Pedro Martinez used this metaphor when describing his return to Washoe County School District, this time removing the deputy from his “superintendent” title. Martinez, like many citizens of Washoe County, was surprised when former WCSD Superintendent Heath Morrison departed for Charlotte, N.C., after a short three-year tenure.
“I never would have imagined I would come back,” Martinez said. “I think it’s always unique when you get to start some amazing work in one place and then you get to come back, knowing the majority of the staff and community leaders and get to continue that work.”
Martinez said he had mixed expectations when arriving in Reno in June for his preliminary interview with the district’s Board of Trustees. He knew it was uncommon for people who leave an organization to come back and he said returning to Washoe County made him feel at home, and the feeling is reinforced every day.
“Coming from the inner city in Chicago, my family never had very much and had very humble beginnings, and to be able to be here and help the district get to the next level is very emotional for me and it is very personal for me,” he said.
Martinez understands that things in the school district are not good. He knows they need funding, program expansion, higher graduation rates and lower remediation rates. His strategy: collaborate and conquer.
“I want to make sure that, as we look at our strategic plan, if we need to invest heavily in certain areas and slow down in some other areas to be more effective then I want to do that, but I want to do that with the community,” he said, adding that providing clear priorities and addressing the concerns of the community is a major goal for him.
The community is not the only ally he plans to make in improving the WCSD. He said teachers nationwide are feeling attacked because of the negativity surrounding education and that all teachers feel “brushed over by the same brush.”
“We have to keep reminding ourselves that it is about teachers. They are the ones up in front of the students. We have to support them and help them when these attacks occur,” he said. “My job is to serve them, support them and make them feel that they are the most important.”
Another important partnership for Martinez will be with the Latino community in the district. Being bilingual, Martinez said he feels obligated to work closely with Latino parents and community organizers to know as much as possible about every school in the county.
“I want to do outreach and make sure they feel a part of our community. Sometimes the language barriers in the past have prevented them from feeling comfortable, but I want them to feel that they can approach me and tell me their concerns. I want to make sure we are partnering together to make our schools better,” he said. “I need everybody’s help. To get to the next level I’m going to need parents to be working with us and see them as resources.”
Partnerships with the community, teachers and Board of Trustees will allow Martinez to move to the “next level,” an alignment of programs and strategy that funnels WCSD students into Nevada higher education.
“The research is pretty clear that if we push children at an earlier age, they always exceed our expectations,” Martinez said. “We can bring some of the programs from the college level and bring them into the middle and high schools to allow students to stay on that track throughout their time in school.”
Martinez has gathered ideas from several successful programs and academies in his time in Las Vegas and Chicago. Though the size and quantity differs from those metropolitan areas, Martinez said Washoe County needs more resources to provide their similar academies with more opportunities for students.
“One of the things Clark County did very well was their career tech academies. Our AECT school is a small replica of what those schools are like in Vegas,” he said. “They have large schools with 90 percent graduation rates and 90 percent of their students enter careers or go to college.”
A crucial part of Martinez’s partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College will be to improve remediation rates. He said remediation rates at UNR are less than 50 percent, but still too high to be satisfied with. In working with UNR President Marc Johnson and TMCC President Maria Sheehan, Martinez plans to tackle the problem early in each level of schooling to determine a solution.
“We will look at the disconnects, possibly in the time span we are giving Accuplacer Tests, or maybe there are disconnects in what we are teaching and what the assessment is testing,” Martinez said. “I will work together with Marc and Maria, who will not want to waste a lot of time. That’s a commitment and we’re not going to stop until that happens.”
Martinez has come full circle with the WCSD and gladly answered the question of how long he planned to stay. He said he and his family knew being a deputy superintendent would open up several opportunities in the future, but that his goal was always to be a superintendent.
“Once I took that step, my goal was to be a superintendent for as long as they will have me. I believe it’s a marathon. It takes time to build a great district,” he said. “I am a vested member of this community and I am going to have a lot of pride about being here.”