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Rey Saldaña, who served on San Antonio City Council for eight years and became VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board chair last year, will leave San Antonio next month to become president and CEO of Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that supports students in low-income schools.
Saldaña has come full circle from the South San High School freshman who walked into a Communities In Schools (CIS) office and learned how to fill out financial aid and scholarship paperwork, to now leading the nonprofit that helped him apply to Stanford University. There, he earned bachelors degrees in political science and communications in 2009 and a master’s degree in education policy in 2010.
“Growing up in a low-income community, you set certain boundaries for your expectations,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report. “I want to pay it forward to another student who is in the same situation I was in. That’s why when [they] called me to consider it, it was so hard to say no. If Communities In Schools was not part of my DNA – was not part of my success – I could have more easily turned away from the opportunity, but it is too important to me at too important of a time for students across the country.”
His move to Washington, D.C., puts speculation about a mayoral run in San Antonio largely to rest, as he assured the CIS board he was in it for the long haul, he said.
“That was a tough decision,” said Saldaña, who has served as a board member for CIS of San Antonio. “Being mayor is about wanting to make an impact for the people that need your help – who are most vulnerable. Being president and CEO of this organization is doing much of the same work. It’s about being there for the people who need someone to fight for them.”
CIS of San Antonio was founded in 1985 and San Antonio was the third city in which the nonprofit set up shop. Site coordinators essentially act as caseworkers for students who are struggling to stay in school or see college in their future.
That could mean connecting the student to a food bank, helping them apply for a scholarship, or getting them in touch with an attorney for legal help, Saldaña said. “They’re like a Swiss Army knife … you’re their agent, you’re the disruptor of poverty in [a student’s] life.”
At the end of the week, Saldaña will conclude his work as a regional director of outreach with Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, an education advocacy nonprofit he joined in January 2018. His last day as VIA board chair, a position he has held since June 2019, will be Wednesday, Feb. 26.
At Raise Your Hand Texas, Saldaña was part of the first team to help build out the nonprofit’s advocacy work, said Shari Albright, president of the foundation.
“We valued his participation in the very successful 86th [Legislative Session] and will benefit from the grassroots organizing and momentum he built in San Antonio,” Albright said in an email to staff. “We are going to miss Rey’s strong advocacy work, deep commitment to equity for students, and boundless energy at Raise Your Hand Texas.”
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CIS, the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, was founded 40 years ago by entrepreneur Bill Milliken. He started “street academies” in Harlem after he became frustrated watching young people drop out of school due to violence, addiction, and poverty. These academies took place outside of the school system, but he couldn’t help but see that there was a “faucet in the schools” that was leaking students onto the street, Milliken told the Rivard Report.
So in the 1970s, he started Communities In Schools to help stop that leak from inside the schools, he said.
CIS had less than 3,000 participating students in 1977; now it has 1.5 million students and operates in 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
Milliken turns 80 next month and serves as the board’s vice chair. He said he wasn’t sure if he would see a CIS alumni become the leader of the organization in his lifetime.
“It’s literally one of the greatest days of my life,” he said.
“I’m a frontier person,” meaning he’s constantly looking for new projects that put pressure on the status quo, he said, laughing. “Frontier people get the village started – I had to bring in a settler.”
CIS found that “settler” in former CEO Dan Cardinali, who led the organization for 12 years.
“Rey’s probably going to be a craftsman,” Milliken said, as Saldaña will take over the implementation of a five-year strategic growth plan during its third year.
“He’s got the right combination of humility and courage and intellect. … [Saldaña] understands the program inside-out but he also understands the political world,” Milliken said. “To be president of this organization, you have to sit down with political people for breakfast, corporate folks for lunch, and children for dinner.”
Jessica Weaver, executive director of CIS of San Antonio, said hiring an alumnus as the CEO is a unique opportunity for the organization.
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“From a personal level, he understands the importance of having opportunities and having a support system,” Weaver said. “He has been in a leadership role in the city level, in political systems, and understands the political process and how to move agenda items. Rey is just a really great listener and he will have an impact over such a large area.”
Saldaña’s role will be to oversee the expansion of CIS into West Virginia and other low-income communities, diversify funding sources, and drive greater impact of CIS programming.
“This board is making a statement in elevating one of its own alumni into a position of leadership,” he said. “What they’re doing is making a bet on someone who is hungry. The unique feature of growing up as a first-generation American, someone who didn’t speak the language growing up, is you always have to be hungry — because that’s the only way that you set yourself apart.”
Saldaña, who was the youngest City Council member when he was elected to represent District 4 at age 24, has been a champion for improving transportation and educational systems in San Antonio. He worked to get VIA more funding through the City’s budget and called for accountability and transparency in the long-troubled South San Independent School District Board.
In those roles he’s leaving behind, he sees a board and a community that will continue on the right path long after he leaves.
VIA is about to embark on a citywide campaign to convince voters to divert a one-eighth-cent sales tax from aquifer protection toward increasing bus frequency – an initiative he’s been a vocal advocate for.
“I know that [VIA is] on the right track but that wasn’t because I became chairman … this is an evolution I’ve seen for the last two years,” he said. “I think Jeff Arndt has grown as a CEO, I think his board has some of the most thoughtful and strategically-minded folks in the city.”
The agency has started to focus on the true reason VIA exists, he said.
“Sure we run bus systems, sure we are a transportation agency – but we are in the business of looking down 10 years and being able to say we played our part in connecting a disconnected city,” he said.
Arndt credited Saldaña with sparking “a movement to modernize our vision for a more mobile future, to reimagine the way VIA service is designed and operated,” he said. “We are on a path toward a system that offers more service, more choices and more opportunities for all, because of his leadership, our community’s shared vision, and the work our Board has helped advance.”
Saldaña’s work in South San ISD will also be continued by people who have been there for decades and a new generation of leaders, he said.
“I saw my role as a spark plug,” he said. “I was not the engine of the good work that was already happening.”
For the first time in his professional life, Saldaña will have one job.
While he was a Council member, Saldaña taught as an adjunct professor at Trinity University and Palo Alto College, was chief engagement officer for KIPP San Antonio, and special projects manager in the Vice President’s Office for Community Service at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
There won’t be time for much else beyond CIS, he said. “I do think that’s going to be enough to consume my attention and time and turn my hair white.”
It remains to be seen whether another elected office is in his future.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “What I do know — and why I can comfortably say to the CIS board I’m here long enough to make an impact — is because I think I’m just wired that way. I didn’t think I’d serve for so long on Council, but when I start something and I get the sense that there is a movement and an impact to be made … I have a hard time leaving.”
Improving the lives of students has become more important as recent years as it becomes harder and harder for children to realize prosperity, he said.
“There are stronger prevailing winds that are facing young people in this country than they ever have faced in the last 40 years. That makes them less likely [to] end up in a better place than their parents,” he said. “As [CIS] thinks about the next five-year plan, it’ll be about understanding our role in this moment.”
Saldaña will move into temporary housing next month as he settles into his new role and his new city, scoping out housing for his wife, Jessica, and 1-year-old son, Eli.
“I am going to miss being able to throw a rock and being able to hit an amazing breakfast taco,” he said. “If anybody has suggestions in D.C., I am all ears.”
Education reporter Emily Donaldson contributed to this article.