Local superintendent on short list for top honor

MERCEDES – If you’re good, you’re good.

Marla Guerra, superintendent of the South Texas Independent School District, doesn’t like to play up her talking points. However, when the school board nominated her for Region One ESC Regional Superintendent of the Year, she was ad-vised to give herself some credit during the interview.

The strategy worked.

She told a panel of judges earlier this month about her accomplishments in the district. She impressed them so much, Region One Education Service Center has just named her its Regional Superintendent of the Year.

“I feel honored and humbled,” Guerra said. “It’s really an honor for me to have been selected.”

Under the direction of the Texas Association of School Boards, the Superintendent of the Year Program recognizes superintendents for excellence and achievement in educational leadership.

STISD consists of six magnet schools which serve junior high and high school students. The district is spread across Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties. It’s the only all-magnet school district in the state.

The journey toward her distinction as the region’s top superintendent included filling out a questionnaire with specific topics about her achievements. The questionnaires were submitted to Region One in May.

Then came the interview with the four judges, board members from other districts. She’d been nominated before, so she was familiar with the process. Yet this time she approached it differently.

“I was a little less nervous this time,” she said. “I felt a little bit more comfortable and I spoke from the heart and about the district and the accomplishments that have taken place.”

As someone who doesn’t really like talking about her achievements, the first question could make anyone feel they’re in the hot seat: “Why did she feel she should be considered for this award? What had she done for South Texas ISD?”

As it turns out, she’s had plenty of time to find answers, having served the district for 15 years.

“I think I’ve established a record of success,” she said. “Our campuses have been successful as top schools in the na-tion.”

However, it’s more than that.

She feels she’s helped facilitate that success by establishing a particular culture in the district. That culture empowers faculty and staff to make many of the decisions regarding students.

“Instead of it being a top-down kind of approach it’s really more of a collaborative approach,” she said. “We’ve got some amazing teachers, amazing principals. In essence, what we do in my role is to listen to them and guide them as decisions are being made on behalf of students.”

The district’s programs, partnerships, and curriculum and instruction originate a great deal from recommendations at the campus level, she said.

“It’s kind of reversed from how schools are typically run, and it’s worked,” she said.

This sort of cooperative leadership has had a positive impact on the district’s students. She most enjoys the stories graduates tell when they visit. They say STISD had fully prepared them for college and they didn’t have to struggle.

“They tease me and say it was harder at South Texas ISD than at the university,” she said. “Those stories motivate me and empower me.”

The next step is to compete for the Superintendent of the Year at the state level. There are 20 Education Service Cen-ters in the state, and they can each submit a candidate. All the nominees will be interviewed at the state level in August. Five will be selected for another round of questions, and the winner will be announced in September.

Thus far, Guerra looks forward to speaking to various organizations about education.