While José Salgado may have started his career as an engineer in his home country of Honduras, it wasn’t long before he started teaching English classes and discovered where his true passions lay.
“I loved it, I was home,” Salgado, Schenectady schools’ newest district official, said of his earliest experiences as a teacher.
That teaching gig resulted in a Fullbright Scholarship and a chance to study at Boston University, where he focused on fostering equity and equality in classrooms. From there, he worked in an alternative school in the Boston area before earning an education doctorate at Harvard University. He then ran a middle school in Boston Public Schools and worked as a college provost at a technology university in Honduras.
Earlier this month, Salgado was appointed as the Schenectady City School District’s first chief academic officer, charged with leading the district’s classroom efforts and tasked with outlining the vision for what Schenectady schools teach and how they teach it in the coming years and decades.
“My passion really lies in being at schools and working directly with teachers,” Salgado said during an interview last week alongside Superintendent Larry Spring.
Salgado worked for five years as principal of the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in Boston Public Schools, where the school day and added extra-curricular programs were developed in an effort to expand opportunities for the students of color he served.
He returned to his home country of Honduras, where he worked as provost of the Technological University of Honduras before returning to Massachusetts to run a post-graduate program at Salem State University.
Salgado, who had been itching to get back into schools, said he was impressed by his visit to Schenectady and the vision outlined by its leaders.
“Schenectady has all the instances and structures that will allow our students to really increase their achievement,” he said. “The leadership of the district, the superintendent, has set an agenda that not only fits with what the research and literature says should be done, but it’s what I know is true, and I believe all the efforts the entire team is putting in will create a fantastic result for the students.”
During his visit to the district for a final set of interviews, “I would have been sad not to get the job because of the students, because that was the moment in which I felt that this was the right place, the students were amazing,” Salgado said.
Spring said creating the new chief academic officer title and position was a way to lift the position in a bid to draw a higher-caliber applicant pool. The position oversees the office of curriculum and instruction and absorbs what had previous been a district director position; the chief academic officer is charged with coordinating with the heads of other departments that work in support of classroom efforts. The school board board approved Salgado’s hire at a salary of $134,000 a year.
Tonda Dunbar, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, is set to leave the district in the coming weeks.
“The chief academic officer is that person who has that five-year, that 10-year, that 20-year-look down the road: where do we need to be?” Spring said of the new position, noting that next year’s entering kindergarten class will graduate high school in 2033.
Spring highlighted Salgado’s successes as a school principal, his Harvard education and the fact that he speaks multiple languages all as points in Salgado’s favor. Salgado speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and can use sign language as well.
“As we think about what we need to do to better serve all of our kids, one of the things that we thought about in that is how do we diversify ourselves as a team and how do we make sure we’ve got folks at our table who will recognize things we might not recognize?” Spring asked.
Salgado, who has been in the district for less than two weeks, has conducted training sessions for school principals and other district leaders; he has visited schools and classrooms and started to think through the district’s broader curriculum – how kindergarten connects to first grade and first grade to second grade all the way through high school graduation.
Through the winter Salgado will prioritize the district’s curriculum needs – where teachers are most in need of an outline of how to teach the content in a particular part of a class – and begin to outline what areas will drive curriculum writing with teachers over the summer. Even though in recent years the district has implemented a methodical approach to rewriting classroom units each summer, it is still slow moving through the thousands of curriculum units spread across the district.
“We still have places where we don’t have curriculum, we don’t have written curriculum, we still have some places where the curriculum we have has not been revisted or edited in a number of years,” Spring said.
As Salgado looks to plug the district’s most urgent classroom needs, he will also begin plotting out a meticulous quilt of interconnected courses and academic themes that return year after year or across different subjects. How do students research?
How do they solve problems? How do they hold themselves accountable?
“We think about projecting what the world is going to be like in 2033, what kind of knowledge and skills those students are going to need,” Spring said. “At the end of this sequence of courses and these experiences what is it that we really ultimately want kids to know, do and be like?”
In the long run, Salgado hopes to break down barriers between disciplines and subjects – why are chemistry and biology taught separately? Why not teach history, literature and government together as the humanities? - and shift many of the decisions over how they learn to the students.
“Students cannot be just told or asked to memorize, students really have to struggle and develop and gather strategies to be able to solve a problem,” he said. “I want students in the classroom, in the one I imagine, students are sharing their understanding and students are creating real-life applications of their knowledge.”
He said he wants students to learn how to learn while in Schenectady, something they can take with them the rest of their lives.
“I want to see that each student loves to learn, and they are curious about how the world works,” Salgado said.