For many children living in the Jackson Triangle, a high-need community where over 18 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, which as of 2012 is $23,050 for a family of four, a passionate educational leader can make all the difference in their future.
Hector Garcia, principal of Harder Elementary located within Hayward’s Jackson Triangle, says his goal has always been to give every child at Harder the opportunity to excel and succeed.
Garcia is determined to improve test scores at Harder. As principal since 2009, Garcia has improved Harder’s Academic Performance Index (API) rate, which measures the academic performance and growth of public schools, by nearly 100 percent, with last year experiencing a 50-point bump in test scores for math, English and science, among other assessments.
Currently, Garcia is planning on applying for the California Distinguished School recognition, which honors some of California’s most exemplary and inspiring public schools. Schools selected for the Distinguished School Award demonstrate significant gains in narrowing the achievement gap.
“And some staff is going to be surprised by that because I haven’t told them that yet,” said Garcia. “But that’s just kind of like my big, you know, ‘We can do it.’”
On an average day, Garcia can be seen walking around school checking into classrooms, communicating with staff on his walkie, meeting with parents and playing football with kids during recess. Students approach him with ease, many asking him to play and others saying he’s just “really cool.”
He knows every student by name.
During recess Tuesday, over 15 students approached him, whether to complain that a ball was stolen from them or to just say hello. His connection with his students is clear, always ready with a smile and energy that he translates into each situation while at school. Within a matter of minutes, his passion for education is intoxicating.
Earlier this year, Garcia was recognized at the annual Hayward City of Commerce event honoring Hayward’s local heroes for his work at Harder Elementary and the significant turn around the school has experienced under his leadership in terms of API assessment scores.
At the ceremony in February, Garcia was introduced by Donald Evans, Superintendent for the Hayward Unified School District (HUSD), who said he was “so proud” of him, and grateful to have a role-model like him for perspective educators because of his experiences and insight in education.
“Principals will always say to you, and I will also affirm it here, that when I’m having a rough day, I just go into my classrooms and I engage with the kids, and seeing their faces light up when they solve a problem or understand a concept is just the best feeling in the world,” said Garcia.
“All I want is to help these students get the best they can, regardless of where they come from,” he said. “They deserve it, and my goal has always been to do everything in my capacity to give that to them.”
Garcia started his career in Hayward in 1995 as a recent UC San Diego graduate.
When Garcia first arrived as principal of Harder Elementary, he said he soon realized “it seemed like it had been going through a significant number of years of just a depressed underperformance,” and welcomed the challenge to turn the school around.
One of five children born to immigrant Mexican workers, Garcia says his childhood prepared and inspired him to be an educator; learning early on the difficulties and strengths with being bilingual, poor and discriminated against.
As a first generation American, Garcia grew up in central valley towns between Ceres and Stockton, Calif., leading a double life as a student and a farm worker since the age of four.
Garcia vividly recalls one of his first work experiences picking almonds and walnuts with his parents and siblings, working in freezing weather for hours that seemed to go on without end. Yet, Garcia says experience, along with the rest of his childhood has given him the ability to connect with the students of Harder on a deeper level. Well over half of the students are first-generation Hispanic or Asian and Pacific-Islander.
“In the faces of our children, our brown children, our black children, our white, it doesn’t matter where they’re from; I still see the faces of my brothers, I still see my face,” said Garcia as he recounts what his driving force is everyday at work. “Having known when I was a young child that this thing called public education was probably my only way to another life became a huge motivator to get me here. Seeing that in the faces of our Harder children, for me, that really is the ultimate motivator.”
One of Garcia’s biggest goals is to expand bilingual education to each student at Harder Elementary, as he believes growing up with two languages helped his education immensely.
“When I was younger there was a time where we were advised to stay away from it,” he said. “Now, people recognize its important, and with the majority of our students already being bilingual, we have a huge advantage to help them use it to their advantage.”
Moving forward, Garcia says the major challenges for Harder in the coming year is addressing “severe” assessment issues in literacy at the lower levels and dealing with budget cuts. But in the end, Garcia says he is just glad to work in a community he has grown to love and looks forward to seeing how his projects unfold.
“I really, really love my job,” said Garcia. “It is by far, the most uplifting and difficult job that I’ve ever done. Some days can make you feel like, ‘why did I even decide to do this,’ and other days can make you feel like its beyond worth it, and it lifts one up. If I can teach that trend of being lifted up more days than being brought down, I’m doing good. Yeah, I’m doing pretty good.”
This entry was published in The Pioneer Online on Thursday, October 11th, 2012 at 2:27 pm.