From Brownsville to Raymondville, PSJA to TFA, Dr. Paula Garcia has spent nearly two decades working to create a public school system where all children can flourish. Currently, she serves as Executive Director for Teach For America Rio Grande Valley, one of the oldest and most successful branches of the nationally known organization. Ever the teacher, she shared with us the “leadership lessons” she’s learned along an extraordinary professional journey.
Lesson 1: Being a leader is being an advocate
Being a respected fixture in the Valley education scene is a far cry from where Dr. Garcia started. Her early years were spent half in Mexico, where her parents are from, and half in the United States. “I recently drove through the town where we grew up, and it shocked me,” Dr.Garcia reflects. “I had not realized how poor we were until I saw it with adult eyes.” Despite being U.S. citizens, she and her brother attended schools in Reynosa until a fated encounter with a Border Patrol officer. “We were so nervous when he stopped us, but he just suggested that my mother put us in U.S. schools,” Dr. Garcia remembers. “He told her we’d be better off. I don’t think she had even thought of it that way before. Soon, we started going to school in McAllen.”
Navarro Elementary in McAllen was Dr. Garcia’s first taste of the American school system. “I was in band, and band kids just went to gifted classes, it seemed like,” she remembers. “I wasn’t even fluent in English yet, but I got pushed into a track that gave me more options and better instruction than others at my school. It’s one of my earliest memories of educational inequity.”
Dr. Garcia’s other memories of secondary school involve hiding her accent, perming her hair, and otherwise assimilating herself into American culture. It wasn’t until she got to the University of Texas – Pan American that her Mexican heritage became a source of pride. “I took classes in Chicano literature and history. My professors lit a fire in me about the systemic differences in opportunity that exist in America,” Dr. Garcia recalls. “I’d say my consciousness was raised from a zero to a ten.”
That fire still burns today. It is the driving force behind Dr. Garcia’s career-long advocacy for Latino students. “I changed from hiding my roots to considering them an asset. And they are an asset – speaking two languages, understanding multiple cultural perspectives; these are all things that drive progress forward,” she states. “When more people adopt this view, we all win. That’s why for me, being a leader is being an advocate.”
Lesson 2: Being a leader is being bold
After college, Dr. Garcia was accepted into Teach For America, which places college graduates in struggling public schools to teach. Dr. Garcia’s placement school hit close to home: she taught 5th grade in a Mercedes ISD school that so closely mirrored her own elementary school, she says it was “like time traveling.”
Right away, Dr. Garcia saw things she wanted to change. “I saw how the school’s traditional structure – English speakers up front, ‘the Mexican kids’ in the back – was already closing doors for immigrant students,” she says. “We made many changes, like bringing in a balanced literacy approach (as opposed to ‘sit and get’ reading) and starting a lending library.”
That Dr. Garcia overhauled her classroom’s reading program as a brand new teacher is typical. “I actually prefer starting from scratch,” she tells us. “You’re definitely accountable if it doesn’t work, but you have more freedom.” This attitude helped her as a founding principal at IDEA Donna, the crown jewel of the IDEA Public Schools network. “The founders, Tom and JoAnn, trusted me to build a successful school,” says Dr. Garcia. “I had to really lead – to make tough decisions and back them up, to prioritize action over appeasement. It taught me that being a leader is being bold.”
Lesson 3: Being a leader is living with integrity
Between IDEA and her current work with Teach For America, Dr. Garcia spent years growing as a leader in her field. She supported the development of early college high schools in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and Brownsville ISDs, served as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Raymondville ISD, and earned two masters and a doctorate. Despite her laundry list of accomplishments, Dr. Garcia stays grounded by committing to living with integrity.
“You either live with integrity or you don’t,” she posits. What does this look like for Dr. Garcia? She says it means making choices for good reasons and remembering that accomplishments are the result of your whole team’s efforts, not just yours. “It also means treating people right and prioritizing relationships.”
Dr. Garcia’s advocacy, boldness, and integrity have served her well, and we recognize her as a true visionary in the field that builds all other fields. The entire Valley benefits from Dr. Garcia’s drive to continue opening doors and building pathways through education. Her dream is for all the children in this community – and this country – to have the opportunities they deserve.