Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Back in the mid- to late 1980s, Luis Valentino had a budding career in the entertainment industry.
The El Paso native was living in Los Angeles, working at Paramount Studios editing music for movies and sitcoms such as “Webster” and “Family Ties,” rubbing elbows with stars like Michael J. Fox.
So how did he wind up becoming the chief of Albuquerque Public Schools with a nearly 30-year career in education under his belt?
It was an accident, more or less.
Back then, Valentino wanted to earn a master’s in technology, which would help his career in Hollywood, but it was too much to juggle along with his job at the studio, he said.
So Valentino came up with a plan: He would take a leave of absence from Paramount and take an internship as a bilingual teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district was then offering teaching internships to Spanish speakers, and Valentino is fluent.
The idea was teaching would be his day job as he earned his master’s degree, then he would return to his career in Hollywood.
But that was not to be.
“Six weeks later (after starting teaching), I actually called Paramount Pictures and resigned,” Valentino said in an interview with the Journal .
“I started teaching in the fourth-grade classroom, and the energy I got from those 31 kids was just something I had never experienced before.”
Valentino would spend five years in the classroom before taking the first of various positions with LAUSD and nearby universities, eventually becoming a principal, then a district administrator.
In 2012, he was recruited to become associate superintendent of curriculum and chief academic officer for San Francisco Unified School District.
And last month, the APS school board picked Valentino over 59 other candidates to become the district’s next superintendent. He starts June 22.
The job is a big one. APS has about 88,000 students, 14,000 employees and a $690 million operating budget.
The district also faces significant challenges. Last year, APS’ graduation rate was 62.5 percent, it’s truancy rate was 15.6 percent, and many of its students come from impoverished homes and tough neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the district’s recent superintendents have not ridden off happily into the sunset.
In August, the school board negotiated former Superintendent Winston Brooks’ departure. Brooks resigned and the board agreed to buy out the two remaining years of his contract for $350,000.
Valentino has a three-year contract, in which he will be paid a base salary of $240,000, which is slightly less than Brooks’ base salary.
Neither side has said what exactly led to the Brooks buyout. The Journal and KOB-TV are suing APS for documents related to Brooks’ departure, including an investigation report written last summer by an attorney who then-board President Analee Maestas hired to look into a “serious personnel manner” involving Brooks. The district has refused to release the report.
If Valentino didn’t know the road for APS superintendents has been rough, he found out last week.
In Albuquerque to meet with APS officials and community groups Wednesday, Valentino had a news conference in town for the first time since the school board announced his hire last month.
During this introduction of sorts with the local press, Valentino was asked if he, too, would leave the district with a buyout.
“This for me isn’t really at all about the money. It’s about the opportunity I’ve been given,” Valentino said. “I don’t want to leave saying, ‘If you’re kicking me out, pay me out the door.’ And I hope you, if that happens, then you hold me accountable to what I am saying today.”
Reporters also questioned Valentino about his decision to bring two new administrators to APS with him. One will be a chief of staff who will make $170,000 annually and another will focus on instruction and technology and will make $160,000.
Valentino defended the hires, saying they will help him learn about the district. He said their salaries are equal to what they currently earn.
On Thursday, during a Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Valentino said he has a 5-year-old son who will attend APS schools, and because of that, he will be personally invested in the district’s success.
This is also not the first time Valentino has taken a tough job.
In 2000, he was hired to be the principal of Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles, “one of the most difficult, low-performing schools in my area,” said Valentino’s old boss Richard Alonzo.
Back then, Alonzo, now retired, was one of eight local district superintendents in LAUSD.
The district had about 800,000 students, and the administration cut the district up into eight parts, each with its own local superintendent.
Alonzo met Valentino while he was working at UCLA – between 1998 and 2000 – and recruited him to be the principal of Evelyn Thurman Gratts.
Valentino said he knew the school, poverty stricken and surrounded by gang violence, was really tough when gunshots would ring out and the elementary students wouldn’t hide, but rather would run to the school fence to see who had been shot.
But as hectic as the community was, Valentino’s demeanor was the opposite, Alonzo said.
“You never saw him explode, and he always thinks about his responses in a very thoughtful way,” Alonzo said.
Valentino’s demeanor helped him win over the school’s staff and convince them that the students of Evelyn Thurman Gratts were capable of learning, despite the poverty and violence in the neighborhood, and the school improved, Alonzo said.
According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, Evelyn Thurman Gratts was a “more effective than average school” from 2003 to 2009, which covered much of the time Valentino was principal there.
Good with parents
Part of Valentino’s success was reaching out to parents, Alonzo said.
On a regular basis, Valentino would hold Saturday classes for parents in which teachers would tell them what their kids were learning in school, Alonzo said, adding it was very successful in getting parents involved.
After seven years at Evelyn Thurman Gratts, Alonzo promoted Valentino to a director of school services, where he would be tasked with overseeing the activities and performance of more than 30 school principals.
He held that job for five years before taking his position in San Francisco.
Asked if Valentino has any failures or weaknesses, Alonzo quipped, “Sometimes, I didn’t like the ties he wore.”
“I’m making him sound pretty rosy, but I wouldn’t pick someone I couldn’t rely on to be a role model for my principals,” he said.
Valentino’s former boss in San Francisco also touted his ability. As the district’s chief academic officer, Valentino led its adoption of the Common Core, expansion of classroom technology and STEM curriculum and bilingual education, said Guadalupe Guerrero, the district’s deputy superintendent. He also rebuilt an academic division hurt by budget cuts.
“He inherited a skeleton of a division and built it up methodically and very strategically,” Guerrero told the Journal last month.
Valentino has not made any sweeping announcements about his plans for APS.
In the news conference at which the board announced his hire, Valentino said he wants to take three months to learn about the district and develop a 90-day plan he will share with the board in October that will outline his goals and policy initiatives.
In an interview with the Journal last week, Valentino said one of the major motivations in his career was using education to provide opportunities to disadvantaged students.
While working in East Los Angeles as a teacher, Valentino said he “began to see the inequities.”
“You have kids in Los Angeles that have never seen the ocean, and they’re 10. And it’s 10 miles away,” he said, adding that to help remedy this, he took his students on a Saturday field trip to the beach.
“That’s why I chose to work in those communities,” he said. “Because in my mind that’s what mattered the most.”
East Los Angeles was not the first place Valentino saw deep poverty.
Jim Weddell, who is now vice president of advertising and marketing for the Journal, was a first-year teacher with Valentino back in the 1988-89 school year in Los Angeles, and the two became good friends.
After a stint teaching, Weddell moved to El Paso, Valentino’s home town, to work as a copy editor for a newspaper there, and the two would catch up when Valentino would come back to visit.
While living in El Paso, Weddell saw the neighborhood where Valentino grew up – the Segundo Barrio – the son of two immigrants, one from Cuba and one from Mexico, Weddell said.
“Which is really the poorest part of El Paso,” he said of the Segundo Barrio.
Weddell said knowing where Valentino came from made his accomplishments all the more impressive.
And Weddell believes it will help Valentino find a way to help those students who need it the most.
“He definitely brings a background and a vision to the job that most other people don’t have,” he said.