I am with Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez from the great state of Illinois. Dr. Alvarez, I have been so impressed with your leadership and the work you do locally in your state and nationally. Welcome.
Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
How long have you been a superintendent, and where?
Sure, I don’t know when you can start saying you’re no longer new. I just completed a year on July 1st. I am a superintendent at Forest Park in Illinois District 91. Before that, I was chief of schools overseeing 30 schools. I’m now overseeing four schools. Last year I led five. Unfortunately, we closed a school, which was very difficult to do in my first year. However, I think it’s for the best for everyone there.
Forest Park is about four miles from downtown Chicago. It is still very urban. We like to be known for having that quaint kind of urban feel. We’re also known for having more people dead than alive because we have a lot of cemeteries. They’re throughout Forest Park.
All the schools are within a three-mile radius of Forest Park, so it’s a small district. I have less than 700 students at Forest Park. Coming from Chicago, I had something like 16,000 students under me, and now I have less than 700, less than I ever had as a principal.
The district itself is very diverse. We have many different racial backgrounds. And when it comes to marital status, you’ll see same-sex and biracial marriages and different backgrounds and religions. But when you get to our fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, most of our children are black.
It sounds like you have this beautifully diverse community. It sounds very intimate. And yet you have the city resources just around the corner. Has the experience been good for you?
Yes, it has been good for me. The families and children have been more than welcoming. We just had our back-to-school event. Families were excited to come back, and they were very complimentary. So that’s the good feeling you get from our families. And they’re very involved, whether listening to our board meetings, emailing me, or involved in our unified parent-teacher organization. One of our goals this year was to unify the North and South side parent organizations. And we’ve accomplished that. And those who aren’t involved, we’re going to get them involved. We have our silent participants and viewers, and there are ways of getting them involved, whether through surveys or just reaching out one way or another.
When we talk about having an equity mindset and an equity agenda to ensure all students feel included, there are two other parts. There’s the teacher engagement and the staff part, and there is also the parent and family engagement part, which when we talk about community engagement, sometimes we’re not sure where to go with that.
How do you push yourself to think more broadly about empowering parents to be part of the public school agenda and empowering the community? Are there people or organizations you network with to help push your thinking and innovation in this space? Nationally, we all need to be pushed on this agenda with community and family engagement.
Coming in, it was just a listening tour. I found out the parents didn’t have that sense of belonging. They felt that others were speaking for them or that what they said didn’t matter. And so, there’s been a shift. I’m trying to get them to understand that when I ask for their opinions, it matters to us as a district.
We just started a strategic plan that goes to 2026. And under that plan, we have family community engagement as our second priority. Without them, we can’t do much. One of the things I have mentioned to my principals is that we can’t be the best schools without our families. Those are the first educators of our children.
So that’s a shift that we’re trying to make. We’re creating partnerships with the public library, police department, fire department, village hall, and community center. We now have a theater department here in Forest Park. We’re reaching out to the local colleges, the universities, Concordia University, and their UIC, asking for insight into what I’m missing out on. I think I’m asking the right questions, but until you start listening to others, you realize there’s more to acquire and more to hear.
And then the last thing that we’ve done is we partnered with Bell Network, with the National Education Project (NEP), they are making sure we are asking the right questions and involving the right stakeholders. We are training our board in DEI to understand what that looks like for hiring and what it looks like when it comes to involvement and engagement.
It’s a work in progress because equity work is not easy; it’s uncomfortable. And we have to place ourselves in this space where we will be uncomfortable. But we also know healing needs to be done. So, when we’re okay with that, we’ll be able to accomplish many things.
That’s so powerful in terms of a perspective to bring to leadership. And one thing that really resonates with me is where you started. Parents felt like they didn’t have a voice or weren’t being heard. And that’s such an important part of equity. It’s about who’s at the table. Who gets heard. Because, while at the table, you can be there and not truly have a voice.
And students are obviously an important constituent of ours. So as we talk about your equity agenda in Forest Park, what would you say is your primary lever of change to get at that equity agenda, to get at that student voice, to get at that student empowerment and success for all students?
So, coming in, if you look at Forest Park scores, they’re not that great. We were known for having small classrooms with two adults per classroom. However, the achievement was just not where it should be. And so, as I started looking a little bit closer, I realized that teachers, students, and administrators did not feel empowered. Everyone told me they want collaboration and their voices to be heard. And they want a solid curriculum in which everyone understands and has input. And so, if they didn’t feel it, you can imagine what our children are feeling.
We started a design team through the Bell Network for our sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students. The children said, ‘we want the curriculum to start making sense. When I go to math class, social studies, or English Language Arts, we want it to make sense. We want to know the teachers are collaborating so when they are teaching us; we connect the dots.’ Again, this came from the children.
They also told us that they want to see representation within the curriculum. They want to see that they matter. They want to see more than stories of slavery which tend to come out a lot. They want to hear about their strengths and how they have contributed to our history. And they will continue to contribute to it.
They also wanted to see representation within the teacher pool, as well.
So those were three major things the students said to us.
We want to ensure we are developing these curriculum maps and making sure that student voices are heard and the teacher’s voices are also heard.
And we’re going to bring it to our younger students as well. So, from kindergarten up, we will have little design teams so our principals and teachers can hear them too.
For students to raise an issue that gets at the very heart of quality education, inclusivity, representation, quality content, the assurance that courses make sense one with the other, and that teachers are collaborating, my goodness, they got to the very bottom of it with the curriculum piece!
What have you found you’ve been able to lead through successfully as Superintendent, and what might be some areas that were more challenging for you in terms of you focusing on this area of curriculum as part of your equity agenda? Have you been supported with this? Are there things that have been challenging?
Yes, we’re still in growing pain, as I just completed the first year. We did complete a math curriculum for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, where we had teachers involved in looking at three types of curriculum and discussing them. And eventually included the children in looking through the curriculum and choosing which one they felt most connected to. But, more importantly, we need to ensure we’re hitting our curriculum standards, not watering it down. After this pandemic, a lot was happening. Everyone is talking about learning loss. I don’t want to talk about learning loss anymore. Let’s start teaching the curriculum they don’t know and stop teaching what they already know. And so that kind of conversation has been happening over and over again.
Finally, we got the math curriculum approved and ready for this fall. We are now looking at the ELA curriculum, social studies, and science. Really important to me is science because I was a science teacher for 13 years. I want to bring STEM to kindergarten up to eighth grade. Our children need to be focused on that kind of debate, that productive struggle. They need to have the wonderings and curiosity that we don’t want them to lose when they get to the upper grades. You’ll see it in fifth grade; if they don’t have that curiosity, the expectation level goes down, and we must keep that going.
And so, the growing pains are just ensuring we’re getting teachers involved. We’re making sure they have common planning time and start looking at data, looking at student work, and filling in those gaps.
We hired academic coaches for the first time ever, which is going to help us with the curriculum. So, we have four academic coaches, one for social studies and science, one who looks at early childhood, one for math, and an ELA. They are looking at Special Ed and emergent bilinguals, as well. So, they are going throughout our four schools and coaching our teachers to make sure they’re being supported in the curriculum. They will also be sitting with them during grade level time and talking to them during their school leadership ensembles after hours.
Those teachers are discussing how they will move forward with powerful practices within the instructional core. So these are big moves we’re making for this coming year. And the moves are going to be coming from our teachers. They can’t come from us; they have to come from our teachers.
And then, we’ll be meeting with an administrative team and inviting some of our children to discuss how it’s working for them. But, again, having this live and not just in a survey and having children from different grade levels say how they feel. We want to know what they are saying to their parents. What are they proud of? What are they acquiring? And what did they learn? So, these are the moves we’re making for this year to make our vision come alive.
And also, that sense of belonging, because a curriculum that’s most worthwhile is one where children and teachers feel that sense of belonging.
You’ve raised that issue of a sense of belonging at several levels. And I think that’s the piece we’re all being pushed on, post-pandemic. We need this acknowledgment and a greater awareness of how well our kids feel they belong, and they’re welcome, their views, they can see themselves in the curriculum, they have a voice, it’s heard. And that belongingness component, we are finally talking about the power of that and the need to redress that.
And I wonder, from the mindset perspective, what Forest Park is doing as a collective team to do the work differently. How do we make sure we’re flexible as leaders and teachers to think about this issue of belonging? And, to think about this issue of representation and voice differently, knowing that we have to continuously modernize pedagogical approaches, modernize the engagement piece, and how teaching and learning happen.
The biggest thing is, yes, there’s a curriculum, and we want to make sure that it’s challenging and rigorous. But there’s also that other type of curriculum that we forget, like recess, lunch, and the spaces we’re providing for them to feel quiet and reflect.
What are the after-school programs that we’re offering? How we’re reaching out to parents and having these great conversations. And how often are we doing that? All of that is part of that sense of belonging that sometimes we forget. And what is it that we’re not teaching?
So that’s why it’s important to have that voice. It’s that art curriculum Elliot Eisner talks about. What is it we’re not talking about? And how are we making sure we hear it, so we don’t forget it? Because I know, as a child, I always wondered, who chose my curriculum? Why was it chosen? How was it acquired? I realize it’s us. It’s the superintendent. It’s the board. It’s the district-level cabinet and the administrators. We have the power to provide that. And if we choose not to, we could do that as well. So, making sure that the voices of everyone, including our families, are heard so that we are embedding them into the curriculum.
The biggest thing in the curriculum is the addition of Asian American history, which has never happened before. We haven’t had that, so let’s start talking about it further. We’re talking differently about our Muslim brothers and sisters. How’s that embedded into the curriculum in a positive light? So, we are not just talking about the things that have happened in the past. Too often, curriculum brings in the sad components, and we want to be uplifting. And that’s where the sense of belonging comes in.
We hear these days how politicized curriculum is, but curriculum is always political. Someone’s deciding what our children learn, and decision-makers, administrators, superintendents, and board members are involved. You talked about all these parties that have a say and are empowered to make decisions about what kids are learning and how they’re learning it through this curriculum policy structure that is put in place in our districts. So, it’s not necessarily that it’s more politicized. But, we’re at another point in history, and it’s showing up in new ways. So, I wonder, as a superintendent, are you feeling that pressure? Or are you surrounded by supporters that are allowing you to focus on equity? Do you have champions around you? Or are you starting to feel the pressure of what’s happening nationally, which feels very chaotic right now.
I’m blessed because I have a board that supports me. I’m also blessed because I’m the president of the Illinois Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators (IALSA), and we speak a lot about policy. So, I’m very involved in our State of Illinois and nationwide with ALAS, the Administrators of Latinos Superintendents and Administrators. And we talk about policy, particularly when it comes to servicing Latino children. But not only Latino children, but we’re also looking at all children in general. So, I’m exposed to the policies there.
And I also get exposure from my colleagues for some of the magnificent things they’re doing.
We have policy committee meetings, which I lead with two of my board members, and we speak through these policies, one of which is curriculum. They’ve always asked, how can we support you? I haven’t felt any pushback when it comes to that. I think they’ve hired me to make those decisions. I believe in leadership; I believe it stems from the top leadership and trickles down to our children. A part of that leadership is that I’m not the end-all. That’s why you hire smarter people. And that’s why your administrators need to be smarter. My district-level people need to be smarter. And yes, my children too. I’m at an age where I don’t know what’s happening at a 12-year-old or seven-year-old age that I may have forgotten. And that’s what makes them smarter than me at that level. They’re sharing little things like acronyms or culture with me and things that help them learn better. Being vulnerable, accepting, and patient is part of leadership. And I don’t know it all. But I do know instruction. I do know what good instruction looks like. And I’m open to what others have to say to make things better, especially if it’s smarter and not harder.
So, governance, cohesion, and structure obviously allow a district to move forward. And we see, nationally, districts that stall and take steps back in the middle of crises because of the breakdown in governance. So, nothing can move forward without that cohesiveness you’re talking about. I’ve always been so impressed by your policy knowledge, curriculum knowledge, and engagement at the local and national level to push that conversation, especially around the equity agenda, which is so important.
But I’d love to hear a little more about who Liz is, as we all affectionately call you. Why did you pursue the superintendency, as there are other leadership jobs that are not as complex and difficult as the school superintendent is today?
I decided to make that step to superintendency mainly because I was scared. The fear said, if you’re fearful, you need to do it. And I was fearful because there were not many people of color in the superintendency. And I knew, as a child, the importance it meant for me. And when I hear my own children saying, I need to see people at higher levels that look like me, when I hear from my former students, or even some of the teachers that I’ve had, saying, you don’t know how much it matters to see you at that level. It’s a scary feeling, and you don’t want to make a mistake. And so, one of the things is, you know what, you have to do it, and you’re going to make mistakes, and you just need to own up to it. This goes back to being part of ALAS, si no nosotros, quien? If not us, who? Because I’ve seen what happens when you don’t step up and who decides to make the call when it comes to curriculum and saying this is the curriculum most worthwhile for you. And then, all of a sudden, I’m not represented in it. And then our children are not represented.
Our futures are looking very, very different now. And most of our schools are majority black and brown. And yet we have still not moved. Schools have been so slow in advancing in any way. And when I see people like you, Christina, and some of my colleagues, that keeps me going. I get really excited seeing that and knowing I can continue to do the superintendency. Because, believe me, you always get that voice in the back of your head. But then that other voice says, nope, you gotta keep on going.
And all it takes is one other person, a small child, as soon as you walk into a classroom saying, I’m so glad you’re here, or I appreciate you, or those little notes you get from children and teachers. I keep a bucket of those. That’s my bucket of encouragement.
And so that’s why I do it. I also do it because I think back to the Liz when I was younger. I talk a lot about a sense of belonging because I didn’t feel that as a child. I didn’t see it in the curriculum. I felt like I wouldn’t succeed because of what I was being told, the color of my skin, or even my beliefs in certain curriculum. So I share a lot about one time bringing up about slavery or evolution and my teachers really ridiculing me and killing my spirit. And I don’t want that happening to any other child. I want that to die with me. So we want to make sure children’s spirits are re-lit, engaged, and excited so that they know that they can do these powerful things because that’s who we’re leaving the world to. And so that’s why curriculum is so important.
And if we don’t have the children evaluating it and understanding their identity, agency, and authority within this, then we’ve done nothing regarding a sense of belonging and curriculum. It’s worthwhile.
You said a lot of powerful pieces there. And I want to pull one out, which is, absent of us stepping up and leading, someone else will step up and lead. And we’re at a point in our nation’s history where we are pushing on the next level of the civil rights agenda, the next inclusivity agenda, the next point in history where our nation is diversifying. So, we should be seeing that in all aspects of education, access to economic empowerment, and so forth, and so on. And so, our kids need to see that we are a nation where we all have the opportunity to lead and that we are all part of leading us into this next generation. So, I think that’s such a powerful piece, not to wait and let others lead, but to think about how we’re stepping up in our sphere of influence and leading in these ways that I think are quite significant and have tremendous imprints on our children’s lives.
We can’t let the fear hold us back. And one thing I know, I don’t have control of everyone else, but I have control of myself. At least I know that much.
So I would like to end today by asking you who are your biggest supporters. Who do you turn to when you’re not looking for advice on work, and you’re just looking for joy, for support? Who’s there for you?
Absolutely. There are several people. I have a group of ALAS women who are amigas, hermanas that I go to with questions. I also go to my daughter and my son, who have been supporters of me for a very long time. They’re grown now, and I feel like they’re my friends as well. My brothers and sisters, my biological ones. And then there are professors I still go to when I have questions. And there’s one in heaven, or actually, he’s all around us, he’s in the universe. But another guy Dr. Bernardo Gallegos. I love him to death. He’s the one who saw something in me when I was not even an administrator. He encouraged me to walk through those doors and told me not to be fearful. And he is my Coyote. He guides me. I think of him often when I have difficult times and reach out to him through prayer or reflection. And also, you, Christina. You have been very impactful to me. I want you to know that. And there are other superintendents I reached out to. The pandemic has brought out true characters that will be there for me, and I am blessed with abundance, honestly!
Liz, thank you for joining me today. I know we’re talking on a Sunday, and you and I both have a tradition of having early dinner on Sunday. And I appreciate you taking the time to be with me because your story will really help support other women following your path. And so, I thank you for leading in this Country, your community, and being a tremendous voice for young people in this nation. You play such an important role, and I’m so proud of your work. I’m a big fan and supporter of yours, just like so many people are.
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Con todo amor! Gracias!