Marianna Valdez seemed destined to serve on a school board.
Even growing up, she was fascinated with schools for their interaction with the community. “I’ve always wanted to be on a school board,” she said.
On Dec. 11, she got her wish. She was appointed to serve in District D, which covers central and south Durango, on the Durango School District 9-R Board of Education through the November 2019 election. She’s filling out the term for the seat previously held by Joe Kusar, who resigned for health reasons.
Valdez, 41, will add professional experience to the board. For the past 7½ years, she has telecommuted, working for New Leaders, an educational nonprofit with an emphasis on data analysis to assist in development of plans to help school districts overcome challenges such as lagging academic performance among minority students.
She’s changing jobs this month to become associate vice president of research, evaluation and impact with New York City Leadership Academy, another educational nonprofit for which she will telecommute. It works to build leadership skills within school districts and examines how to create cultures that support school leaders with a focus on equity for disadvantaged groups.
New York City Leadership Academy started out helping schools in New York City, but now works with schools in 30 states.
“Given my job, I look at data around schools, not just how they are performing on average, but where are their gaps, with English-as-second-language learners, and different rates among minority students,” she said.
She sees Durango 9-R School District as particularly strong in meeting the needs of its minority communities.
Data support her.
Graduation rates for 2018 released by the Colorado Department of Education show Durango High School’s graduation rate for Native Americans in 2018 at 84.6 percent, and for Hispanics at 80.6 percent. That compares with a state average of 80.7 percent for all students. State averages for Native Americans was 68.5 percent and for Hispanics was 73.4 percent.
The graduation rate for all students at DHS was 87.4 percent.
“9-R looks at the all the data, and it is doing a lot to address those gaps,” Valdez said. “They work to eliminate those gaps or to make sure they are as small as possible, but there’s always more work to do for every district and school,” she said.
The one area Valdez said she would like to emphasize is more community participation at schools and with the school board.
Something that surprised her the first few school board meetings she has attended was the dearth of comments during the public participation portion of meetings.
“I would love to see more community involvement with the school board,” she said. “We want to hear their views, their comments, both the good and the bad. You want to get a wide variety of opinions on issues.”
School board member Stephanie Moran said, “She’s going to be a phenomenal addition to the board. Her professional life has helped her develop strategic thought. She’s articulate and dedicated.”
Moran said Valdez has told the board even as a 5-year-old she has wanted to serve on a school board.
“That’s some goal for a 5-year-old,” Moran said.
Before serving on the school board, Valdez served on the 9-R School Accountability Committee at Park Elementary School, where her two children, Sophia, a third-grader, and Wilder, a kindergartner, attend.
She said the parents on Riverview’s SAC “really rolled up their sleeves and tried to make improvements.”
The parents helped make school orientation smoother for parents and helped with a parent survey, especially with increasing response rates.
“We brainstormed: How do we get a higher response rate, more access for parents who don’t have the internet, who are working two jobs and have limited time. We wanted to hear everyone’s concerns,” Valdez said.
Having children in the district, Valdez said, certainly strengthens anyone’s interest in it, but, she said she would have applied for the open seat regardless of whether she had children at 9-R schools.
“My interest, it was there before. It’s the profession I’ve chosen,” she said.
Valdez said one drawback to her telecommuting job is the extended travel, which often takes her to school districts across the country on weeklong business trips.
“I always thought I’d be the involved parent. The one at all the events, but no. It’s Michael (her husband) who volunteers in class and goes on field trips. With my job, I can’t be at all the school events I’d like to,” she said.
Valdez and Michael Valdez, associate professor of management at Fort Lewis College, along with their two young children moved to Durango 5½ years ago when Michael was hired at Fort Lewis.
Durango, which the couple was familiar with, having visited the region numerous times to visit Michael’s parents who were residents of Cortez, has proved ideal for the Valdezes, who moved from New Jersey.
“Durango has turned out to be a perfect fit for me. There is a sense of community and neighborliness,” she said. “I appreciate how much people respect the outdoors, the land and the environment.”
Before living in New Jersey, the couple lived in Honolulu, where Marianna received her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Hawaii.
She grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, raised by New Yorkers, a mom from Queens and a dad is from Long Island.
Valdez said she appreciates the small-town strengths of Durango and is especially happy that both her children will have been taught by the same kindergarten teacher, Deborah Cash, who will retire this year.
“Park is a great community school,” she said. “Marie Voss-Patterson is a great principal. I appreciate from my work how hard a job that is, and I think she’s making thoughtful steps with school culture and curriculum.
“Their motto is TWERK – teamwork, wonder, empathy, responsibility and kindness. They incorporate it into lesson plans and they always have new ways to apply it.”