Community Learning Exchange

Young Principal Elevates Student Voices in Rural Texas

Students from Waelder spoke to the Texas legislature about state testing. From left: Principal Mark Cantu, Tatiana Garica, Jackie Garcia, Cody Orona, teacher Meghan House, Randy Tovar.

Mark Cantu is the kind of school principal who never talks down to students. Instead, he asks them to speak up, and he creates every opportunity for them to do so.

Mark is only 29 years old, so it wasn’t long ago that he was in his students’ shoes. He grew up in a Latino family in a small Texas town, and he was fortunate enough to have opportunities that helped him become the leader he is today. When he was in high school, he developed his leadership skills through the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development and was mentored by its founders, Miguel and Francisco Guajardo. Afterward, as many Llano Grande graduates do, Mark received his Master’s degree and Ph.D., and he stayed in Texas to improve education for the next generation of students.

“That learning experience (at Llano Grande) was really powerful for me when I was going through high school,” Mark says. “I wanted to do something similar within my new context at Waelder, and find ways to engage students both in and out of school.”

Circles open space for students to be heard

Back in the fall of 2008, when Mark was teaching English as a Second Language to students who had recently arrived in the U.S., he attended his first Community Learning Exchange in the Boston area. The focus of this CLE was strengthening youth-adult partnerships, especially within immigrant communities, and promoting collective leadership through peacemaking circles.

“This was the first time I’d engaged in the circle process, and I saw what it did for us.” Mark says. “We immediately opened up to each other and began to develop relationships that would positively impact lives for years to come. The circle process allowed us to get to know each other on deep levels in a matter of days.”

The day after he returned home, Mark gathered his 5th and 6th grade students into a circle to talk about their everyday classroom business.

“The most powerful part was that it really opened up the space for students to speak and not be interrupted and just be heard,” he says. “Oftentimes as a middle school teacher, you just want to hear the kids. With the circle process and Gracious Space, I was able to create a space that I hadn’t created before.”

Students share their family trees. From left: Fernando Gordinez, Marcus Ramirez, Beatriz Rodriquez, Jackie Garcia, Dylan Tovar.

Students envision, create an elective 

In 2011, Mark attended a CLE in Seattle focused on using collective leadership to advance just and equitable communities. By this time, he had become the district principal in Waelder, a town outside of Austin whose population is just over 1,000. He invited a teacher, another administrator, and a student to accompany him to Seattle.

“To this day, we still talk about the CLE and the impact it’s created,” Mark says. The experience opened up two years of dialogue about collective leadership that has inspired a number of other opportunities for youth at Waelder, he says.

Meghan House, who teaches high school Social Studies at Waelder High School, describes an elective that students and teachers developed together. “We wanted to give students an idea of themselves. We made family trees, life maps, and created narratives that we made into digital stories,” Meghan says. “We were trying to engage the students in their communities, to bring their families into the school.”

“I‘ve pretty much stepped out of the process, and the students have done it all,” says Mark. “They’ve created what they’ve wanted from this elective.”

Because of its size and socioeconomic challenges, Waelder doesn’t have as many resources for youth as bigger and wealthier cities. But students and staff have collaboratively developed opportunities like the elective class, as well as public platforms for students to share what matters to them.

Students speak to state legislators about testing

According to Sophomore Fernando Godinez, “The most important thing we’ve done so far is go to Austin and speak to the Senate Committee on Public Education.”

In February, students from Waelder traveled to the Texas State Capitol to speak about the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. The STAAR tests are the course-specific exit exams that students must pass to graduate, and there are currently a whopping 15 of them. The bill, which has passed the State House and Senate and will soon become law, would reduce the number of STAAR tests to five.

“We talked to the legislators about the STAAR test, and how we thought 15 tests was too much. That contributed to passing the (Senate) vote,” says Fernando.

Waelder students also spoke at February’s Education and Community Leadership Conference at Texas State University.

“We discussed ideas with teachers about what we want to see in the classroom, and how we can bring more creativity to the classroom. We want to use our minds,” says Pete Cedillo, also a sophomore at Waelder. He says that simple activities, such as using Play-Doh, helps him and his classmates mold images of concepts they have learned in Ms. House's class. This creativity reinforces the learning that they would like to engage in.

'We want them to come back and lead the way'

Mark hopes that this kind of student-driven learning in the classroom contributes to collective leadership outside school walls, as well.

“In Waleder, there are usually four or five people who handle everything, people who are the movers and shakers. We want to expand that to involve youth,” says Cantu. He says that while many young people from Waelder don’t go to college, that number is increasing.

“I want students to realize that they’re leaders, just as much as I am. One day I’m going to leave the community, and someone is going to need to step up,” Mark says. “As young people grow up and go to college, we want them to come back and lead the way.”

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