Sanchez has fans, detractors in Texas

Lone finalist for top TUSD job could be voted in on Tuesday
2013-06-16T00:00:00Z 2014-10-24T10:13:56Z Sanchez has fans, detractors in TexasJamar Younger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When describing his approach to leadership, the man poised to take the helm at Tucson's largest school district preaches a simple message of unity, open communication with employees and using past mistakes to grow as a person and a leader.

But in Odessa, Texas, where H.T. Sanchez is now interim superintendent, opinions are split. Depending on the perspective, 38-year-old Sanchez is either a rising-star school administrator who goes where he's needed or an opportunistic job-hopper who's bounced through seven different jobs since 1998.

Some applaud his ability to communicate, his skill at helping the district pass a $129 million bond, his success implementing a unified curriculum and opening New Tech Odessa, a project-based, college-prep high school.

Others criticize those very same communications skills as sorely lacking. They say he showed disregard for employees during the first two years of his tenure, when the district rolled out numerous new initiatives at once, frustrating teachers who felt overwhelmed by so much change.

"Actually when he arrived three years ago, and up until last year, things were not real good, partially because he didn't communicate well," said Chuck Isner, a retired president of the Texas State Teachers Association who still advocates for Odessa's teachers.

Wanted to live in El Paso

Last summer Sanchez was a finalist for a superintendent's position in El Paso, but he suddenly withdrew after a public forum in which he was questioned about how long he would stay. At the forum, he said he wanted to make El Paso home, only to announce a few days later that the future in Odessa was too promising to leave.

Now the Tucson Unified School District is counting on him to bring his positive traits here, after naming him the lone finalist for district superintendent. The TUSD Governing Board is expected to vote on Sanchez's appointment on Tuesday.

Sanchez spent most of last week in Tucson, looking over TUSD facilities, meeting with residents and the district's staff, and sharing his ideals with the community during a forum at Catalina High School. He said he was impressed with Tucsonans' desire to improve and engage but felt there was no sense of community among those who work for the district. He said teachers feel like no one is listening to them.

He's only been interim superintendent in Odessa for three months, after taking over for recently retired Superintendent Hector Mendez. Before this appointment, he served as district chief of staff for most of his three years in Ector County.

The Board of Trustees appointed him interim superintendent in March on a 4-3 vote. They plan to launch a national search for the district's next leader.

National recognition

Sanchez's supporters describe the married father of two children, ages 4 and 6, as high-energy, well-versed and intelligent.

"He has the capacity to put the wheels on ideas," said Adrian Vega, principal of New Tech Odessa. "He can come up with an idea and lay out a very clear plan as to how to accomplish the goal and task."

Vega credits Sanchez with taking the plan for the 2-year-old high school and making it a reality.

At the school, students learn through group projects instead of traditional classroom lessons, get their own laptops and make presentations to classmates and community members. The presentations demonstrate what the students have learned and determine their grade.

The school has already received some national recognition, including its designation as an Apple Distinguished School. "We would not be where we are if we did not have the full support of the district leadership," Vega said.

Odessa school board member Donna Smith credits Sanchez with helping the district pass the $129 million bond as the chief of staff. The money will pay for three new elementary schools and to expand high school to ninth grade. Ninth-graders now attend junior high.

Smith also praised the implementation of a unified or managed curriculum, which puts the same curriculum across the district and makes it easier for students to transfer without losing ground.

One of Sanchez's most important contributions might have been helping the district continue the progress it achieved under its former superintendent, she said.

"He did a good job of doing what he needs to do, which is keeping us on the forward path," she said.

When Sanchez reflects on his accomplishments, he cites a potential partnership with the Texas Tech Medical Campus in Odessa and the Medical Center Hospital to build a $27 million apartment complex that will house teachers and medical staff. While housing development isn't a traditional school undertaking, Sanchez saw affordable housing as a way to attract better teachers to a relative outpost in oil country.

He also points to an agreement with Odessa city officials to build one new elementary school at a city park while letting the city put another park at an existing school.

And then there's communication, the very thing Sanchez is praised for and criticized for.

To keep employees informed, each week he publishes a weekly memo for district staffers and board members and provides video updates.

He appears most proud of his ability to listen to staffers and work with the community. "It's about communication, collaboration and partnership," he said.

bumps in the road

Despite Sanchez's emphasis on communication and partnership, critics say he lacked those traits during his first two years, when he was chief of staff.

The district implemented a number of initiatives meant to improve schools, but they put additional stress on teachers instead. That includes the unified curriculum, a new data system intended to provide quicker access to student information, and Professional Learning Communities, which organize teachers into working groups to boost collaboration.

At one point, teachers complained that some principals were using their position to bully their subordinates - and that Sanchez was not responsive to their concerns.

On the Odessa American newspaper's Facebook page, stories about Sanchez's possible departure were peppered with comments from people calling for him to leave.

Isner, the retired president of the teacher's association, was once one of Sanchez's biggest critics, publicly calling for him and Mendez, the previous superintendent, to resign last year.

The concerns revolved around the new initiatives, Isner said, but the frustration evolved from a lack of response from Sanchez and Mendez. "I'd bring a problem to him and I'd get the 'We'll look into it, Chuck,' " he said. "I never got a response."

Things changed after School Board President Ray Beaty called for a meeting between Isner and the administrators, with hopes of reconciling their differences.

Sanchez and Mendez agreed to meet Isner twice a month. That's when their relationship changed.

"He gave me his cellphone number. He would follow up with me within 24 hours," he said. "It was amazing."

Sanchez admitted he made a mistake by attempting to implement so many initiatives at the same time and not communicating with Isner or others.

He said he deferred to the superintendent, who was tasked with talking with staff workers and community members.

However, Sanchez said he learned from those mistakes and will carry those lessons with him on his next endeavor, whether it's in Tucson or somewhere else.

"You have to own that decision and the burden that comes with that decision," he said. "I'm human. I'm going to make mistakes."

Who is Heliodoro Torres Sanchez?

• He grew up in Texas and worked in the oil fields before becoming an educator.

• He is a casual guy. He favors T-shirts and jeans and has a cowboy vibe about him. His favorite restaurant is a mom-and-pop Mexican cafe.

• As a kid he was designated as a candidate for special-education services. Still, he excelled in school and graduated in the top 10 of his high school class.

• Although his current job is far outside the classroom, he says the best part of a career in education is getting to help kids.

Moving around

H.T. Sanchez has been criticized for his frequent job changes, but he says he's gone where he's needed.

• Odessa/Ector County Independent School District - English teacher, 1998-2001

• Odessa/St. Mary's Central Catholic School - principal, 2001-2003

• Lewisville, Texas ISD - Assistant principal, 2003-2005

• Tyler, Texas ISD - Principal, 2005-2006

• Waco, Texas ISD - Principal, 2006-2008

• Tyler, Texas ISD - Bilingual/ESL and instructional support services director, 2008-2010

• Texas A&M/Commerce - Adjunct professor, 2006-present

• Odessa/Ector County ISD - Assistant superintendent, chief of staff, interim superintendent, 2010-present

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4242. On Twitter: @JamarYounger

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