Cantu: Why school choice matters to me

By Ernie Cantu

As seen in El Paso Times

I was born to migrant parents and raised in a colonia in South Pharr, Texas, called Las Milpas, not five minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border.

By the time I was in elementary school, I had lost both of my parents. My community – overlooked, marginalized people who just wanted a good, healthy life – raised me.

Educational choice was absent where I grew up; I didn’t even know there was such a thing. You went to school, whichever school you were zoned to, and that was that. I learned that with drive and ganas, I could make a life for myself through the pathway of education.

I was determined to follow the path, even if I didn’t fully understand where it was taking me.

I graduated from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo high school in 1988, joined the Army soon after that, and served my country until 1991. When I returned home, I received my degree and started teaching at a local middle school, where I taught seventh-grade English and language arts.

I joined the IDEA team and family in 2003, and alongside this organization, have made it my life’s work to help others by ensuring that our students succeed on the road to and through college.

I knew I could help by ensuring kids and families in the Rio Grande Valley have educational choice – a choice to succeed, a choice to receive a high-quality education, and a choice to attend college.

In my time at IDEA, I have been a classroom teacher, the director of new site development, director of operations, principal at IDEA College Prep Pharr, and most recently, a senior vice president of schools.

Through all of these different roles, my commitment, first and foremost, has been to the students I serve. Now, 20 years later, I’m leading the launch of IDEA Public Schools in its newest region – El Paso.

IDEA Public Schools has helped me channel my passion to help others through its student-first approach, and that’s what matters to me most – working with, helping, and getting to know kids and families in the community.

On the heels of National School Choice Week, a time when we celebrate educational choice for all children, I encourage you to reflect on what we as a society can do to continue to the mission of ensuring every child in this nation has a high-quality school option.

No student’s potential should be limited by the color of their skin, where they live, or their household income.

How can we come together to work for the goal of educational equality? Traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, homeschooling; no matter the choice, the goal always remains the same – to provide an exceptional education to all children so they have the opportunity to succeed.

Today, I will lead IDEA Public Schools into El Paso, where there is a need for more educational options for families. After working so closely in the community I’ve called home all my life, I am thrilled to expand educational choice for the betterment of our country’s next generation of innovators, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and educators.

While I’ll be nearly 800 miles away from Las Milpas, I’ll carry with me the same desire to help those in need through education.

Ernesto Cantu is executive director of IDEA Public Schools El Paso.

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