By Michael Telek

Video and Marketing Manager, Insititute for Learning

Some people are born with a calling in life. As they grow and are shaped by the environment around them, the potential picture becomes more apparent. Rosita Apodaca was put on this Earth to inspire students and ensure that each child has a fulfilling educational experience ready for college, career, and community.

In late July, Apodaca announced she is retiring as executive director at the Institute for Learning. Her retirement will culminate a 22-year run at the organization, where she became the first person of color to be named Executive Director in 2018. 

“The perks at the IFL are to serve as the game-changer in education and bring the best of what research knows to students who might not have access to the practices. Our work takes place in diverse locations, which means that we learn to change, adapt, and move at incredible speed,” said Apodaca.

Learning to change, adapt and move at incredible speeds are must-have essentials for anyone ready to embark on a career in the educational field. As a young girl, Apodaca got an early taste of this axiom when her mother, Matilde, organized an entirely free elementary school in Mexico.

During her childhood and today, schooling was not compulsory for our Southern neighbors. Many students were left without instruction once the government or private schools’ enrollments were full. That’s where Rosita’s mother would step in. Using an existing warehouse, Matilde hired a teacher and provided roughly 40 to 50 kids with a hot breakfast and an elementary education. As a USA-born 12-year-old fluent in English and Spanish, Apodaca’s mother asked her to teach English to some of the younger students.     

“It was a command performance. So as a child teacher, I tried to figure out some activities to help students understand and say basic things in English. I recall cutting pictures out of magazines and teaching vocabulary and how to write sentences. While these were pedestrian activities, we did enjoy learning the words the students wanted to say,” said Apodaca. “[Thinking] about this takes me back to the Hole-in-the-Wall project of Sugata Mitra‘s, whose central idea is that groups of children learn independently without any direct intervention.”

One-year-old Rosita Apodaca, posing with Mom’s pearls.

That bite was not enough to give Rosita the teaching bug. Growing up, both she and her parents envisioned the path of a businesswoman. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Art and Spanish Literature from the College of St. Joseph in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shortly after graduation, Apodaca married, and with her first baby in hand, she packed everything up with her then-husband to his new job in El Paso, Texas. In an unfamiliar city with no job, she enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso in a master’s degree program. She majored in Spanish Literature and English as a Second Language.

Teaching was never on Apodaca’s mind until she visited a friend’s classroom and fell in love with the teaching and learning she was seeing. Motivated by that moment, she landed her first salaried job as a substitute teacher in El Paso. Within a year, she was already on the hunt for a full-time teaching gig. She eventually convinced the district to hire her as a Spanish teacher in a K-8 school.

Apodaca (left) seen here with her mother Matilde (sitting) and sister Ivonne (right).

“It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I became a fan of teaching,” recalled Apodaca. “There were textbooks and supervisors back then, but you had a creative license. So, my theatre and literature background came in handy. Third graders performed productions in Spanish, and my eighth graders wrote short children’s’ stories in Spanish that they would read to the lower elementary students in the school. It was the best of all worlds for me.”

Apodaca felt compelled to teach English to students who needed it to succeed in the United States. She landed a job and was tasked to prepare a group of non-English speaking, migrant tweens, and teens for American high school. The administration expected her to develop the curriculum, but the available resources were not adequate. She purchased books for learning English and some in Spanish for content like American History. She also enlisted the help of the school counselor, who was a former math teacher, since some of her students needed algebra. He did not speak Spanish, but Apodaca translated. To reciprocate, she took up some of his home visits, driving around the Upper Valley in New Mexico in a red classic Volkswagen Bug.

“These innovations are what teachers did when we were allowed to focus on student needs first. My colleagues and I had a few other collaborative projects that opened up my imagination on how to serve my students in ways that teachers suggested and those used to educate me in the private and public schools I had attended,” said Apodaca.

Years later, while speaking to a group of education majors at a conference, Rosita was met by one of those former students. She discovered that many of the students from that class graduated high school, with three becoming teachers. Reflecting on that experience, Apodaca was still in her early 20s. As she taught, she believed her students “saw me and they saw themselves, and I saw myself in them.”

Rosita is no stranger to good trouble. Early in her teaching career, she created a stir by wanting to teach US History with a Spanish textbook. Some teachers believed that US History should only be taught in English. Amid this uproar, Apodaca used it as a teaching moment, engaging the class in a study contrasting two points of view. They read both the history books while reviewing what was going on in Mexico during specific periods to analyze the impact on the neighboring country’s trajectories. Apodaca credits her colleagues, principal, and standing in the community as keys to success in overcoming the challenges she faced. The New Mexico Department of Education visited this classroom to videotape lessons, and Apodaca shared her experiences with educators across the state.

After her last maternity leave, Apodaca joined a friend and started a language academy. She co-owned, operated, and taught in a language school for young adults and adult learners. Beyond teaching language, the business also offered translation and interpretation services. Apodaca found herself in courtrooms, simultaneously making interpretations and teaching teenagers, business leaders, and police officers. The school still operates today, under a new name, after it was sold to new owners in 2000.

She sold her interest in the partnership once her child was a toddler. After a very brief hiatus, Apodaca was called to continue her mission of helping students in vulnerable situations by assisting with desegregation at El Paso Independent School District after a court ruling ended the segregation of Mexican American students within the district. Calling the arduous work of overhauling a segregated system “not for the faint of heart,” it was a “challenging but rewarding journey.” Apodaca was asked to design and implement bilingual programs and eventually was named the first Latina to lead the El Paso Language Arts Program. The bilingual and ELA programs received local, state, and national recognition, and educational leaders noticed her work in schools and as a leader of the largest TEXTESOL organization in Texas.

The Dallas Independent School District came calling, asking her to lead their bilingual program. Again, she worked with teachers and principals through a continuous professional development effort to build and develop a robust program that, over time, resulted in powerful learning and achievement for students. That work vaulted her to a national appointment as Chair, National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education, USOE, Washington, D.C., and a promotion to a cabinet post at Dallas. Apodaca also managed to earn a doctorate and a master’s in Educational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Apodaca was part of the team that prepared teachers to fully integrate students in a new high school in New Jersey before heading west to the San Francisco Unified School District to lead the district’s language programs, later renamed The Language Academy Programs.

Apodaca (left) joined by Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa (center) and sister Ivonne Durant (right) who was Dallas’ Chief Academic Officer.

Her hiring was in the city where the famous Lau v. Nichols case was filed and when Proposition 227 was approved by California voters, a California ballot proposition passed on the June 2, 1998, ballot. Proposition 227 required California public schools to teach non-English speaking students in special classes taught nearly all in English. This provision had the effect of eliminating “bilingual” classes in most cases.

“San Francisco was one of the most educative jobs of my career. I learned how to work with very diverse constituencies. It was a time of making schooling better and giving all students access to high-quality education through programs in multiple languages,” said Apodaca.

Proclomation declaring August 3rd “Rosita Apodaca Day” in San Francisco.

The team eliminated the district’s out-of-compliance status with the state, provided continuous professional development, enriched the curriculum, and elevated the status of emergent multilingual learners by recognizing their many talents and increasing their achievement. They also engaged parents and caregivers in the direct education of their progeny. Apodaca was not alone in this work. She equally attributes the program’s success to her colleagues support and the strong team of savvy language professionals, a knowledgeable and supportive school board, and staunch support from community and city officials. The work was so inspiring that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown signed a proclamation naming August 3 “Rosita Apodaca Day” to honor her effort and bid farewell as she prepared to head back to Texas for a Deputy Superintendent job.

“It was also humbling and educative to serve the diverse language communities, to learn from them and the many people who supported our efforts in that city. I shall always value the incredible collaborations with multiple universities, foundations, and research institutions that supported and advised us,” said Apodaca. “Working with parents every other weekend in the Mission district of San Francisco was rewarding, educative, and thrilling. This experience was nourishing, constantly pushing my thinking, and led to many national and international collaborations.”

While back home in Texas, IFL Founder Lauren Resnick reached out to her with a potential job offer. At this point, Apodaca had not met Resnick but knew of her work and wanted to learn more about her plan to implement research-based, high-quality educational programs across the country.

“The early years at the IFL were vibrant, rewarding, and full of innovation and excitement. Lauren’s intellectual prowess and worldwide connections allowed us, her disciples, to meet luminaries from academia, districts, and politics. Researchers and practitioners vetted our work to be more than just good practices. The goal was to deliver transformative practices, so we were constantly learning from others and each other,” said Apodaca.

Apodaca’s sister Ivonne claims Resnick had an impact on their family–how they think, talk, and see the world. Resnick always challenged the fellows and never let us get away with sloppy thinking, forcing us to grow in so many ways. 

“Joining the IFL meant learning to work in a completely different culture and different ways—there was a lot of productive struggle for me. What gave me comfort was working in districts in many locations, from large urban centers to small rural communities, said Apodaca. “I loved working in the field with colleagues. I particularly enjoyed the years when I worked in school districts face-to-face and had opportunities to work side by side with dedicated principals, teachers, and central administrators.”

Apodaca sitting at a conference with LRDC Director of Communications Liz Rangel, IFL Fellow Sara DeMartino, and IFL Co-Director Tony Petrosky.

Apodaca began as a consultant with the IFL before being named a Fellow and eventually Executive Director. In that time, she has visited a lot of school districts and touched a lot of lives. As word spread that Rosita was calling it a career, the emails, text messages, and phone calls of appreciation came pouring in.

IFL Math fellow Kristin Klingensmith called it “an honor” to work side-by-side with Rosita in providing equitable and sustainable change to students and teacher across the country.

Distinguished University of Pittsburgh professor and Learning Research Development Center (LRDC) Director Charles Perfetti called Apodaca “class act”. “[Rosita] put her heart into the IFL and still had room in it to co-lead LRDC’s discussions on inclusion and equity in a most sensitive and thoughtful way.”

With such a hands-on approach of her work, Rosita viewed IFL partners not as clients but as friends, and many offered sentiments similar to Perfetti.

Magda Parvey, Superintendent of Andover Public Schools in Andover, Maryland said she was “heartbroken” to learn that Rosita would no longer be roaming the halls of her school offering sincere advice, both professionally and personally.

“The world has changed. But I must say that with people like you with your Corazon, this work was always exciting and rewarding. When we met, I instantly knew I had a mentor, a great educator to emulate and a strong woman to love,” said Susana Perón, Deputy Superintendent, Paterson Public Schools in Paterson, New Jersey.

As she prepares to “spend more time smelling the roses,” Rosita spent time thinking back on her career and has some thoughts for anyone engaged in education.

“Place students at the center of what we do and invite their voice into the work that they experience and do, and then have evidence that you do it,” said Apodaca. “This practice is new for many schools, but it should be standard everywhere. Inviting and promoting student voice into the curriculum and other aspects of education that affect them will render positive results. I also think teacher voice must be more prominent. I have found that nothing in teaching and learning will ever reach optimization until a teacher understands, supports, and implements it in the classroom. Teachers are everything for students. We must remember that.”