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Texas Education Abroad

What starts here changes the world. Explore the ways our students and faculty study around the globe.

Dr. Bartholomew's class in switzerland

Sport Psychology in Switzerland

Students from the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and other UT departments studied in Lausanne, Switzerland, during the 2017 Maymester. Department Chair John Bartholomew taught a course on Sport Psychology at the University of Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

Dr. Skerret with Scotland government officials

Allison Skerrett Informs Scotland Government

Associate Professor Allison Skerrett was chosen as a global scholar to address educational inequalities in Scotland. Skerrett researches how to better understand the educational needs and gifts of a multicultural student population.

Scotland, United Kingdom

Dr. Jim Hoffman with students in Mozambique

Jim Hoffman Extends Literacy in Africa

Since the late 1990s, James Hoffman has worked in South Africa, Malawi, and Mozambique on literacy projects and teacher education supported by different agencies including private foundations in South Africa, USAID and the Canadian government.  A professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, his work is part of a collaborative effort with faculty at UT San Antonio.

Mozambique, Africa

North Cooc photo

North Cooc Researches Special Needs Teacher Preparation

North Cooc conducts research at the OECD headquarters in Paris on special needs teacher preparedness, and the factors that may predict differences globally.

Paris, France

Faculty in Ecuador with a longhorns banner

Health Outcomes in Ecuador

For more than 10 years, Julie Maslowsky has conducted research in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Quito, Ecuador, to help improve health outcomes for women and babies. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

Quito, Ecuador

Video conference with New Zealand University

Distance Learning in New Zealand

Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education, leads a collaboration with researchers at New Zealand’s Victoria Wellington University. He and students in the autism and developmental disabilities research group connect regularly through virtual conferencing.

Wellington, New Zealand

Pearl diver in Japan

Pearl Diving in Japan

Hirofumi Tanaka of the Kinesiology and Health Education Department traveled to Japan to research pearl divers, and the effect that diving has on their physiological attributes such as arterial stiffness.

Tsukuba, Japan

ESL in Guatemala study abroad

ESL in Guatemala

Faculty from the Bilingual/Bicultural Education and Cultural Studies in Education programs bring a group of UT students on study abroad program to Antigua, Guatemala, where students take classes and volunteer at ESL schools.

Antigua, Guatemala

Juarez Girls Rising book cover

Claudia Cervantes-Soon Publishes Book on Juarez Girls

Cervantes-Soon’s Juarez Girls Rising is told through the stories of 10 girls attending school in Ciudad de Juarez, Mexico. The book provides a counternarrative to stories of regional violence, focusing on agency and resistance students can gain from a school community.

Juarez, Mexico

Photo of Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper

Psychological Advantages for China’s Only Children

Research from Professor Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper shows that China’s only children are more likely to have educated parents and, though they do receive more resources, expectations and pressures placed upon them.

China

Photo of Ricardo Ainslie

Ricardo Ainslie Conducts Low-Income Needs Assessment in Mexico

Professor Ricardo Ainslie and a research team have created a comprehensive assessment of health needs, determinants, and resources in underserved areas of Puebla, Mexico.

Puebla, Mexico

Photo of Soyoung Park

Soyoung Park Looks at Mental Health in South Korea

Special Education Assistant Professor Soyoung Park is working with a research team to use qualitative research in helping shift the public mindset on mental health and suicide in South Korea.

South Korea

Photo of Kevin Cokley and Team Going to Ghana

Kevin Cokley Helps Mitigate Effects of Colorism in Ghana

Professor Kevin Cokley is working with a research team to identify and mitigate the negative effects of colorism in Ghana.

Ghana, West Africa

barbell in gym

Establishing a Fitness Center in Shanghai

Professors Xiaofen Keating and Louis Harrison, Jr. are establishing an American Fitness Center in Shanghai aiming to introduce U.S. fitness culture to the Chinese population.

Shanghai, China

Huriya Jabbar examines the influence of market forces on the nation’s charter school environment.

Nowhere are charter schools more closely examined than in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city scrapped its failing school system. Today, more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend tuition-free charter schools.

Some of the hopes for increased student achievement have come to pass in this grand experiment—various test scores have risen and completion rates are edging up.

And most of these schools are doing what their champions said they would in response to competition: they’re improving academic and operational quality.

What’s surprised researchers, officials and parents, though, is the extent to which market forces and competition affect how school administrators find and admit students, how students with learning difficulties have sometimes been excluded, and how the changes have influenced the teacher labor market.

“New Orleans is the city where charter school success is being examined and defined,” says Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor in the Educational Policy and Planning program in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education.

Jabbar has been studying the charter school system in New Orleans for almost four years and is a nationally recognized expert on school choice and competition among schools.

Her background is in economics and early in her academic career she developed an interest in how public schools compare to the private sector.

“I’m interested in how markets interact with government. Markets don’t create equity. So my ongoing questions are, ‘What’s the role of the private sector in providing social services, and What is the role of government oversight of private organizations in public education, like charter schools?’”

“The theory is that competition puts healthy pressure on charter school leaders to improve their academic services, programs, extracurricular activities, or some combination of those, to attract and retain families,” she says.

According to Jabbar, most studies of New Orleans’ charter schools have missed an important point. “They assume that school leaders are aware of competitive pressures and can respond in productive ways.

“When I began my research in 2012, I wanted to know what actually happens in a competitive marketplace of schools. Are leaders aware of their competition? Which schools do they view as rivals and why?”

Jabbar also asked, “Do school leaders respond to competitive pressure by improving their schools academically?”

The results of her research showed that in the short term, the answer is no. “Competition places pressure on schools, but the strategies schools use to compete are not necessarily those that policy makers expected,” she says.

Every Kid is Money

Advocates of charter schools point to the fact that if schools don’t meet the standards of their charter, they will be closed.

Jabbar’s research found that some did focus on improving academics. About a third “added what they call ‘innovative curricular programs’ to attract parents, which is what we want them to be doing,” she says.

But to keep their charters, “almost all of the schools began to engage in superficial strategies that don’t generate  real change. The other concerning finding was that one third of the schools screened out students, even though they were supposed to accept everyone.”

In one interview, Jabbar quoted a principal as saying, “Every kid is money.” Another said, “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

This short-term focus on keeping their charters and attracting federal and local funding brought in by students meant that charter school principals were less likely to strengthen academics.

To position themselves to attract the right students, according to Jabbar’s research, principals engaged in a “selection strategy,” meaning they focused on activities such as moving low-performing students out of the schools, increasing targeted marketing and advertising, or both.

Some schools hosted invitation only open houses where they dissuaded parents whose students had poor academic records and could lower test scores. Some chose not to fill seats left empty mid-year by students who didn’t return or who were pushed out.

They didn’t want to fill those seats with students who might have been out of school for a few months or who had moved from school to school due to issues like behavior.

Jabbar says there were also signs of “cream-skimming”—leaders targeting affluent or higher-achieving students for supposedly open-enrollment schools.

Turning Point

In New Orleans, the model for charter school enrollment continues to evolve.

The focus on marketing and creamskimming by the schools prompted change in the way charter schools enroll students.

Parents now have access to a universal application to centralize enrollment. Parents list schools in order of preference and submit online.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems”

Using objective criteria, the system then assigns a child to a school.

“When schools can’t directly enroll students, they can’t screen out particular types of students as easily. It helps provide equal access,” Jabbar says.

And New Orleans continues to redefine its role as a regulatory body when it comes to K-12 education. The city is moving from a free market experiment in public education to one where government addresses market failures and concerns of equity.

Future Research Questions

Jabbar’s research has the attention of local and national organizations. She partners with Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University to disseminate research. Her findings have also received extensive local and national press coverage.

She’s extending her research to charter school programs in San Antonio and Detroit where, unlike New Orleans, there is more competition from a traditional public school system. In the spring, she was chosen as a 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.

“I’ll be exploring ways in which teachers find and choose jobs in cities with high numbers of charter schools,” she says. “I want to learn how school choice and charters influence the teacher labor market because voluntary moves impact the distribution of teacher quality across schools.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems.”

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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

Superintendent Paul Cruz

Superintendent Cruz speaking at the convocation for incoming graduate students in Educational Administration.

When Paul Cruz was growing up, the South Texas native was encouraged by his family to pursue higher education and strongly encouraged by his father to attend The University of Texas at Austin. “My dad wanted to attend UT, but he never did, so he really wanted his children to fulfill that dream.” Despite an initial preference for Texas A&M, Cruz acquiesced to his father’s wishes and became a Longhorn, enrolling as an education major with a specialization in English.

“What sparked my desire to teach was my love of literature and enjoyment of literature classes. I particularly enjoy Emily Dickinson and have always liked talking to others about her work,” he says. “As an undergraduate I took courses in literacy and reading, which I later used as a classroom teacher. I also had a chance to study science methods and instruction from Dr. James Barufaldi. Through him, I learned how to engage students in their own learning.”

“To this day, when I observe classroom teaching, I am often looking for the level of engagement of students,” Cruz remarks of his visits to classes within the Austin school district.

Cruz taught for several years, but he always had a goal of earning his Ph.D. before the age of 30. He returned to UT and at 29, earned a doctorate from the College of Education. “I decided to pursue the Ph.D. in educational leadership, specifically focused on urban school superintendency. Also, working at the Texas Education Agency gave me a statewide perspective and understanding of urban school environments,” he explains.

While in the program, he became a fellow in the Cooperative Superintendency Program, which prepares future urban school superintendents. “I learned organizational theory, political environments of school systems—and the importance of establishing a strong network,” Cruz says. “I was taught about the importance of developing positive relationships with leaders throughout the country and state, in part from the example of [College of Education] Dean Manuel Justiz, who is an amazing leader. He really understands the value of relationships and partnerships.”

Superintendent Paul Cruz

Superintendent Cruz shares insights on key attributes of leadership at Education Administration convocation.

According to Cruz, developing positive strategic relationships is essential to addressing the challenges urban school districts face. “Urban schools today have to be nimble and responsive to meet the education needs of current students, especially in the face of ever-changing demographics. It’s important to establish relationships with different organizations within communities, from governmental entities to area nonprofits.” He says that developing these partnerships and collaborating with organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and Communities in Schools can help school districts provide supports for students and their families.

A network of supports for students and their families is also important for urban school districts because many districts struggle with a lack of resources. “Our district [AISD] is property wealthy, and we have a recapture system, which translates into sending local dollars to the state. That adds complexity to how we meet the needs of our students,” says Cruz. But he adds, “It’s fun to collaborate with organizations to problem-solve better solutions to our complex problems.”

“There’s so much human potential in our students,” he says. “We all want them to learn more, experience more. We have high expectations of them and want to facilitate their learning without placing any cap on it.”

The superintendent also leads by example as a lifelong learner. Even after 29 years as a teacher and leader in education, his own love of literature, for example, remains unabated. “I have apps on my phone and keep a book open all the time. My current one is a collection of Emily Dickinson. I still really love her poetry, and it’s easy to fit a quick read in between meetings and other activities.”

-Photos by Christina S. Murrey

A University of Texas College of Education Ph.D. student reflects on summer internship at the U.S. Department of Education

Anthony LeClair

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Educational Policy and Planning doctoral student Anthony Vincent LeClair spent part of this past summer in Washington, D.C. as an Archer Scholar. He describes the career-making experience as invaluable. Here are his reflections of his work.

I spent this past summer in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) at the U.S. Department of Education. There, I became part of the research staff providing technical expertise and policy recommendations to presidential appointees, including the Secretary of Education. This office relies heavily on the rigorous academic research being conducted in our institutions of higher education and our not-for-profit policy and research centers. Research is employed daily to craft policy recommendations, respond to criticism, and to address the issues under the department’s authority.

The office moves quickly and everyone puts in 10 hours daily. A “high-boil ask” may need to be turned around in less than an hour. This includes vetting the Secretary or an Undersecretary’s speeches for factual accuracy, running quick data analyses, and providing technical assistance on the scope and practicality of new research findings. A “low-boil ask,” like drafting research background and justification for a large-scale department study to be vetted by The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), will need to be on your director’s desk in 10 days. This process, often contracted out, includes discussing pertinent issues with a purposive sample of schools and organizations, crafting survey instruments, calculating the full cost to all parties, and creating a compelling written case for its necessity. All projects occur simultaneously, and staff is held to the highest of standards. It can be chaotic, but there is nothing like knowing you are essential to the department’s short-term and long-term work.

Beyond the everyday quick-turnaround work, I carried two long-term projects this summer. The first required a fair amount of discretion, as it applied the department’s long-term understanding and future plans for school-level racial and economic integration. I was incredibly privileged to take lead on the presentation of research regarding integration and segregation in the United States. I provided a comprehensive look at the state of the field. The most consistent finding in relation to school racial composition shows black students are disproportionately negatively impacted by remaining in segregated schools. Widely circulated, this review will be an important document for the department moving forward.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Anthony LeClair

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Anthony LeClair

The second project, which will have a greater national impact on the research community, pertained to statutory and regulatory guidance for states reporting their “economically disadvantaged” student statistics. While most states, including Texas, use the highly convenient, though poor, proxy of Free and Reduced Price Lunch to determine disadvantage, the new Community Eligibility Provision has rendered this proxy effectively unreliable. States are currently grappling with this problem and are either looking for guidance from the department, or moving forward with direct certification of students whose families are enrolled in joint federal-state entitlement programs (SNAP, TANF, FDPIR). This second option, if used exclusively, will render all students who are legally ineligible for federal and state assistance (including children of undocumented immigrants and any child living in a residence where a convicted state drug felon resides) to be designated “economically advantaged.”

This change will have significant consequences for our students, as well as our states. Our working team’s recommendation addressed this very significant issue. The Department of Education is currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to draft regulations addressing which students shall not be left out of this calculation, while our staff is pushing statutory tweaks as the House and Senate confer on ECAA.

This internship was the most substantive and rewarding experience of my career. In the months that followed, I was heavily recruited by a handful of other offices and another agency. Each person I spoke with strongly encouraged me to apply for the Presidential Management Fellow program, which is the quickest path to being hired by a federal agency. I met, had intense and substantive conversations, and became friends with major allies of public education in D.C.

This experience allowed me to start my career in the most meaningful manner possible.

Early Childhood Education Assistant Professor Jennifer Adair discusses how teachers and administrators can foster children’s natural leadership skills and sense of agency.

Angela Valenzuela, professor in both educational policy and planning and the educational administration departments, challenges educators to rethink hierarchal concepts of leadership and move toward one that incorporates communities and individuals.

Educational Administration Professor Mark Anthony Gooden, director of The University of Texas at Austin Principalship Program, discusses how the program prepares educators to become servant leaders who transform the education landscape.

New book explores what inhibits and promotes Latino male college success

Victor Saenz

Ensuring the Success of Latino Males in Higher Education: A National Imperative, a new book co-edited by Associate Professor and Executive Director of Project MALES Dr. Victor Saenz, shares new research from emerging scholars and seasoned practitioners that shines light on factors that inhibit or promote Latino male student success at four-year institutions, community colleges, and secondary institutions. The book both informs policy and practice across the education continuum and provides a call to action.

The question of why Latino males are losing ground in accessing higher education, relative to their peers, is an important and complex one, and it lies at the heart of the book. There are several broad themes highlighted, along with the four dimensions of policy, theory, research, and practice.

“Our new book comes at a time when national, state, and local conversations are expanding the definition of males of color to include Latino males and other historically marginalized groups of male students,” says Saenz, who teaches in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, and who holds a faculty appointment with the UT Center for Mexican American Studies. “The chapters within this book collectively represent a timely and necessary contribution to these emerging conversations.”

Co-edited by Saenz, Dr. Luis Ponjuan and Dr. Julie L. Figueroa with a foreword by Dr. William Serrata, the book is designed as a primer for policy makers at all levels as well as scholars in higher education.

According to the professors, anyone who wants to better understand the various issues related to Latino male higher education access and degree attainment and also wants to work toward addressing a growing gender gap can benefit from the lessons in their book.

Says Saenz, “The book is beneficial to community leaders and activists who want a comprehensive discussion about the challenges Latino male students face in schools and how they can work proactively to overcome those challenges. The shifting demographic reality represented by the growth of the Latina/o community also gives our focus on Latino males a singular urgency.”

Visit Amazon to order a copy of the book, which was published in January by Stylus Publishing.

 

UT College of Education’s Superintendency Program attracts and prepares education leaders of the future. Houston Independent School District’s Rick Cruz is one of those leaders.

When Rick Cruz was a 5th grade teacher at Joe E. Moreno Elementary in the Houston Independent School District, his students achieved the highest state standardized testing results in the school’s history, with 93 percent passing the exam and 58 percent earning the commended level. Cruz was named Teacher of the Year two years in a row.

Rick Cruz

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Yet he quickly learned that no matter how successful his students were in the classroom, few of them would actually make it past high school. “They didn’t have the support necessary to actually go on to college,” says Cruz.

Ninety-eight percent of the student population at the elementary were economically disadvantaged and most had no family members who’d attended college. Yet Cruz, who’d double majored in literature and Portuguese at Yale University, knew that colleges were looking for kids just like them to enroll in their schools, and that many highly selective colleges offered qualified students from underserved communities full scholarships and life-changing opportunities.

“I began organizing after-school workshops with fellow teachers to help students and their families learn what it takes to get into these highly selective schools,” Cruz says.

Interest in the workshops grew. Cruz then founded and led a 501(c3) nonprofit organization called the EMERGE Fellowship and the program spread across HISD. It’s currently serving more than 750 students and has helped nearly 200 students gain entry and scholarships allowing them to attend colleges like Harvard, Yale, Penn, Rice, Stanford, Cornell, and Smith.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier had originally encouraged Cruz to start EMERGE and provided the support to expand the program. Says Cruz, “[Grier] was excited about the success of the program and wanted to see it implemented even more widely throughout HISD. He asked me to become an assistant superintendent. I tried to say no because I was initially apprehensive about becoming an administrator.”

But Cruz changed his mind when Grier shared his story. When Grier was a senior in high school, he asked his counselor about the logistics of taking the SAT to gain entrance into college. His counselor tried to dissuade him and told him he’d be better suited for military service given his family’s low-income background. One of Grier’s teachers overheard the conversation and gave him money out of her own pocket to take the test. “Terry’ sincerity and passion for helping students access postsecondary opportunities persuaded me to take on the role,” says Cruz.

Cruz led the district’s College Readiness division for two years as assistant superintendent, preparing 215,000 students across 282 schools for post-secondary success. In that role, he scaled EMERGE, increased scholarship and financial aid offers by more than $70 million, and helped the district achieve record-breaking performance levels on AP, SAT and other college readiness indicators.

Because of the progress made, the district was awarded an $8.5 million grant from a local foundation to scale college readiness efforts even further and ensure that quality college advising was available to all students in the district. Cruz was also recognized by Houston Mayor Annise Parker for his contributions to education and had a day named in his honor.

Cruz was subsequently promoted to major projects officer for the district, a role in which he is responsible for leading several of the district’s key initiatives, including a secondary transformation initiative fueled by a $30 million Race to the Top Grant.

Still, he felt he needed to continue his education. “It was a big jump from teaching to being an administrator and I knew there was a lot I still wanted and needed to learn.” A colleague had earned his Ed. D. in educational administration from the UT College of Education’s Cooperative Superintendency Program and recommended Cruz. “UT’s program is one of the best in the country,” says Cruz, “and I’m learning from the cohort as well as the professors.”

Cruz says what he most enjoys about the program is that it “marries theory with practice; it provides me with a conceptual understanding of the work I am doing, as well as practical ways to improve upon it.” Cruz is also extremely impressed by the strength of the department’s alumni network and feels that he has already grown significantly as a result of the program. “I look forward to becoming a more effective educator and leader,” he says, “and I am excited by the prospect of having a greater impact on the lives of students as a result.”

How Mentoring Strengthens Latino Communities and Classrooms

Statistics indicate that, of all student subgroups, Hispanic males are least likely to stay in school.

In 2009, more than 61 percent of all associate’s or bachelor’s degrees earned by Hispanics were earned by females, and the percentage of those who attained a bachelor’s degree doubled from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2010. That’s not the story for males, according to Victor Saenz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration. In fact, he said, many have described Hispanic males’ diminishing presence in the education system as a “crisis.”

At the College of Education, a network of dedicated researchers, mentors and students are working to fix that — and have been — for five years.

Victor Saenz

Victor B. Sáenz, Ph.D.

Their solution is called Project M.A.L.E.S. (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). The brainchild of Saenz and his colleagues Luis Ponjuan and William Serrata, Project M.A.L.E.S. is a research-informed network of undergraduate males who mentor Hispanic high school males, as well as graduate Hispanic males who mentor undergraduate males. The program promotes and shares research on the educational experiences of men of color. Research, including that of Saenz, shows that mentoring programs like this improve the odds that students will stay in the education pipeline.

“They just need information, emotional support and someone to guide them on what’s really a very complicated path. They need mentors,” said Saenz, who also founded The University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

And mentorship is exactly what Project M.A.L.E.S. provides.

“Latino males have many unique challenges when it comes to pursuing an education — in trying to fulfill what it means to be a ‘man’ in Latino culture, many of them quit school as soon as they’re able to work,” said Mike Gutierrez, the program’s mentoring coordinator and an adviser at Austin Community College. “If they don’t know what it takes to get in college, for example, they may be really hesitant to ask questions … These are cultural factors that not just everybody understands.”

This cultural influence is something Gutierrez understands first-hand. Growing up, he experienced a lot of the same things M.A.L.E.S mentees face, and was a mentor himself before becoming the mentor coordinator for the program.

Now, Gutierrez is working on his second master’s degree.

“I couldn’t have done it without a lot of great people who thought I was worth the trouble and worth helping,” he said.

This premise of having a supporter, encourager and mentor is what has made the greatest impact on the individuals involved, especially past mentors who share similar experiences with their mentees.

“When it comes to Dr. Saenz’s scholarship, I am the research. I’ve faced the challenges, and I can tell you from experience that the kind of work Project M.A.L.E.S does is desperately needed,” said Jorge Segovia, a former mentor and now the curriculum and community engagement coordinator for the program. “The current U.S. school system isn’t designed to support African American and Hispanic student success. To make it through, these groups need good mentors … Lots of caring people stepped in and helped me, and I feel a strong obligation to return the favor.”

That feeling of paying it forward has paid off. In the past five years, Project M.A.L.E.S. has gained national attention and multiple invitations to Saenz from the White House, as well as several state and local honors.

Luis Urrieta

Luis Urrieta, Jr., Ph.D.

This year, the program obtained approval for a service-learning course through the College of Liberal Arts that anchors undergraduate mentors’ training in a formal academic class. The new course, titled “Instructing Males Through Peer Advising College Tracks,” launched this past fall. It gives students an opportunity to learn about public service, and to work with Central Texas community leaders. Students also receive mentor training, explore literature on the unique challenges that men of color face, and put their mentoring skills to the test in Austin area schools.

“We were the first and are the most prominent university-based, research-informed program that focuses on the mentoring and study of Latino males,” said Saenz, “and we take that responsibility very seriously. Mentoring is in our organization’s name and it’s what we’re about.”

Like Saenz, College of Education Associate Professor Luis Urrieta is also passionate about using mentoring to help Latino youth. His focus is on teaching young Latinos about the benefits of their social and cultural knowledge, and how it can be the key to their success.

“In the U.S. education system, we too often dismiss the fact that learning includes all of a child’s environments and multiple ways of knowing and being, not just the structured, limited activities that occur in a classroom,” said Urrieta, himself the son of Mexican immigrants from rural Michoacán. “I want to transform current education practices by figuring out how these cultural practices and traditions can complement formal Western education.”

The program, called Cultura en Acción, was created in Austin two years ago. UT student volunteers spend one afternoon each week with third, fourth and fifth graders at Austin area schools.

For a lot of the mentors, the experience becomes more than just a volunteer opportunity, with the benefits of the program expanding beyond Austin. Urrieta captured national attention for his work by receiving a Cesar E. Chavez Champions of Change award from the White House last year.

“Dr. Urrieta really stresses that you’re not there to fulfill an obligation or gain an experience that you can just put on your resume,” said Ana Isabel Fernandez De Alb, a former mentor in the program and a graduate student in Mexican American Studies. “As a mentor, you develop rapport with the children that allows them to talk freely about crossing the border and visiting their families in Mexico, for example, and that’s something that they may not share with almost anyone else.”

For both Project M.A.L.E.S. and Cultura en Acción, students, researchers, faculty members and volunteers at the College of Education are dedicated to making a difference – one mentoring relationship at a time.

Credit: Kay Randall for research and collaboration on this article.

October 10, 2014

President Obama and Victor Saenz

President Obama and Victor Saenz

College of Education associate professor Victor Saenz, who is founder and executive director of Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, recently was in Washington, D.C. to discuss education issues and represent UT Austin at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.

Saenz was among a group of prominent national, state, and local Hispanic educators and community leaders invited to the event at the Naval Observatory. Guests included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, and voter advocate Henry Munoz, and the evening culminated with a surprise visit from President Obama.

At the event, Vice President Joe Biden lauded Hispanic education administrators and counselors, calling them “heroes in the classroom” and commending the “brilliance and potential of the Hispanic community.”

While in Washington, Saenz and Luis Ponjuan, a Texas A&M University faculty member and partner in the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, had an opportunity to meet with colleagues at The Education Trust, Excelencia in Education, and the American Council on Education, as well as with Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, and others on Capitol Hill, to discuss Project MALES and the Consortium’s work in Texas.

In addition to being a faculty member in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, Saenz is affiliated with UT Austin’s Division for Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), which supports his work to improve academic outcomes for young men of color.

Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) is based in the DDCE and is a multi-faceted research and mentoring initiative whose goal is to raise awareness about the rapid rate at which Hispanic males are disappearing from the U.S. education system. The Education Consortium is also headquartered in the DDCE, and is a statewide collaboration that focuses on improving young Hispanic and African American males’ education and career success. The Consortium, which includes members from Texas universities and representatives from two Texas school districts, is coordinating the efforts of existing programs that target under-represented male students across the education continuum.


October 15, 2014

Natalie Poulos, a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education’s Health Behavior and Health Education program, was among 15 graduate students awarded a Harrington Fellowship earlier this month. The most prestigious fellowship program at UT Austin, the Donald D. Harrington Fellows Program supports young faculty members and graduate students who have stellar academic records and a broad range of distinctive achievements.

Poulos, whose research focuses on dietary patterns and outcomes in youth, will receive a one-year stipend, tuition, an allowance for student medical insurance, and a fund for miscellaneous expenses.

Poulos received her bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and master’s degree in Health Education from UT Austin, where she also completed the Coordinated Program in Dietetics to become a registered dietitian. While working in the Prevention Research Lab, Natalie has served as project director on the Outdoor MEDIA project, a study that measured and evaluated the influence of outdoor food and beverage advertising. In the future, she hopes to work with a food-based non-profit that brings local food to underserved communities, as well as teach university-level behavioral nutrition courses.