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In fall 2020, San Antonio’s Teach for America chapter will celebrate a decade of serving students in the area.
For most of the first nine years, Laura Saldivar Luna led the organization, growing it to its current size, with 105 active teachers in seven districts and charter schools and roughly 400 alumni in San Antonio.
With Saldivar Luna taking a new role as chief people officer with Teach for America, the local chapter has a new executive director, Nick Garcia.
Garcia started with TFA in 2005 as a teacher in New York City, before transitioning to a staff role near his hometown in the Rio Grande Valley. He moved to San Antonio six years ago and brings years of experience as a coach for first- and second-year teachers in a variety of subject levels and grades.
The Rivard Report spoke to Garcia about his experience with the teaching organization and his plans for TFA’s future as it approaches the 10-year mark. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rivard Report: How did you get involved with Teach for America?
Nick Garcia: I was a 2005 New York City corps member. So I taught fourth grade in Brooklyn in New York, and I read [TFA co-founder] Wendy Kopp’s book my senior year and was just so inspired by the work that they were doing.
I thought, “I want to do something about this,” and was a religion major before that. I was on my way to seminary before joining the corps and just had a truly life-altering experience when I met my students. I taught at PS 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
New York wasn’t for me. I wanted to stay with my kids for another year but ultimately was recruited to work on TFA staff in the Rio Grande Valley. … I’ve been with TFA ever since.
RR: How did your role change when you moved to the Rio Grande Valley?
NG: I worked in direct support – at the time it was called a program director – but coaching our first- and second-year teachers.
[My roles with TFA] were challenging in different ways. [In New York,] I was teaching elementary school and just getting my legs underneath me and then [in the Rio Grande Valley] was supporting a really wide range of contents. The Valley is really spread out, so you just can’t focus on one content area or grade level. So I was supporting kids up and down, or teachers who have students at all levels.
… My wife is originally from the East Coast … and wanted to go to a bigger city, and I wanted to stay married so we ended up deciding on San Antonio.
I moved up here and kept managing the program at a much larger scale. The Valley had maybe 80 teachers and at the time San Antonio had about 200. I have just sort of increased the teams and scope of my work and what my teams have been doing since arriving [in San Antonio] six years ago.
RR: San Antonio is a relatively new Teach for America chapter. Does that change the work that you do here?
NG: … The work that [San Antonio] is doing as an organization is different than when [our] alumni is, on average, 23 years old. We have matured a ton since then. We’ve grown from 30 alumni who happened to be living in SA to almost 400 today as we approach our 10th anniversary.
I would say that the work of supporting first-year teachers looks really similar in all of the contexts that I’ve been in – in New York, and in San Antonio, and in the RGV. There has been a lot that TFA has done to codify the first weeks of school that help support teachers across the country.
RR: Do you see TFA filling a different role here in San Antonio than it does elsewhere?
NG: For sure. It used to be that a TFA teacher saw themselves as a heroic leader, sort of this individual inside the four walls of the classroom taking on the world. That was our brand for a long time. And we started shifting that in part because [of] communities like San Antonio.
We see that the path forward isn’t at all about how great you are individually or having yet another siloed pocket of excellence. We really have to orient toward collective action of leadership.
That’s what the city of San Antonio needs. That’s what it is going to take to have the dramatic citywide turnaround that we all hope for.
RR: How do you approach the transition to lead an organization that has been led by the same person, Laura Saldivar Luna, for the better part of 10 years?
NG: They are physically tiny but spiritually massive shoes to fill. I feel like that is a question that maybe we should revisit in a few months or a few years. There is a lot that I want to continue from Laura. Laura was very committed to this community.
In terms of leadership style, I don’t know that Laura was doing it XYZ way and I’m going to be doing it ABC. At least that’s not clear yet. I think what I’m excited about – or what I feel like has led to the successes that [have] brought me to this point – is bring people around a small table and inspire them to believe what we can collectively promise.
TFA wasn’t always oriented toward developing culturally responsive teachers, for example. It was something I was deeply committed to in the RGV. It was us and Phoenix that were sort of the pioneers in it. I brought that here to SA and sort of said, “Will you trust me to go down this new direction?” And that was a bold first step in my first months here, so we went through our growing pains, but I imagine I’m going to learn a lot of lessons from the leader I become within our organization and sort of take those with me.
RR: What is your future vision for TFA in San Antonio?
NG: I keep asking myself, “At what point will we say there is enough talented, convicted people who care about education in this town?” And I don’t think we are saturated at this point. I would love to see us grow [to] a height of about 100 corps members that we were bringing in every year … in 2013 and 2014. It has really tapered down, so this past year, we brought in 60 first-year teachers. I do think there is a runway for us to grow.
San Antonio is next to New York and the Bay Area one of the highest-requested regions among our incoming applicants, so our national team is sort of saying, “Y’all should grow and take it on.” We have been getting a lot of support from the philanthropic community.
We are certainly currently on a growth trajectory and I’d like to see us grow. We will never be bringing in corps of 500, but I would like to see us return to close to where we were before.