The words and support of Miguel Solis’ late father – a lifelong educator – led him to believe he could do anything. So when Solis, Ed.M.’12, found his professional interests shifting to education after college, it was his dad’s encouragement that led him to Teach For America (TFA) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And it was his experience at both organizations that played a significant role in his most recent accomplishment: being elected to the Dallas School Board.
At 27, Solis is the youngest person to ever win a seat on the city’s board, a position for which Dallas media has lauded Solis as part of a promise of great school reform for the city. Solis is the sole Latino on a nine-person board which oversees 160,000 students – 72 percent Latino – in one of the largest school districts in the country.
“I don’t feel pressure but I look at this as a tremendous opportunity to be an effective advocate not just for the Latino students but all students in Dallas Independent School District (DISD),” he says. His campaign focused on putting children first, and emphasized student performance as a factor in teacher salary review.
But Solis wouldn’t likely be sitting on that board had it not been for his decision to teach in 2009. He graduated from Texas’ Lamar University with a degree in history, and started working on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. What he viewed as getting behind a movement for change opened his eyes to the plight of Americans. “I was knocking on doors and one of the things that kept coming up was the importance of education and how the issues people were having in their lives all pointed back to education,” he says. “It was such a common theme.”
After Obama was elected, initially Solis applied for a job at the Department of Energy, yet he couldn’t ignore the pull he was feeling toward education. He began to rethink his career path and started looking into Teach For America. Solis says he believed in TFA’s mission and viewed it as an opportunity to get alternative certification, especially for someone like him who hadn’t the foresight as an undergraduate to study education. His father, a veteran teacher, stood by his side through the application process fully supporting it.
Solis, who was accepted to TFA, was placed in Dallas – close to where he grew up – as an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at T.C. Marsh Middle School.
“I considered it a huge responsibility,” he says. Having watched his father teach his entire life, Solis says he knew what he was getting into and, in order to succeed, he needed to create a coalition with other teachers in which to learn.
Sadly, in the first week of Solis’ teaching, his father died from blood cancer. “It was definitely a trying time,” Solis says. “I was 23 and had all this responsibility, all these students relying on me, and the guy who was going to help guide me through the process passed away. I kept thinking, ‘what do I do?’ And, it came back to wanting to do right by the kids.”
Solis stayed in the classroom and was named teacher of the year at Marsh, as all but one of his 130 students passed the state exam. He returned to teach the following year, and had even planned to teach a third year after his TFA commitment. At that point, his principal encouraged him to consider potential leadership roles in education. While it wasn’t something he initially thought of doing, he felt committed to discovering what drives problems in education, how teachers are evaluated, and how the systems were formed.
“I had no answers and didn’t think I could be a leader in education without understanding the issues,” he says.
He remembered his father had told him anything was possible and that he could even study at Harvard if he desired. And, so, Solis figured, why not? He even tied in his own application to Harvard as a lesson for his students. “I started to think if I’m going to tell them to go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton then why can’t I?” he says. “Once I got into Harvard, I taught them how I got in. I showed them my application, letters of recommendation, and they appreciated that,” he says.
Now, a year since completing HGSE, many of those same students – high school seniors – stood by his side and knocked on doors as he ran for office.
“I didn’t leave HGSE thinking that I wanted to run for the school board,” Solis says. Although he did work as a special assistant to the DISD superintendent prior to running, he eventually left the position determined to create an impact.
“You don’t go to Harvard to go and flaunt your degree,” he says. “You go to Harvard to learn knowledge and skills to directly apply as a leader…. TFA and HGSE completely redefined the way I look at the world and have shifted my life into a completely different direction.”
[Ed. note - In May 2014, Solis was re-elected to the Dallas School Board. In June 2014, he was sworn in as president.]