OCTOBER 2022 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
Dr. Karen Pérez is a powerful voice for public education in the Pacific Northwest. She recently sat down over Zoom with Dr. Kishimoto to discuss the role of school board members and her personal journey, which began in El Salvador. Dr. Pérez is president of the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators, a Beaverton School District board member, and a Coalition of Oregon School Administrators equity board member. She has a bachelor’s in Biology and Spanish, a master’s in Special Education and Inclusion, and a doctorate in Education Leadership. As you will learn, she is a tireless advocate for social and educational justice in her community and a role model for other school members. View on Youtube.
Hello, and welcome to the Storie We Tell. I am Christina Kishimoto, and I am excited about our guest today, coming from Beaverton, Oregon. And she’ll have to tell us why she’s in Beaverton, Oregon. So we have Dr. Karen Pérez with us today, who has an amazing story. So here’s the funny thing, I walk into this bustling coffee shop in Beaverton; by her invitation, I have never been to Beaverton, Oregon, at this point. And she’s already in the corner, engaging a community member. And that is so who she is, as I’ve learned. She is just embedded in community, a passionate leader in education, and has a rich and deep family story. I’m excited to talk to Karen today because she is a driving leader in ed policy. So Hi, Karen, how are you doing?
I am excited to talk to you about the work you’re doing in Beaverton. I would like to ask you about this political kind of firestorm we seem to be in the public policy space today, in government, and what’s happening in the political space. There is a lot of political pressure on public schools today. And I wonder whether that makes you think that perhaps we need a different type of board member today to support superintendents to stay focused on students.
Well, that’s a great question. And the current political situation has some very organized extremist groups looking at putting board members in place that would guide instruction in a certain direction, which in many cases for those organized extremists, is a way of having curriculum that is not inclusive of all of our students and our histories. So in that sense, it has been a pretty challenging last year as I’ve served on the school board. With that said, I am the only school board member with an educational background. We have many school board members in our state that don’t have an educational background. It adds some richness because we have different perspectives and different ideas that come to the school board and can then implement them in practice. At the same time, I believe it’s a bit challenging for people that do not have an educational background to kind of catch up and learn all these different complexities of education, and how to best serve our students, and best practices, and then be leading our superintendents and our schools in a certain direction. So I think it takes a variety of people. It’s helpful to have people with an educational background on school boards, like myself. And also not only can we support the superintendent and understand structures of education and policy, but we can also support our fellow board members to understand some of those complexities about education.
So, I introduced you as Dr. Pérez. You’re a board member with a Hispanic background, and we’re going to learn about that in a few minutes. You have your doctorate, and we know how few women, Hispanics, Latinas, and people of color, are getting their doctorates and entering the field of education. Right. So with this kind of preparation you’re talking about, this background, you have an education, I’d love to learn a little more about why you ended up running for the Board of Ed. There are so many other places where you can use your tremendous experience, talent, and voice. Why the Board of Ed and why now?
Yeah, why the Board of Education and why now? So for me, I come from a long line of educators that think not only about their own children but really about the educational needs of all students and families in our communities and the richness that education systems provide for our schools. It happened to be in my life that, for the first time, I was working at an educational nonprofit and not in a school district. So, I’ve served as a dual language teacher for over 18 years and served as a teacher on special assignment at the district level in diversifying the workforce and mentoring new teachers. And I also served at the district level overseeing the multilingual department as well as the equity department.
And like I said, for the first time, I was not in the school district, which allowed me to then be able to apply to be on the school board. So a friend had actually mentioned, have you thought about this? And in reality, I had not thought about stepping up in that way.
I serve on other boards. I am the President of the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators, I am on the governor’s educator advancement Council, and I serve on the COSA equity board, but [had not been] on a school board. So that was a whole experience in itself and learning how to run. I have two children in the school system, two who have graduated already and one in college. And it’s challenging to be a mom, get the kids to school, work full time, and be on the board at the same time. But it’s really enriching because I want the opportunities that are available to my children to be available for all children. And the focus of my work on the school board has really been around safe and culturally responsive education and looking at the access and analyzing the access of dual language education for all students, and seeing how we are actually supporting our multilingual learners in our district. We are a majority-minority district. So the majority of our students come from all over the world and speak over 101 languages. We want to see how we can best support them. And when I looked at our school district data, I noticed that during that COVID time, we had over 10% of our students failing or not passing some of their courses. And a large percentage of those were students who were multilingual learners. So that was an issue that really attracted me to running. And then also, in the state of Oregon, the state passed an all students belong policy that requires every district to have spaces where students, regardless of their race, color, religion, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, and those that come from multilingual families are really supported. And we have policies and procedures in place to make sure that we address racism and other acts toward not only our students but also our staff. And so I felt like my experiences in education, my doctoral preparation, my work on the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators and support, you know, learning from ALAS as well, gave me some skills to be able to support our superintendent in implementing those new policies and laws.
That’s pretty exciting to think that Oregon has stepped into this inclusivity policy. And I’ll be very interested in watching how districts and other organizations take advantage of that policy and language in terms of the work that happens in Oregon, a place that we’re all watching. Because I know there’s been a lot of conversation about the need to diversify leadership in Oregon. And I know there’s been a lot of effort around that, and you’ve been a big part of that. And I thank you for the work you’re leading there. I’d love to learn and make sure that others know a little more about you and your story because your family’s story is so beautiful and interesting. And it’s not one that everyone experiences. It crosses nations; it crosses continents. And so, share a little bit about yourself, your mom, and your family. I was so touched that you were willing to share a part of that personal history with me.
Yeah, of course. I come from strong women educators. My grandmother was a single mom of 10 children who built an elementary school on her property so that all children in Oratorio de Concepción in El Salvador would have access to education. My mother, who was held captive during the Civil War in El Salvador, was leading educational policy in El Salvador herself. She delivered medicines and food to her students and families during the Civil War. And at the age of seven, my family fled my war-torn country of El Salvador and received political asylum here in the US. And I started second grade with an interrupted education, not knowing how to read or write in Spanish or English. A Peace Corps volunteer who lived with us in El Salvador got us to Portland, Oregon. And that’s how I got here, which is right next to Beaverton. She got us garage sale furniture and clothing, rented an apartment for us, found my parents English classes, and registered my brothers and me in schools. She provided us the opportunity to set up and thrive and not just survive in this area where we were the only at that time Latinos and Latinas.
Fast forward to my after-school years when a school let my aunt know my cousin was not learning because she spoke Spanish. According to them, that was the reason. So I went back to school at that time, got my specialist education degree, my elementary teaching license, my English as a second language, dual endorsement, and I returned to the school with my aunt just as my grandmother had done, and my mother had done before me, to advocate for the needs of my cousins and for the evaluations that they needed to do in English and Spanish. So in our family, that commitment to providing students with what they need to thrive and figuring out how to change our systems so that they actually provide the structures and policies that can allow those changes to occur is really at the heart of our family work in education.
That made me think about your first question, and I can go back to that one about why join a school board and why now. School boards in the United States help lead access to all students. School boards in the United States write the policies that allow for all students to thrive or not. School boards in the United States are responsible for the funding that would make education equitable or not. School boards in the United States are in charge of hiring superintendents that share a vision with that community of where the community wants to go and what opportunities a community wants to allow or afford students and staff in thriving.
So it’s critical that we as leaders in the United States that we have Latina leaders or that we as Latinx leaders in the United States, step up and serve on school boards, serve on committees, serve on state boards so that we can support a shared vision of community and access to education for all students, for all families.
When we look at the work that school boards do, when we look at the work that superintendents do currently in the United States, because of the political situation, it’s actually a dangerous job. It’s a dangerous position. Women and men of color are stepping up at this time, and it comes with grave impacts to our families. Currently, I have cameras on my home, something I would have never done before, to ensure that we can provide a safe home for my students, my children, my family, and myself.
As people, I believe, I know that we don’t always have to agree. But I do believe in civil discourse. I believe in the co-construction of ideas, the co-constructions of systems, and the co-deconstructing of systems that can better serve all students.
And that happens through discourse. And that happens through collaboration. So those policy changes that need to occur, occur when people come together, when our city comes together with our school district, with our other organizations and nonprofits to build something that is most supportive of all students and the community. School districts cannot do it on their own. School boards cannot do it on their own. And our staff and superintendents cannot move forward with what’s best for students without a whole community of support, including school boards, other organizations, and state-level organizations. So when we think about one of those policies, your question was, what’s one of those pressing policies? I believe the first is funding for schools. We have federal funding that’s coming in the form of ESSER currently. But that’s going to be going away. ESSER funds have allowed our school district to provide counselors, and social workers, all of which you know are important to a complete support system for our students to grow and thrive and learn academically. And when that funding starts to go away, we have to figure out how we are going to fund even something as simple as a meal for students. During COVID, we have been able to feed all students. And now, with that funding going away, we’re going to go back to feeding some of our students and trying to figure out how to use the monies we have to continue feeding all students. So it’s, I think that some of those basic needs issues that we’ve been able to provide for students during ESSER with ESSER fundings that are going to go away are going to be challenging in the years to come.
So, Karen, you have positioned yourself with a number of seats and engagements that you’ve done with different associations and organizations, and now in the board seat, to lead that civil discourse or some aspects of that and to encourage others in that civil discourse. Because we look at the kind of attack on certain subgroups of our population, certain groups of our communities, we know we need to push back with a real mindset of inclusivity, that every child, that every person, that every human being matters, and matters greatly and needs to be respected and needs to have a voice and community. And I’m just so impressed with how you’ve leaned into these various roles and are leading and honoring others who are leading within their space of influence. That community mindset is what I’ve been just so touched by, and so excited to join you in your space and invite you to join me in my space, again, bringing communities together. So, Dr. Pérez, thank you for your time today to share a little bit of your story.
Your story, like the story of other leading women across this nation, is so motivational to our young ladies, but also to our young men to see that women are leading, to see that when we lock arms, and regardless of gender, and race and religion, that that we’re going to create a more cohesive, respectful community where great things happen. And that’s been your message; great things happen when community comes together.
And my other message to students and for our community that’s listening today is that your race, your color, your religion, your gender identity, your gender expression, your sexual orientation, your national origin, your different abilities, and coming from multilingual communities and families are really superpowers. And those superpowers are what we hold and can use to make systems that will help all of us thrive and not just survive in our current educational climate.
Well said, and a great place to end this conversation with many more conversations still to come. I wish you, Dr. Pérez, all the best, along with the other board members in Beaverton, your superintendent Gustavo Balderas, and all the students and families who make Beaverton this great community. I wish you a great school year. And I look forward to all that you will continue to accomplish.
Thank you. Thanks for this opportunity.
Thank you. Buenos Dias.