Should superintendents run school districts like a business, an educational institution or both? It is a controversy that appears to never outrun its course. McAllen ISD’s new superintendent, Dr. James Ponce, meets the requirements no matter how you look at it.
Ponce called Hurley (“copper mining country”), New Mexico, home until ninth grade when his dad accepted a job in Portland. Their stay in Portland was brief, lasting only about four months. His father, also an educator, moved the family to Dallas, where Ponce completed high school.
Austin became his new home when Ponce enrolled at the University of Texas. There, he earned his Bachelor of Business Administration degree. Ponce accepted a job in Seattle, which led him to his wife, Katherine, who he describes as “athletic and very smart.”
Ponce decided to go through an alternative certification program to become a teacher, following in his father’s education footsteps. He moved to Dallas and began his career as a bilingual teacher. He climbed the ladder to his current post through further education and increasingly demanding administrative positions.
Ponce rose from teacher to assistant principal to elementary principal to director of Reading First, but he didn’t stop there. He continued to climb, serving as the Executive Director of the Transformation Management Office in DISD and Area VI Superintendent, overseeing 36 campuses and 30,000 students. Along the way, he earned a Master of Education degree.
Ponce’s strong leadership and valued performance resulted in his being named Deputy Chief of Staff for DISD. His responsibilities included supervision of the district’s Transformation Management Office, Emergency Management and Operations, Police and Security Services, Parent Services, School Choice and Athletics. During this time, Ponce enrolled in UT-Austin’s Cooperative Superintendency Program, determined to put to use the knowledge and skills he had gained over the years.
Nearing completion of his Doctor of Education degree (Ed.D), Ponce applied for the superintendent position in McAllen ISD in response to the district’s nationwide search. When he first came to McAllen, Ponce wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but he soon decided McAllen would be a perfect fit for him and his family.
“A big part of my decision was the board,” Ponce said. “They interview you, but you are also interviewing them. It has to be a fit.”
Ponce did not rely solely on his own intuition. He contacted his mentors to ask for their insight, and over and again he was told, “You have to do it.” McAllen, he said, has a reputation throughout the state as being one of the Valley’s shining stars. But Ponce also had to look beyond the school district. He had to look at the city itself.
“I have to raise my boys,” he said. Those boys are Julian, who will be a third grader, Matthew, who will enter second grade and Gabriel who will be in kinder. He liked what he saw. “It all came together,” Ponce said.
The board must have also sensed the fit because, in April, they named Ponce the lone finalist for the position of McAllen ISD superintendent. Following a required 21-day waiting period, Ponce officially accepted the position.
Ponce describes his leadership style as “collaborative in nature,” adding, “with the option to be decisive as the need arises.” There is a reason for his focus on collaboration. “We do the same thing every year,” he said. “We have time to be collaborative. We know what works: a very effective teacher in front of our kids. We have issues, so we sit around a table to find solutions. Those sitting around the table are those who are affected in the decision.”
The district’s new superintendent said he puts a lot of stake in school principals. “I can affect principals directly,” he said. “A district doesn’t move without the right principal in place.” Principals must create an atmosphere of collaboration among the school’s faculty and staff to ensure the best environment for all students.
Ponce’s first day on the job was May 5, and he has found his new position exciting. “It’s like the first day of school for me all the time,” he said. “I hope it’s always like the first day.”
Ponce clearly recognizes the challenges he faces and is ready to attack them head-on. “We need to stay on course to become a premier school district in the United States. This means we must fulfill ‘The Promise.’”
That ‘Promise,’ according to Ponce, is that “students who come through our system will graduate college and career ready, and we must measure our success by how we fulfill this promise.”
He also relies on what he calls “PRPR,” Public Relations and Personal Relationships. This involves entry conferences with all principals and central office administrators, which allow him to quickly gather information and determine focus areas and how the district can begin to align resources.
Like a true educator, Ponce has already begun to give his administrators and board members homework, which includes required reading of materials he feels certain will move everyone together in the right direction. Their first assignment? Shaping Corporate Culture by Price Pritchett.
One of Ponce’s most pleasant surprises about McAllen ISD has been the pride he has seen from community members and district employees. “People don’t just say they have pride, they mean it,” he said.
Everything seems to have come together for this New Mexico native who has risen through the educational ranks. “I love my wife, I love being a dad, and I hope to represent this district with a sense of integrity and decorum,” he said. “I take this seriously. It is a vocation, not an occupation. I need to be skeptical and yet analytical at the same time. My philosophy is ‘check with me or check your facts.’ Sometimes we must make decisions we’re not used to, but we must keep in mind what is in the best interest of our district.”
With this superintendent, the question as to whether a district should be run as a business or as an educational institution appears to have been answered. His education and experience include both.
“Our core business,” he said, “is teaching and learning.”