Photo by Christina S. Murrey
When Rick Cruz was a 5th grade teacher at Joe E. Moreno Elementary in the Houston Independent School District, his students achieved the highest state standardized testing results in the school’s history, with 93 percent passing the exam and 58 percent earning the commended level. Cruz was named Teacher of the Year two years in a row.
Ninety-eight percent of the student population at the elementary were economically disadvantaged and most had no family members who’d attended college. Yet Cruz, who’d double majored in literature and Portuguese at Yale University, knew that colleges were looking for kids just like them to enroll in their schools, and that many highly selective colleges offered qualified students from underserved communities full scholarships and life-changing opportunities.
“I began organizing after-school workshops with fellow teachers to help students and their families learn what it takes to get into these highly selective schools,” Cruz says.
Interest in the workshops grew. Cruz then founded and led a 501(c3) nonprofit organization called the EMERGE Fellowship and the program spread across HISD. It’s currently serving more than 750 students and has helped nearly 200 students gain entry and scholarships allowing them to attend colleges like Harvard, Yale, Penn, Rice, Stanford, Cornell, and Smith.
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier had originally encouraged Cruz to start EMERGE and provided the support to expand the program. Says Cruz, “[Grier] was excited about the success of the program and wanted to see it implemented even more widely throughout HISD. He asked me to become an assistant superintendent. I tried to say no because I was initially apprehensive about becoming an administrator.”
But Cruz changed his mind when Grier shared his story. When Grier was a senior in high school, he asked his counselor about the logistics of taking the SAT to gain entrance into college. His counselor tried to dissuade him and told him he’d be better suited for military service given his family’s low-income background. One of Grier’s teachers overheard the conversation and gave him money out of her own pocket to take the test. “Terry’ sincerity and passion for helping students access postsecondary opportunities persuaded me to take on the role,” says Cruz.
Cruz led the district’s College Readiness division for two years as assistant superintendent, preparing 215,000 students across 282 schools for post-secondary success. In that role, he scaled EMERGE, increased scholarship and financial aid offers by more than $70 million, and helped the district achieve record-breaking performance levels on AP, SAT and other college readiness indicators.
Because of the progress made, the district was awarded an $8.5 million grant from a local foundation to scale college readiness efforts even further and ensure that quality college advising was available to all students in the district. Cruz was also recognized by Houston Mayor Annise Parker for his contributions to education and had a day named in his honor.
Cruz was subsequently promoted to major projects officer for the district, a role in which he is responsible for leading several of the district’s key initiatives, including a secondary transformation initiative fueled by a $30 million Race to the Top Grant.
Still, he felt he needed to continue his education. “It was a big jump from teaching to being an administrator and I knew there was a lot I still wanted and needed to learn.” A colleague had earned his Ed. D. in educational administration from the UT College of Education’s Cooperative Superintendency Program and recommended Cruz. “UT’s program is one of the best in the country,” says Cruz, “and I’m learning from the cohort as well as the professors.”
Cruz says what he most enjoys about the program is that it “marries theory with practice; it provides me with a conceptual understanding of the work I am doing, as well as practical ways to improve upon it.” Cruz is also extremely impressed by the strength of the department’s alumni network and feels that he has already grown significantly as a result of the program. “I look forward to becoming a more effective educator and leader,” he says, “and I am excited by the prospect of having a greater impact on the lives of students as a result.”