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.”
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