell us a little about that.
So I’m from Honduras, San Pedro. And my family is from Lima, which is a smaller town near San Pedro. San Pedro is a big industrial city and that’s where I grew up. We were not people that originated from a lot of wealth. So I always saw my parents working very hard when I was a child in Honduras. And then once we immigrated to the US, the same. So I’ve always seen them working very, very hard. And I understood that in order to be able to move forward that hard work is definitely an element of that. So I would say that growing up poor in Honduras at least, was different from the US because we were poor, but we had access to a lot of natural beauty. And a lot of very healthy foods. It was more expensive for us to go out and get foods that were processed or from fast food restaurants.
And then arriving in Phoenix, specifically where I grew up, it’s an area that’s very impoverished. And people here don’t have the abundance of water or rain to be able to have a lot of trees in their yards or grass or anything like that. So I would say that what I experienced as a poor person in Honduras was quite the opposite here because we didn’t have the natural beauty around us, and there was a lot of graffiti and broken glass and all of that and maybe more access to drugs. It was just really different in that sense and also that nutrition, right. Having access to healthy foods is actually not as common in impoverished areas as in our countries. It’s maybe a little bit backwards, right? Because people can’t afford to go to restaurants as much. I think that was a stark contrast. Also, in Honduras, we had a lot of family everywhere. And here we didn’t. It was just us; my brothers and my dad and mom and I. And we became very, very close growing up, more so than maybe some of the people in my home country who are more connected to the extended family. So we are a little less connected in that sense.
Coming to the US, I went to our public schools, and I had excellent experiences, and I had some difficult experiences. I learned from both of them, especially now being in the field. I did have the opportunity to serve and I would recommend anyone pursuing the superintendency to consider serving at different age groups. So I served as a principal at the elementary system, primary Elementary, and then also at the high school system. And when you have the opportunity to see the whole perspective, and even I got a chance to not leave but taught classes at the university system, when you see the whole gamut from pre-k three year olds, all the way through 22 year olds entering their first year in grad school, maybe you see a more complete picture of what we’re trying to produce and what are the obstacles for kids like us, or not necessarily only kids like us, kids that also experienced hardship.
So I would say, my experience being from another country connects me to people who have similar experiences to what I had. But it also connects me to those that I lead and have met who have experienced other obstacles in life, or other adversities, not necessarily exactly like my own, but the idea that they have adversities and had something that is maybe holding them back. It connects me to a lot of those that I lead, not only Latinos.
And we’re a global society and we’re preparing students to be part of this global society. And your breadth of experiences is just tremendous and is a value added in public education. Dr. Dani Portillo I am so excited about the new role you’re taking on and the continued leadership that you’re engaged with and really thank you for serving the youth of our nation.
Thank you so much. I’m absolutely excited about doing this. I’m excited about being able to open up opportunities for others as well and support them in their pursuits of accomplishing their purpose. And if their purpose is to lead formally in schools, in the roles of principals, or as assistant sups or superintendents, I am very passionate about helping them reach that goal. Thank you so much.