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Democrat looks to become the next State Superintendent

Sergio Maldonado
Sergio Maldonado Campaign

It's campaign season and for the next couple of months we will meet some candidates from some key races and while we'll spend a lot of time talking with Republicans, let's start things off with a Democrat. Sergio Maldonado Sr. has been an educator for 30 years and is finishing up doctoral work at the University of Wyoming. Maldonado is a resident on the Wind River Reservation where he's been involved with the community in a number of ways since he returned to the area in 2006, after teaching at Arizona State University. He's been involved with K-12 schools, charter schools, University education, and has even worked with those who've faced alcohol and substance abuse issues. Maldonado tells Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck that he's been in a classroom his whole life.

Bob Beck: So the first thing I want to ask you about is that you've made early childhood development a priority. Why?

Sergio Maldonado: Well, here's why. You know, I've been blessed with two parents who moved us from the reservation when I was six. I grew up in Tucson, very multicultural education. It was my mother, who read to every one of us, five of us, to two brothers, two sisters, and we read throughout the school week; weekends we had off. And then as we learned how to read better, we would read to our siblings.

So I look back on that. I just know in everything that I've studied, being a teacher, my master's from ASU is in elementary education, supervision, curriculum development…if a child cannot read, they're gonna spend the rest of their life learning how to read.

Reading opens up the mindset, the worldview, the intellectual take on life. I'm just adamant about that, children must be able to read significantly by the end of third grade. And yet I see and I have data from the State Department, where in our own state, we have children who are not reading.

We have some of the highest paid teachers in the nation, top five. And yet we are in the bottom five in the nation as far as academic success. So one has to pose a question: why the disparity? Now, that's not to say that all schools are not doing well, because they are, but when you put them together at an aggregate level and you average the scores, we're not doing so well.

BB: The early childhood education piece is interesting to me because I don't run into people who disagree with it, what they disagree with is requiring it. And in some fashion making it part of the state of Wyoming, they say 'If you would like to go to a private daycare provider and do this or or teach it at home, that's just great.' And that's honestly what most of them would prefer. How do you change that mindset?

SM: Number one, changing one's mindset at an adult level is an extremely rigorous task; people may be set in what they think the downside is. Too often people have not fully thought out what they're thinking about. Every child must read, be able to do arithmetic, compute, and think critically. That's a must, for a balanced student to engage, to matriculate into life after high school. Without it, they are going to have a very dismal future.

BB: Improving overall literacy, what would be a plan for that?

SM: Well, I believe that when we start talking about grade level interaction, first through third, they generally group that together and then four through six. We must have a path, that they are segued with one another with a common long term goal, so that by the time they're in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, reading is still a highly recommended mindset.

But here's the other thing. I look across the state, I don't want to single out the reservation, and I pose this question: how many of our homes across the state have books in the home for the children? Make books available, have libraries open on the weekend that could be, should be, must be a part of the teacher regimen.

If we want to make sure that reading is taking place, then make it a part of not only the teacher regimen, but here's where the tough piece comes in…and I use the word rigorous task. Parents must buy into the notion that reading will facilitate success. But once a child leaves our school district, our school day place, they go back to an environment where the parents may not support it. So one more time, reading is a lifetime pursuit.

BB: So your thinking is that you get the youngsters at a very young age and develop a love for this?

SM: Exactly. And I'm gonna seize upon your word. Youngsters can learn to love the printed word. We have so many good books out there for kindergarten, first grade, sixth grade, and on into high school. We just have to be willing to dig deep and find the books for the children and find the funds so that they can have their own personal copy also.

I was in eighth grade and my mother gave me a book by Oscar Lewis called "The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family." It was a novel, thick. She said "Sergio, I want you to read this. This is about your father and where he comes from." Well, it took me a couple of months to read that healthy novel. But I had a whole new take on my father who was a very disciplined man. He was a carpenter. And I learned from him. It was my mother who said "Read this, you might learn a little bit more."

BB: I am hearing candidates, maybe more specifically on the Republican side, talking about getting parents more involved in what's being taught in the schools. What is your take on that?

SM: Well, you know, I've got seven children, four daughters and three boys. And they've all done very well in school. Four of the seven have all finished college. I believe that parental involvement with your children will not only serve as a role model in a positive sense for the child, for your student, to engage more in depth with school, but it will facilitate a relationship with your children also.

With my mother, we could talk. My father, he was much more to the point. My mother, because she was such a well read woman from the reservation, she'd get volumes of books every other weekend from the Tucson Public Library, and she'd read them all.

That reading provides you with a panoramic take on the world. It allows you to question why? And here I was in eighth grade after reading Oscar Lewis, asking why? She woke me up. When a parent goes that one step forward, they have an academic relationship with their child, versus just a mother-daughter, mother-son relationship.

BB: Sergio, I want to ask you about something I'm hearing a lot in the state from parents and people who are a little skeptical of our public school system. You've taught in a charter school. There's certainly some support for more charter schools in the state of Wyoming. There's also a great deal of interest in teaching at home or some combination of taking public school classes and homeschooling… and just flat out homeschooling. Where are you on some of those topics? And do you think we need to sort of change the way we're teaching in public schools?

SM: Well, first and foremost, if parents want to homeschool and have the capacity to do that, to afford their children a wide educational experience, I support that homeschooling. Private sector schools, if parents want to take their children to a private sector school, I support that. This is called choice. And you know, my dad always said, Life is choice, but make the right choice.' I do not support the notion that we're going to use publicly paid tax dollars, for the private sector. If a parent wants their child to attend a private sector school, then you foot the bill.

St. Margaret's School in Riverton, they have quality education, they're tops. District 25 does well, District One does well in Lander, but parents at St. Margaret, they pay their tuition. So you are putting skin in the game. And this is what I say to Americans and Wyoming. If you want your child in a private sector school, you pay for it. I do not support using public monies, no matter what kind of construct that so and so may come up with that the public school system is failing. I beg to differ. Our public school system is doing extremely well. We just have to put our shoulders, collectively speaking, to the wheel and help move along.

BB: Do we need some innovation? Do we need to change how we do some things?

SM: That's a wonderful question and here's what we need to do. First and foremost, I looked at all of this and I researched it for years. I worked with our tribal education committee. And there's no question that our reservation schools are in the bottom section of Wyoming scores for a while. For a number of reasons. But here's what I'm going to say. I have the academic experience, the professional experience, to provide the leadership that Wyoming must have to pull ourselves out of this disconnect with age grade appropriate education. But more importantly, with positive results that show the state and the nation that our children in Wyoming do have the capacity.

I was appointed by (President George) Herbert Walker Bush to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education after I was recommended by Arizona colleagues. Much to my chagrin, many, many, many had degrees above and beyond where I was at.

But as I look back on it now, they saw that I am content just to be one of the worker bees. But after that three year appointment, I came away with a whole new take on what education is about. When you have Secretary of Education (Terrel) Bell, sitting with you, and then the Office of Management and Budget, flip charts, all of that stuff. You realize how important this is.

America, as compared to internationally, we are no longer at the top of the rung. I can't say where we're at, but we're not at the top of the rung where we once were. And maybe it's because we, and I'll always say this, we have let loose little by little over generations on the importance of education and the importance of discipline in school.

BB: You can learn more about Sergio Maldonado at https://www.sergioforwyoming.com/

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.

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