By Emily Taylor
COE alumnus, Dr. Victor Vergara immigrated to the U.S. from Chile as a young adult. He completed all of his college career at Portland State University, and earned his doctorate from the College of Education in 2017 while working as a high school principal in Woodburn, Ore.
After completing his doctorate, Vergara and his family decided to explore new areas as he pursued interesting career opportunities. First, he was the director of multilingual education and community outreach for the Walla Walla School District, and then he moved to Federal Way, Washington for a similar role before starting at Edmonds School District as Executive Director of Equity and Student Services in July 2020.
The Edmonds School District, 20 minutes north of Seattle, serves a multicultural population of 22,000 students at its 35 schools. More than half of the students are non-white, and the families served speak more than 120 languages other than English.
Talking about his team’s work, Vergara says, “We are everywhere. Equity is being embedded in everything from professional development to student services. We apply that equity lens and work to ask the right questions.”
As he reflects on his first year with the district, he highlights several key initiatives he and his staff have successfully implemented.
“Five years ago, when my position was first established, the emphasis of equity training here, and around the country, was on awareness. Now we are evolving, and moving beyond awareness and beginning to take action,” explained Vergara.
One of the district’s goals is to increase its professional development around equity. Instead of being optional, core training classes on equity, diversity and inclusion are now required for staff. By the end of June, more than 2,000 district staff will have completed the district’s seven hour, equity training 100 level course.
Vergara and his staff have worked to institute several new programs in the district to address the performance and graduation gaps which tend to follow the socioeconomic, racial, and language divides in the district’s student population. Beginning in the fall of 2021, the district will offer the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) college readiness program in four of its high schools with plans to eventually offer it throughout the district.
Another focus has been on improving communication with parents and families, which can be especially challenging with the approximately 5,000 predominantly Spanish-speaking families in the district. To help address this, the district has worked with two local Spanish-language radio stations to disseminate information. They provide regular updates on district news and school happenings to the radio stations to help reach those families.
A group of Spanish-speaking high school students created a radio show that airs every other Wednesday evening on one of the Spanish-language radio stations. The show, “Juventud sin Fronteras” (Youth without Borders), is entirely led by the students: they select the music, determine the content, and bring in local guests to interview.
Vergara is driving other opportunities to support student voice, establishing the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee and planning the district’s first Student Leadership Conference for next year.
“We want to make sure we hear from all of our students,” Vergara said, “not just the ones with the 4.0 grade averages.”
At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year in the midst of the COVID pandemic, Vergara was concerned about how the district could reach its students experiencing homelessness, which it estimates at about 400 students.
“We asked ourselves how we can expect these students to be online for school every day?” he said.
With the model of a coffee shop in mind, where students could access the internet in a safe space, the district transformed the library of a former middle school into a community resource center. Open from 7:30am to 3:00pm, Monday through Friday, the center is staffed by members of the equity team, paraeducators, administrative support and a part-time school nurse. It offers students computer and internet access, use of laundry facilities, breakfast and lunch, and access to a food pantry.
The center served as many as 80 students a week and many teachers reported increased student engagement from students they had not seen in months.
Vergara credits the district’s superintendent, Dr. Gustavo Balderas, with empowering him and his team to implement these changes. One of the other changes they are working on is increasing the diversity of the teaching and administrative staff to better reflect the student community. It will take time. Currently only eight percent of the district‘s teachers and administrators are people of color, while more than half of the students served by the district are.
Although Vergara recalls having wonderful professors who mentored him along the way at PSU, he also vividly remembers the isolation he felt at times. He described being the only person of color in a math class at PSU and when the professor divided the class into groups he felt that no one wanted to work with him.
Now he works to increase equity and access to education for all of the students in Edmonds School District, and is a mentor to fellow Latinx administrators. A past president of the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators, Vergara is currently the board president of the Washington Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators (WALAS).
“I will always keep mentoring, and keep opening doors for others,” Vergara said.
To share stories about the College of Education, contact media relations specialist Emily Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.