As a child of immigrants, education was a path to the American dream for Manuel Valenzuela.
The Sahuarita Unified School District superintendent said he remembers being in kindergarten in Flowing Wells as an English-language learner. The teachers in his earlier years were an inspiration to him.
And education was a “promise,” he said, that if he worked hard, he could achieve anything. He became an educator to make that promise a reality for the next generation.
“I felt that this career would be a really special honor and opportunity to keep that same promise of education alive,” he said.
Valenzuela, 50, was named All Arizona Superintendent of the Year for large school districts by the Arizona School Administrators Association.
Superintendents are evaluated based on leadership; curriculum; communication and relationship with the community and governing board; service to students; professional ethics; and personal characteristics, among other things, said Debra Duvall, executive director of the association.
“Teamwork, visionary, dedication, innovative, commitment to excellence,” she said. “Those are some of the words used by some of the people in Sahuarita to describe him.”
He led the charge in raising money to launch Arizona’s first National Math and Science Initiative, which helps high school students succeed in advanced-placement courses, she said. He doubled advanced-placement offerings in the district and reintroduced an honors program.
Valenzuela said he hadn’t always wanted to become a teacher.
When he was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, he was studying chemistry. He wanted to have a career where he could make a difference, he said. At the time, he was considering a career in medicine.
But during his internship at a hospital, he found out he may not be suited for the job.
“I learned that I was not as fond of being around trauma and blood,” he said.
He said he changed gears but still wanted to do something to help other people. So he decided to become a teacher.
The Sahuarita superintendent began his career in 1989 as a middle school science teacher in the Marana Unified School District. He then taught at Flowing Wells schools, his home base, where he transitioned into an administrative role.
He became the superintendent of Sahuarita in 2005.
“I saw it as an opportunity to take my knowledge, my experience and my commitment to excellent teaching to extend and broaden it to the school level and to making an impact on that entire school community,” he said.
As a school administrator, Valenzuela said his vision is to provide opportunities for success to every student who comes through the schoolhouse gate.
“That vision drives the work that I do,” he said.
He identified teacher recruitment and retention, investment in professional development, personalized instruction and community cooperation as his key goals.
Valenzuela’s work has earned him numerous accolades and recognitions, including being the first educator in Arizona to receive the prestigious Milken Educator Award.
Being the head of a school district comes with challenges. The education landscape in Arizona is “one that is in great flux,” he said.
Sahuarita, with the community’s growth, needs to build a new school in the next few years at a time when money for schools is scarce, he said. The district’s voters struck down a bond measure that would have provided the money to do so in the absence of state funding.
Valenzuela isn’t one to give up when faced with a challenge, said Teresa Hill, principal of Walden Grove High School, who has worked with him for nearly two decades.
When Walden Grove first opened in 2011, there were no athletic fields, she said. But Valenzuela was committed to providing the same athletic programs that existed at Sahuarita High School, the other high school in the district.
He worked diligently to find money, a big chunk of which came from local bonds, she said. Now, the school has football, baseball and softball fields, a press box, a meeting house and a snack bar.
“None of that would have been possible without his caring nature,” she said.
Valenzuela said he loves what he is doing.
“As long as I have the health and the energy,” he said, “I want to continue to utilize what I’ve learned and my commitment to quality public education and delivering that to all of the young people in our schools today.”