Believing in the power of Black and Latino students Is How We Create Change
By: Dr. Karen Maldonado, Chief Program and Innovation Officer
I did not have a teacher that looked like me until the 7th grade. And then after that, not again until junior year of high school, and then college. Yet, it wasn’t until I graduated with a minor in Caribbean studies that I truly began to reflect upon our country’s history and treatment of Black and Brown communities.
Up until then, I had not given a career in education much thought, but a cousin introduced me to a local principal that invited me to serve as a short-term substitute teacher.
It was during this time, working with students in Brooklyn, New York, that I witnessed the true discrimination and inequities that students of color face. I saw how students who speak a language other than English in the home are often seen as inferior, their knowledge and capabilities overlooked by the education system. I saw how Black and Latino students in Brooklyn weren’t given the same educational opportunities, such as advanced course work or enrichment programs, as their white peers.
I decided to do my all to change this and to put educational equity at the forefront of my work.
I worked my way up to assistant principal and central office administration, where I had the privilege of working closely with leadership to help create programs across the district. But something stuck with me: at that time in the Bronx, only 35% of bilingual students graduated from high school.
I couldn’t help but think about all of the kids that were being left behind, and the injustices that existed within the system. So I applied to lead the first transitional bilingual school for grades 6-12 in the Bronx and all of New York City. To this day, my work in this school was the most daunting, but the most rewarding. Within two years of opening, the graduation rate was 81% — unprecedented at that time for the students we served.
The ability to create real change when you marry hardwork with a deep belief in the potential of students, especially Black and Latino students, is something that guided my eventual work in Puerto Rico. When I began working in Puerto Rico, schools were losing close to 11,000 students in enrollment every year. There wasn’t consistent leadership and students faced appalling conditions in the classroom.
During my time working on education reform for the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico (FOMB), I worked to implement system-wide best practices across every public school on the island, providing a transformation roadmap for better K-16 student outcomes, greater workforce participation and productivity.
My career in education has taken me from teaching to leadership, back to being a student, and across several roles – but the one thing that has never waivered is my steadfast focus on equity.
I have always entered a new position or industry with the question, “What can I take out of the program and bring back to my community, and to people of color across the country?”
I learned early on that to truly advance the cause of the Latino community, you need to build power and agency.
Now, as part of the leadership team at Latinos for Education, I’m excited to bring what I have learned about program implementation to an organization that has experienced tremendous growth and success in just five short years. I’m excited to find innovative ways to push forward educator diversity and increase the agency of the families and communities we serve while being a part of a larger mission — one that is centered on equity.
Over my decades-long career in education, I have learned three defining themes that will guide my new role.
- The first, is the importance of investing in school leadership – principals, in particular – which can make a world of difference for school success.
- The second is my curiosity for first-of-a-kind initiatives that allows me to take a chance on early-stage programs that can serve as models across the country.
- And last, but not least is my commitment to building leadership that looks like I do, and millions of other children nationwide, so that we can open the door for others in our community.
I am thankful for this new opportunity, and know that together we will accomplish great things.
Karen Maldonado serves as Chief Program and Innovation Officer (CPIO) for Latinos for Education. In this role, she directs and guides the overall vision, strategy, design, and evolution of all program areas nationally—and provides leadership around K-16 partnerships, fundraising, budget-setting, and organizational strategy. Prior to serving as CPIO, Karen was Director of Education Reform for the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico (FOMB). She is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program, Fordham University (MS), City of New York at Hunter College (MA) and the State University of New York at Binghamton University (BA).