Educator Nancy Gutierrez Prevails

by | Sep 18, 2023 | Featured, Spartan Spotlight

Nancy Gutiérrez

Nancy Gutiérrez

This is how Nancy Gutiérrez describes the neighborhood where she grew up: “When you think of the intersection of King and Story, what images come to mind? People of different colors, cultures and corners, majority Latinx. East Side Oldies blasting through the windows. Immigrants making a humble living. Spanglish. Lowriders on Friday nights. Sights and sounds of beauty all around. East Side San José is home.”

Gutiérrez, ’05 MA Educational Leadership, who was a teacher and school principal in Alum Rock Union Elementary School District and served her home community of East San José for more than a decade, says that historically, many educators have not viewed her hometown in the same positive light. Instead, generations of teachers, leaders and even neighbors have internalized what she calls the leave to succeed (L2S) mindset  — that is, in order for students to lead successful lives, they must first leave their neighborhoods. She explores this idea in her newly released book, “Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed,” which she co-authored with Roberto Padilla, superintendent of Community School District 7 in the Bronx, New York.

“The L2S mindset is a deficit-based approach from really well-intentioned people, including our own families. Every parent wants the best for their kids but the idea of leaving home as a condition of success has the potential to cause long-term harm,” she says. “Most conversations about equity emphasize re-envisioning white spaces to be more inclusive. While this remains true, we should simultaneously re-envision the communities that kids grow up in as places where success is not just a possibility but an expectation.’” 

“To counter the leave to succeed narrative, we must share the stories that are not being told, like those of us who give back to our communities. The truth is that there is immense brilliance in our own backyards and the places we call home. We should not have to give up who we are to achieve success.”

Gutiérrez remembers her mother walking her and her five siblings to Anthony Dorsa Elementary School to pick up trash on Saturdays. “She would always say, ‘You are responsible for improving our neighborhood too. If you see a piece of trash, pick it up.’ All six of us continue to give back in our own ways.” 

Rewriting school narratives

So how can educators and administrators rewrite cultural narratives about leaving or staying home? For Gutiérrez, the perspective shift needs to start at the top. Instead of reinforcing the narrative that to succeed, students must leave, she says educators and students alike need to recognize there are many ways to succeed. This includes rethinking how schools brand students as “good” or “bad,” “high” or “low” achieving — and that leaders must redefine their roles as partners, mentors and capacity builders, not the traditional “disciplinarian” or “call me when something goes wrong” administrator.

Nancy Gutiérrez with two former students at Clyde L. Fischer Middle School in 2010. Photo courtesy of Nancy Gutiérrez.

Nancy Gutiérrez with two former students at Clyde L. Fischer Middle School in 2010. Photo courtesy of Nancy Gutiérrez.

Instead of viewing the proverbial “principal’s office” as only a symbol of discipline, when Gutiérrez served as school principal of Clyde L. Fischer Middle School, she worked to rewrite the narrative such that teachers could refer students to her office for “exhibiting excellence.”

Whenever a student would exhibit outstanding behavior, a teacher could fill out an excellence checklist and send the student to her office. Gutiérrez would keep a copy of the student’s recognition for their records and immediately share the good news with their parents. 

“I would call their parents to say, ‘We’re proud of your baby, and let’s tell you why,’” she says. “By doing this, we changed the culture of the school and worked to earn the trust of  our students and parents.They knew we would treat their babies as if they were our own.” This is one of the stories shared in “Stay & Prevail.”

Gutiérrez credits some of her innovative approaches to leadership to her time at San José State, where she learned how to partner with school communities through a culturally responsive lens. She carried this knowledge with her when she relocated to the East Coast to pursue a doctorate of educational leadership (Ed.L.D) from Harvard in 2010.

Once there, she confronted some of the side effects of the leave to succeed mindset: She had to challenge the notion that she was “the one who got out,” the token high achiever in her community. Instead, she channeled her energy into finding ways to remain deeply connected to her East San José community as well as building culturally responsive leaders in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then in New York City. 

This experience came in handy in 2018, when she became the president and CEO of The Leadership Academy, an organization that supports educational leaders to ensure every school and school system is intentionally built to ensure children of every race, ethnicity, language and other identity characteristics have what they need to achieve academic, social and emotional success. Now, she has the chance to collaborate with school, school system and state education leaders in 39 states who are invested in developing as culturally-responsive educators leading in the communities they call home. 

Redefining homecoming

This September, Gutiérrez will return to her alma mater, William C. Overfelt High School on San José’s East Side, for the West Coast launch of her and Padilla’s new book. She was delighted to learn that 27 of the current teaching staff at Overfelt also grew up on the East Side, reinforcing her and Padilla’s message that regardless of whether students leave or stay in their communities, there are many ways they can achieve and succeed.

What keeps her grounded as an educational leader, parent and East Side girl at heart? 

“As you continue to advance your education, don’t forget what it’s like ‘behind the eyes’ — whether of a student who does (or doesn’t) see their identities affirmed and reflected in the curriculum; a teacher who stays up late every night to ensure their pedagogical practice invites students to critique and challenge systems around them empowering them as agents of change; a school leader who goes the extra mile to cultivate a community of authentic care within and across their community; or a parent who never felt welcomed at a school setting and now feels like a true partner to teachers and staff members,” she says. “When you ‘get behind the eyes’ of those who are in service every day, it not only keeps you humble, but it grounds your perspective in the core of why we all do this work every day.

“It also reminds you to keep this work human-centered and to teach, lead and love our young people as if they were our own.”

Gutiérrez and Padilla will be in conversation with Adriana Solis-Lopez of Latinos for Education, Eva Mejia of IDEO and Overfelt High School’s Instructional Coach Marissa Brown on September 21 at William C. Overfelt High School. Learn more about the Stay And Prevail Bay Area Book Launch.