Team First

Oregon’s Balderas Leads with a focus on the entire community, including student transportation

Dr. Gustavo Balderas is all about the “we.”

When his name was called as winner of the 2020 National Superintendent of the Year award on Feb. 13, during the National Conference on Education in San Diego, he immediately thought of the students, teachers and support staff at Eugene School District 4J in Oregon.

The son of immigrant parents from Mexico, Dr. Gus, as he’s affectionately known, was raised in eastern Oregon as the family migrated from farm to farm in search of work. At the same time, Balderas fell in love with education, utilizing the U.S. education system, first to learn English as a second language, and finally earning his doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Oregon.

“The National Superintendent of the Year award is very much a ‘we’ award, not a ‘me’ award. It is an acknowledgment of the progress we as a team are making toward a more equitable and accessible education for all learners,” Balderas told School Transportation News and also announced as he accepted the award, which is co-sponsored by the American Association of School Administers, First Student and AIG Retirement Services.

Growing up in a migrant family has influenced Balderas to give back to the community by inspiring all of the 17,500 students at 4J. As STN previously reported in an online special report, Balderas has strived as superintendent and throughout his various roles in education to eliminate academic barriers, especially when it comes to students with special needs or students of minority.

Balderas took what he explained was an untraditional route toward his current position. He started his career as an educator and moved up the educational ladder, spending 25 years of his career at Hillsboro School District, located west of Portland.

“I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school,” Balderas shared in a video posted by the district. “Who would ever have thought I would be in the place where I am now? I am living the American Dream.”

Throughout his five-year tenure at 4J, he spearheaded several initiatives. He has focused on equity and access for all students as well as on improving high school graduation rates.

Balderas reported that the graduation rates of students with special needs and in special programs increased by 23 percent in the past six years. The graduation rate for Latino students as well as all students who live in poverty increased by 19 percent. Overall, the rate of students graduating on time has risen 14 percent, and the district is currently enjoying a 10-year high.

But in terms of specific programs, Balderas said school bus transportation helps provide equitable access to an education, adding it is the ultimate playing field leveler.

“In a community where not every family has a car, or where not everyone can walk to school, school buses make school accessible to all students regardless of income or ability,” Balderas explained. “Furthermore, bus drivers are a critical touchpoint for our students. They are often the first educator our students see each day. An encouraging word, caring inquiry or a smiling face can set the student on a positive path for the school day.”

Balderas has also focused on diversifying the workplace, which he accomplished through the hiring process. He added that 39 percent of school principals and 30 percent of all administrators are now people of color. He said the racial minority in Eugene is 20 per- cent, while the district’s student enrollment is slightly higher at 30 percent.

“The workplace culture at 4J is one of inclusion and teamwork,” Balderas explained. “We are a community of passionate educators working together to empower all students to succeed. And when I say educators, I mean every single employee of 4J—from custodians to payroll clerks, cafeteria staff to technology assistants, bus drivers to teachers, and everyone in between.”

However, even as an award-winning superintendent, Balderas doesn’t put himself above any job or task. He understands the ins-and-outs of transportation and even goes the distance to drive routes early in the morning, during inclement weather days. While he said he has the final decision on whether school is canceled or delayed, he respects the opinion of Director of Transportation Chris Ellison, and wants to make that call with him.

“To do my job well, I need to have on-the-ground awareness of every component of the school system,” Balderas noted. “This includes school bus transportation, which plays a critical role in providing equitable access to education. It’s similar thinking when making the difficult decision to change the school schedule because of inclement weather.”

Balderas added, “I am very cognizant of the challenges that decision will cause for many of our families. I work side-by-side with our facilities crew, getting first-hand knowledge of the conditions, to make the best decision for our families and staff.”

Even with the national school bus driver shortage plaguing the district, due to an ultra-competitive local marketplace, Balderas remains hopeful. He said 4J strives to make itself a caring, quality workplace to attract and retain talent.

Related: Oregon Superintendent Links School Bus Transportation to Eliminating Academic Barriers
Related: Georgia Superintendent Cites Positive Impact School Bus Transportation Makes on Students
Related: New York Superintendent Appreciates Bus Drivers and They Return the Favor
Related: Virginia Superintendent Relies on Transportation to Achieve District Education, Outreach Goals

“We provide bus drivers training and support in a cohesive team environment,” explained Balderas, who takes his leadership to Edmonds School District in Washington state as the new superintendent next school year. “We value our bus drivers as front-line educators and recognize the critical role they play in our students’ academic experience.”

That team environment isn’t inclusive to only school bus drivers, but to the entire workforce at 4J. Balderas works to ensure compassion, mentoring, innovation and success among educators and students alike.

Like many employees at 4J, Ellison had nothing but positive things to say about his superintendent to School Transportation News in February. “Truly, I am so proud to have him as my superintendent, as my ultimate boss and as the leader of our school district.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the April issue of School Transportation News. 

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