Nate Salazar was sworn in as the newest board member of the Salt Lake City School District on January 8. Salazar attended Bryant Middle School and graduated from East High School in 2004. He’s currently the only minority on the board for a district where more than half of the students are minorities. He also works in Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office as the associate director of community empowerment. KUER’s Rocio Hernandez spoke with Salazar about what he hopes to accomplish and why he wanted to be on the board.
Rocio Hernandez: What made you want to run for a school board seat?
Nate Salazar: Growing up in the district — growing up in the city — I have a great sense of responsibility to give back. Service is paramount in all that we do in my family. I come from an activist family. My dad is one of the original Chicano activists here in town alongside community leaders like Archie Archuleta, the late Sen. Pete Suazo, Josie Valdez, just to name a few. Those folks certainly inspired in me a sense of not only responsibility, but service to give back — not only in the activist settings, but in politics as well.
RH: What experience do you bring to the school board?
NS: I feel like I bring a lot of experience as a young person. I'm only 32 years old, not too far removed from the district. I bring that perspective of being a person of color — a man of color — in our community, and a leader in our community. I also feel like I bring this perspective of actually working in schools working with youth who have been a little bit of trouble with the juvenile justice system.
I take all of these things and combine that with education specialty — my master's degree of community-based practice. I had the opportunity to work for the state of Utah where I was a youth counselor with juvenile justice services for a number of years. I also spent some time at United Way of Salt Lake as a community school director at South Kearns Elementary, and I currently work for Mayor Jackie Biskupski as associate director of community empowerment.
RH: When you were running what issues did you focus on and now that you are on the board what issues do you want to address?
NS: No. 1 was those equitable outcomes. How do we close the gaps between our ethnic students and our white mainstream students? I also really wanted to focus on social emotional learning and I'm very grateful that my colleagues on the board before I joined chose social and emotional learning as one of the main priorities for this year coming up. We have awesome teachers in our school district and the more support that we can provide them through more counselors and social workers to address social and emotional learning, some of the more acute things mental health, PTSD, that they're seeing in the classroom. And then of course helping them deliver instruction in a collaborative sense are things that I really wanted to focus on.
RH: What strength does your district have and what challenges does it face?
NS: I think all of the characteristics of our district are assets. We have a majority-minority school district. We are almost 60 percent, I think right around 56 percent, ethnic minority. To me that brings in a wealth of culture right into our schools.
We have some work to do. One of the challenges that I will highlight is that we have a lot of work to do and a lot of successes to build on when it comes to closing the achievement gap. Our ethnic students aren't graduating at the same rates or performing relative to proficiency and subject matter at the same rates as their white peers, and to me, again, I believe that this is all an asset. These are all things that we need to embrace and come together around to really target instruction, to make sure that what we do for ethnic and minority students we are doing to benefit all of our students in their academic and social achievements.
RH: What perspective can you offer this board?
NS: Having that lived experience of going through the district, of being a man of color in the district, being a community leader who has a lot of connections and resources ... is quite helpful for the district. I don't want to say that I can relate to every single student or every single family in our district, but I feel like I can relate to a number of them. If I can set the tone as a role model for our students, if I can be somebody that they can look up to, that families can look to and feel a little bit you know a little bit of trust then I think my service is a success.
RH: What plans do you have for your first year?
NS: I'm going to be spending a lot of time up on the Hill during the legislative session. I think there's some opportunity in working with our state legislators who are focusing on things like school safety. High quality pre-K is very important, making sure that our students are proficient when it comes to literacy by the third grade is a bench that I think a lot of folks, if not everybody, can agree on because that benchmark of third-grade literacy is a huge component in determining a forecast relative to high school graduation.
RH: Four years from now, what shape do you hope to leave the district?
NS: I hope that our district is stronger. Like I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of success to build on so I'd really like to see our numbers grow. I'd like to see the achievement gap close. I would love to see full-time counselors in our elementary schools. I would love to see and make sure that our next generation is prosperous and that they're ready and prepared for the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.