Some kids dream of being a cowboy one day. Growing up in a competitive family with five brothers, Esperanza Zendejas actually became one. In a culture dominated by men, she learned to stand on her own and up for herself. "There was no such thing as something that was only appropriate for my brothers," she says.
Others might feel intimidated being the first female superintendent in San Jose, Calif.'s East Side Union High School District, where some say a "good old boys network" has been in place for years. But Zendejas feels comfortable, seasoned and confident.
It's reminiscent of her high school days, before Title IX. She spent a lot of time playing baseball with the guys. She also kept score for the men's cross-country team.
"That was a big no-no then, to be out by the track with the guys," she says. "One day the assistant superintendent challenged me to a mile race. I think it was because I was the only girl on the track in those days. I won. Looking back, I don't know if he let me win or not."
A Testing Win
Among her recent victories, Zendejas is most proud of a shared one. State test results have shot up since she came on board in 2003. James Lick High School, which is facing state sanctions for low scores, led the pack with its 52-point jump. "I am savoring the moment," Zendejas says.
Stepping Up to the Slate
Working to boost academic performance while coping with decreasing resources has been Zendejas' greatest challenge to date. Leaving those chalkboard environments untouched is the goal.
"We cut quite a few administrative positions including folks at the central office." It's a move Zendejas, who has held superintendencies in Indianapolis and two other districts, has made before.
Her budget slashes--as well as her demeanor, which has been called condescending-- have been criticized. Some say she's out of touch with those at the ground level. School Board President Juanita Ramirez disagrees, contending that "she has made herself available to anyone who wishes to communicate with her."
Not talking to people at all levels "will easily catch up with you," Zendejas says. "Lots of times messages don't reach down, and they don't reach up."
How did a girl who picked tomatoes and peaches grow up to be a superintendent? It's a story that Zendejas shares often with students. Her original dream was to be a PE teacher and coach, but once she started college she knew she would continue on to her masters and doctorate. After two years of teaching, she became a counselor and then pursued administration.
"A lot of my personal past has been self-motivated and self-initiated," she says. Perhaps that explains the student empowerment conference she started.
Modeled after a similar district conference for parents, the event features guest speakers who push the agenda for a full secondary collegiate experience. Student leaders attend, and then share what they've learned with classmates.
Voice of Reason
Sometimes a less serious forum is in order. To motivate kids in the district's sole K-3 school to maintain their home language (generally Spanish or Vietnamese) and get engaged in learning, Zendejas is assisted by a friend named Kiko.
Zendejas is a self-taught ventriloquist, and Kiko is her doll. "Ventriloquism for me is like magic," she says. "It's a great opportunity to see the kids in a more natural setting."
Nicole Rivard is a Westport, Conn.-based freelance writer.