Oregon’s Balderas Leads with a focus on the entire community, including student transportation Written By Taylor Hannon |

Dr. Gustavo Balderas is all about the “we.” When his name was called as winner of the 2020

National Superintendent of the Year award on Feb. 13, during the National Conference on Education in San Diego, he immediately thought of the students, teachers and support staff at Eugene School District 4J in Oregon. The son of immigrant parents from Mexico, Dr. Gus, as

he’s affectionately known, was raised in eastern Oregon as the family migrated from farm to farm in search of work. At the same time, Balderas fell in love with edu- cation, utilizing the U.S. education system, first to learn English as a second language, and finally earning his doctoral degree in educational leadership from the Uni- versity of Oregon. “The National Superintendent of the Year award is very

much a ‘we’ award, not a ‘me’ award. It is an acknowl- edgement of the progress we as a team are making toward a more equitable and accessible education for all learners,” Balderas told School Transportation News and also announced as he accepted the award, which is co-sponsored by the American Association of School Administers, First Student and AIG Retirement Services. Growing up in a migrant family has influenced Bal-

deras to give back to the community by inspiring all of the 17,500 students at 4J. As STN previously reported in an online special report, Balderas has strived as superin- tendent and throughout his various roles in education to eliminate academic barriers, especially when it comes to students with special needs or students of minority. Balderas took what he explained was an untraditional

route toward his current position. He started his career as an educator and moved up the educational ladder, spending 25 years of his career at Hillsboro School Dis- trict, located west of Portland. “I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school,” Balderas shared in a video posted by the district. “Who would ever have thought I would be in the place where I am now? I am living the American Dream.” Throughout his five-year tenure at 4J, he spearheaded

several initiatives. He has focused on equity and access for all students as well as on improving high school graduation rates. Balderas reported that the graduation rates of students with special needs and in special programs increased by

24 School Transportation News • APRIL 2020

Dr. Gustavo Balderas speaks to National Conference on Education attendees after accepting the 2020 Superintendent of the Year award on Feb. 13.

23 percent in the past six years. The graduation rate for Latino students as well as all students who live in poverty increased by 19 percent. Overall, the rate of students graduating on time has risen 14 percent, and the district is currently enjoying a 10-year high. But in terms of specific programs, Balderas said school bus transportation helps provide equitable access to an education, adding it is the ultimate playing field leveler. “In a community where not every family has a car, or

where not everyone can walk to school, school bus- es make school accessible to all students regardless of income or ability,” Balderas explained. “Furthermore, bus drivers are a critical touchpoint for our students. They are often the first educator our students see each day. An encouraging word, caring inquiry or a smiling face can set the student on a positive path for the school day.” Balderas has also focused on diversifying the work- place, which he accomplished through the hiring process. He added that 39 percent of school principals and 30 percent of all administrators are now people of color. He said the racial minority in Eugene is 20 per- cent, while the district’s student enrollment is slightly higher at 30 percent. “The workplace culture at 4J is one of inclusion and teamwork,” Balderas explained. “We are a community of


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