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Portrait of Principal Gilma Sanchez

When Gilma Sanchez was a student, she and her family faced traumatic hardships that went unnoticed by teachers. Now an elementary school principal, she prioritizes understanding and nurturing the whole student.

When Gilma Sanchez was nine, she and her mother, father, and five siblings lived in the state of Tamaulipas, in northeastern Mexico. Her mother was a teacher in Valle Hermoso and her father often worked in Houston-area refineries. Though Gilma and her siblings were born in Brownville, Texas, most of the life they knew was full of the beauty of Tamaulipas. There, family life was the center of everything. Growing up, children played outside most of the time and in school, they celebrated special events with parades, folkloric dances, and poetry.

But when Gilma was 10, her father died. His loss created severe emotional and financial challenges for the family. Gilma’s mother, hoping to give her daughter a better chance for stability and education, made the heart-wrenching decision to send Gilma to Baytown, southeast of Houston, to live with her father’s relatives.

“It was very difficult,” says Sanchez, reflecting on this time from her office at Barrington Elementary, on Austin’s north side, where she has been principal for four years. “I had to learn the English language and live with relatives while visiting my mom only twice a year.” She recalls the positive influence of a teacher in Baytown who became an early mentor, and though she would eventually move back home with her mother and family, “by 12th grade we were essentially homeless. My mother couldn’t afford rent on the apartment on the Texas side of the border, so we lived in Valle Hermoso and went to school in Brownsville.”

Sanchez and her younger sister would wake at 5 AM to begin their journey to school, which included a bus trip that started in one country and ended in another. “We had to walk for miles, sometimes in pouring rain, and clean ourselves up in the bus station before school.”

Sanchez graduated from high school with good grades, but it saddens her that no teacher or administrator noticed the hardships she and her sister went through. “No one even asked,” she says.

That lack of acknowledgement of the personal struggles she and and other students faced would have a profound influence on the direction of Sanchez’s career.

Because she didn’t receive counseling that implied otherwise, the young high school graduate assumed she had to pay for college herself. “So I immediately started working. I became assistant lead cashier at Weiner’s,” she says, laughing. She worked forty hours a week, got married, started a family, and kept pushing forward on her college goals until she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American and began her career as an elementary school teacher in Weslaco, Texas.

“Through it all, there was never a question as to what I would do. The drive was always in me to finish school and to become a teacher. That was a given,” she explains. “But I thought teaching would be the end goal.”

She quickly found that although she enjoyed it, classroom teaching limited the impact she had on students’ lives.

“I wanted to give what I hadn’t gotten to my students.” She decided to return to school to become a counselor. After two years counseling at Reagan High School in Austin, Sanchez was a counselor at Langford Elementary for three years. “I wanted to help with the early stage of students’ lives. Counseling not only let me help with their emotional issues, but it let me see the administrative side of education.”

It turned out to be great preparation for what would become the next step in her evolution as an educational leader. Both an assistant principal and principal at Langford recommended Sanchez for the UT Principalship Program at the College of Education.

According to Sanchez, “The program built our capacity as leaders.”

The courses were aligned with what you’d really see in the school setting. We tied current research to real events that allowed us to see inside a school—beyond the classroom perspective—before becoming responsible for a school.”

By the time she’d begun her second year, Sanchez was assistant principal of Austin’s Cunningham and Zilker Elementary schools. “Being able to start as an administrator while still in the program meant that I received a lot of valuable support from my cohort and program leaders while I was in my first year as an assistant principal.”

She says that the program helped her look at the overall organization and build capacity on her campus. “As a leader, I look at the data consistently. I have conversations with teachers. I visit the classrooms. I counsel. I focus on the emotional state of students and help the teachers do the same. But I can’t do everything. I have to build the capacity of my team and teachers, as well as the parents and other specialists on campus. It’s a holistic approach.”

That holistic approach is important at every school, and Barrington is no exception. “Seventy-four percent of our students are bilingual. Many of them are homeless or from immigrant families where the socioeconomic status is low.” She gestures to a closet in her office, “I keep clothes here for students who need them.” She also keeps a pair of flats handy, so she can change out of heels to quickly track down a student and keep him or her safe.

Sanchez believes the holistic approach to educational leadership that the program prepared her for has helped her improve the educational experience for her young students. “I can tell that the campus has improved based on parental feedback. The parents feel safe and welcome here and that positively affects student behavior.” She has personally hired most of the teachers now working at Barrington, and she’s had candid conversations with them.

“I explain what we are about,” she says. “Teachers can’t come to Barrington expecting only to teach. The students have emotional needs, and understanding and tending to them have to be the basis of what we do.”

“I explain to my teachers, ‘You cannot make assumptions.’ A lot of the parents don’t read or write. Many of them work well into the night or early in the morning. It’s not unusual for me to see little kids sitting on the curb, waiting for school to open, when I arrive here at 6:30 in the morning. You must build those relationships with the students and the parents. Once you do that, they will trust you. Because of my background, I don’t need a translator and that also helps with the parental partnerships.”

When reflecting on her passion for the community at Barrington, Sanchez says, “My school is not at the top academically yet, but that is our goal. Right now, we are taking care of challenges as we support the whole child. I love what I do, even with the struggles that we face as a campus.”

She pauses and flashes a brilliant smile: “I tell my students that challenges are there to build you and make you stronger.”

And Gilma Sanchez has the story to prove it.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey