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Communities in Schools Picks One of Its Own to Lead Organization

More than a decade ago, Rey Saldaña was a teenager at South San High School in San Antonio, Tex., not quite sure about his path after high school.

This month, Saldaña, a former San Antonio councilman, was named the president and CEO of Communities In Schools, the national non-profit that provides academic, health, counseling and other services to about 1.6 million disadvantaged students in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Saldaña was one of those students, and he credits the Communities In Schools coordinators at his high school with helping him, first to even think about college outside of the state, guiding him through the application process—even paying the fees—and then providing on-going support as a first-generation, first-year-college-student at Stanford University.

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"I do think it sends a strong statement that Communities In Schools is taking a bet on one of their own," Saldaña said in an interview with Education Week.

"The organization could have easily gone with somebody with much more non-profit or executive experience. But I think what they are doing here is really sending a message to the entire network about living out what it truly believes in—which is that the students that they invest in are the kinds of students that are going to not only transform their lives but likely transform the city, state, or country they live in."

Saldaña, who starts in the new position next month, is taking over from Dale Erquiaga, who is returning to Nevada. Erquiaga will continue his affiliation with the organization as a visiting fellow.

Elaine Wynn, the chair of the organization's national board, said in the announcement: "Rey's track record as a successful policymaker, an education advocate, and a tireless champion for young people make him uniquely qualified to carry out our strategic plan to ensure that every student in America has a community of support inside and outside the classroom."

She continued: "Moreover, his remarkable journey from former CIS student to national leader of our organization, sends an inspiring message to all young people about the power they have to write their own success story, no matter where they start out in life."  

Saldaña is expected to continue with the strategic plan that Erquiaga had in place, which includes expanding the organization's model of comprehensive student supports across the country.

But Saldaña also plans to draw on his experience as a former Communities In Schools student who benefited from the organization's work. He expects to spend the first few months listening and learning—visiting independent CIS sites across the country. Challenges and needs differ from place to place, he said.

"That comes from a philosophy I learned when I was in local office—that the way to really transform communities is not from the outside in; it's from the inside out," he said.

He expects to lean on what he's learned from his eight-year tenure on the San Antonio City Council, where he championed education and transportation initiatives, and from his work with Raise Your Hand Texas, where he most recently served a regional advocacy director.

Saldaña has had plans to run for mayor of San Antonio, but he said he provided assurance to Communities In Schools that he was not signing up for a short-term commitment.

Paying It Forward

As the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, going away to college was not something Saldaña contemplated.  

But the Communities In Schools coordinators convinced Saldaña that he could go as far as he wanted. They paid for his SAT prep classes, college application fees, got him into a summer college program so he could experience what it was like to be away from home for the first time, and helped him apply for the Gates Millennium Scholars Programs, which covered his undergraduate and graduate education at Stanford.

"In many ways, they were like my middle-class parents who had gone to college, who were going to walk me through this maze I couldn't have gone through on my own," he said.

When Wynn reached out to him about the opportunity last year, Saldaña wasn't sure he'd say yes. He had a young son, and he'd recently taken the job at Raise Your Hand Texas. But his wife convinced him to say yes.

"My entire life, I've felt like I've had debts to pay to people and organizations who have invested in me," he said. "So, this was another time that I got the chance to pay it forward."

(Raise Your Hand Texas is funded by the billionaire philanthropist Charles Butt, who owns the Texas supermarket chain H-E-B. Saldaña's father got his first job when he became an American citizen at the grocery store's frozen food warehouse, where he still works today.)

Saldaña expects that Communities In Schools will increase advocacy on the state and local levels as working-class communities continue to grapple with rising income inequality and the effects of poverty.

"There is a lot the rhetoric I hear—about folks wanting to do something about the effects of poverty, the effects of income inequality.  That work is not terribly complicated, but it is hard," Saldaña said. "It  means that the person [doing the work] has to be on the ground. They have to know their job well... It's going to take a greater funding approach to do that. And we need to convince lawmakers, we need to convince elected leaders that this is how you get past rhetoric and into transforming the communities by investing in the people who are doing the work on the ground."

Image: Rey Saldaña, the new president and CEO of Communities In Schools. Photo courtesy Communities In Schools.

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