|Heliodoro Torres (H.T.) Sanchez is|
Tucson Unified School District's new
For Heliodoro Torres (H.T.) Sanchez, one word defined his entire elementary and middle school experience.
That word was “Chair.”
From third grade to eighth grade, he was designated as a special education student because, in his small town of San Angelo, Texas, english language learners were placed in special education classes.
“I remember, it all came to a head with one word, and it was ‘chair,’” Sanchez said. “My grandmother, lovingly, would say, “hijo, me puedes traer la silla?” in Spanish, or in English would say, “can you bring me the shair?” And so, growing up I heard ‘shair’. So, in school, I would say ‘shair.'”
With the help of his eighth grade teacher, who advocated for him, Sanchez was able to go straight from special education in eighth grade to Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school.
He attended to Angelo State University in Texas on a Carr academic scholarship and graduated summa cum laude, and earned a Ph.D at Texas A&M University and presented research at an educational conference on education transformation at Oxford University.
On June 18, Sanchez was hired as superintendent of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) by a 4-1 vote, in the wake of former superintendent John Pedicone’s retirement.
As his teacher in eighth grade said, he didn’t seem like someone who had a learning disability.
“She said well that doesn’t sound like somebody who has a learning disability, that sounds like somebody who is quite exceptional,” Sanchez said, referring to the teacher’s reaction to his performance in class.
Sanchez ended up translating for the three Spanish-speaking students in the class.
“By the time I got to eighth grade, somewhere in between there, I had been given the teacher’s edition. I’d take it home, I’d translate it, I’d prepare lessons and I’d teach these three guys,” Sanchez said.
His testing results during eighth grade revealed he didn’t need special education and he began taking AP classes in the ninth grade.
During his senior year in high school, his English teacher retired early, and Sanchez was asked to teach the class.
This influenced him to start a career in education.
He resolved to get a degree in English, despite the fact that in third grade he had been told it was impossible, and also because he would have “more of a right to speak English than anybody else,” because of the English degree.
Sanchez started out as an English teacher in Odessa, Texas in 1997.
After working in Texas school districts in Lewisville, Tyler, and Waco, Texas, Sanchez returned to Ector County in Odessa as assistant superintendent.
Sanchez was later promoted to chief of staff, deputy superintendent, and finally interim superintendent.
“His strength was having knowledge of all aspects of the district, from the budget to bilingual, to HR, to curriculum,” Ray Beaty, the president of the board of trustees for Ector County Independent School District (ECISD), said.
Beaty said that Sanchez’s weakness, the fact that he had never had the opportunity to serve as superintendent, was counteracted by all of his strengths.
Adelita Grijalva, president of the TUSD School Board, said that when the district was looking for a new superintendent, they contacted a search firm, PROACT Search. The search firm met with each board member and asked what qualities they were looking for in a superintendent.
“I said, I want someone incredibly intelligent, lots of energy, has experience in a lot of different areas, finance, HR, transportation, curriculum,” Grijalva said. “And ideally, I wanted someone who was bilingual.”
The search firm had an initial list of 67 candidates, according to TUSD board member Mark Stegeman, of which they brought forth 11. The school board came up with a list of four people they wanted to interview.
Of those four, Sanchez was chosen.
“In his district, he’d had experience with desegregation, which some of the other candidates didn’t have,” Grijalva said. “He was bilingual. He was very comfortable, very personable. I felt like he could really sell our district to the state, because we have a really bad reputation with the legislators up there.”
Stegeman, voted against hiring Sanchez, although he said that he supports Sanchez now that he’s been appointed.
“I voted against his appointment because he didn’t have enough experience and track record,” Stegeman said. “He had moved from place to place, from job to job, so he had not established a track record at any one place. So it wasn’t that he had a bad track record, but he didn’t stay at any place long enough to have any significant track record.”
Grijalva had not wanted to discount Sanchez as a candidate just because of his job history.
“I know a lot people like Dr. Sanchez,” Grijalva said. “They get experience in a certain job and then because of the kind of job that they’re doing, other people ask them to come and apply for other jobs.”
Despite the fact that Sanchez is coming from a district in Texas with fewer students and schools--30,000 students in ECISD, said Sanchez, as opposed to TUSD’s 50,199--he said that the districts are comparable.
Sanchez explained that although there are more students in TUSD, the enrollment of individual schools is smaller than the enrollment of the schools Sanchez is used to working with.
“It’s actually smaller, when you take a look at the actual school size,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also said that TUSD and his previous district were “mirror images,” in terms of demographics.
Grijalva said she was impressed with how quickly Sanchez familiarized himself district issues and appreciates his outside perspective.
“Within a week (he had) highlighted a lot of areas that I historically had really big issues with,” Grijalva said. “Within three weeks (he had) a town hall at the John Valenzuela Youth Center, a community that historically, nobody’s ever gone and talked to them.”
Sanchez said that although one of the biggest tasks of the district was preparing students for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), his biggest challenge had to do with the district’s image.
“My challenge, my biggest one, is going to be to get this community to celebrate the good things that Tucson Unified does, focus on those, to use that as momentum,” Sanchez said. “Our young men and young women have done a lot of very impressive things, and we need to talk about those.”