Blanca Cavazos had big goals for Arvin High when she became principal in 1997: Change the perception of the school by winning an academic competition and excelling at tennis.
She wanted to prove to students, parents and the community that Arvin Bears could accomplish anything, even shine in a sport that invoked images of elitism.
So Cavazos convinced English teachers to spend time with the We the People team on diction and vocabulary, and facilitated outfitting the kids in matching suits. She recruited a private tennis coach in Bakersfield to teach and coach at Arvin High.
Arvin High became, and still is, a We the People powerhouse, and has won both league and valley tennis championships.
“The key was getting people to believe in us,” said Cavazos, an Arvin High grad herself. “To get the community to believe in us, and to support us.”
Cavazos has been knocking down educational barriers like these her whole career, beginning as a first-grade bilingual teacher in Arvin and now as superintendent of the Taft Union High School District.
It goes back even further if you count her days as an elementary school student getting in trouble for speaking Spanish and being told she wouldn’t amount to much.
“It doesn’t matter what type of adversity she faces, it’s just another obstacle she has to get through,” said Cavazos’ youngest son, Justin. “And she does.”
AN EARLY STRUGGLE
Cavazos, 60, is the second of four children born to farmworker parents from Mexico who brought her to Arvin when she was 3. When she got to school, Cavazos was one of only a few English learners and struggled under an unwritten rule that she couldn’t speak her native language.
She’d have to ask her friend Victor at recess to explain the teacher’s instructions.
“I don’t remember my kindergarten, first- or second-grade experiences as being pleasant,” she said. “I just remember them being really, really difficult.”
After mastering English in about the fourth grade, she then earned little trophies for being top in class. When Cavazos wasn’t in school, she was in the fields helping plant onions, pick oranges and peaches, tend to cotton crops and harvest wine grapes.
“One of the other ones I remember very clearly is picking green beans,” she said. “Often it was cold. It was early in the morning. There was frost on the plants, and you’d be snapping them off and throwing them into a bushel.”
Cavazos had teacher tendencies even back then. She taught her younger sister, Marta Cavazos-Hernandez, how to drive, cut sewing patterns and do her algebra homework, helping turn her into a valedictorian.
“She was always very intelligent and thorough and methodical,” Cavazos-Hernandez said.
She was also very focused. Cavazos took so many summer school classes at Arvin High that she graduated at the end of her junior year and enrolled at CSUB a few months shy of her 17th birthday.
A family friend encouraged Cavazos to check out the California Mini-Corps program at CSUB, which trains former migrant students to teach current ones.
She did, and her career fate was sealed.
“I discovered I love kids,” Cavazos said. “I really love working with kids.”
In 1980 Cavazos finished up her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at CSUB and started teaching first grade in Arvin. She loved the kids’ eagerness to learn and her ability to open up new worlds to them.
The fact she, too, had once struggled with English was really powerful, she said, because it showed the kids “they could master it and have a successful future.”
While working on her master’s degree in bilingual cross-cultural education at CSUB, Cavazos was talked into serving as community liaison for the university’s new Title VII grant program. A year and a half later the top job at CSUB Mini-Corps opened up and for five years Cavazos ran the program that had introduced her to teaching.
Cavazos in the California Mini-Corps office at CSUB in 1989. The program introduced her to teaching, and she went on to run it for five years.
CALLED HOME TO ARVIN HIGH
Cavazos had long thought it would be fun to teach at her alma mater Arvin High, and one day while visiting campus learned of an opportunity to do so. She immediately met with the principal — her principal as a student — and thus began her first of two stints working at the school.
She taught and coordinated English as a Second Language classes for both Arvin High and the Kern High School District. She’s a strong believer in bilingual education, which has gone in and out of favor in California.
“Kids that are learning a new language are among the most vulnerable kids, they’re most at risk of not finishing their education,” she said. “And so knowing what I went through … I want it to be better and easier for these kids.”
Over time Cavazos realized she could have a greater impact on a greater number of students by becoming an administrator. She served as assistant principal at the Bakersfield Adult School and then Foothill High School before landing the job she’s most associated with: principal of Arvin High.
Cavazos was talked into applying by then-CSUB President Tomás Arciniega. When Cavazos told him she was comfortable where she was, Arciniega was blunt. “He said, ‘You know, Blanca, sometimes it’s not about you.’”
Cavazos led her alma mater for 13 years, the first woman and minority to do so.
She’s most proud of guiding it out of “program improvement” — a designation for Title I schools that don’t meet certain academic performance measures — twice and never letting test scores slide. (Some years saw no growth.)
Then there was the success in tennis and with We the People, which tests knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. She put a lot of her own time and effort into the latter, attending practices, rehearsals and competitions, getting faculty to work with students on enunciation, and even upgrading their wardrobe.
Cavazos negotiated with a store owner in Bakersfield to sell matching black suits for the boys for about $100 each. The girls dressed in black skirt suits and matching blouses. The students also worked on poise, handshakes and looking people in the eye.
“All those things add up and make an impression,” Cavazos said. And that, she said, can tip a close competition in one’s favor.
Arvin went on to win the regional We the People competition for the first time, beating perennial winners Centennial and Liberty high schools. Every year since 2005, Arvin has nabbed first place in congressional district competition and either first or second in regional competition.
“As the principal she set the standard and indeed the bar very high; being an invaluable part of what made our team successful,” said We the People coach Robert Ruckman, an Arvin High alum Cavazos hired when his predecessor, Larry Hallum, retired.
“She could always be counted on to provide advice or access to school resources to help the team — and most importantly she gave her own personal time. … She showed the community and the students that the program mattered.”
Cavazos initiated other novel programs at Arvin High, said former Assistant Principal Jason Hodgson, who is now director of professional development at the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District.
She raised course rigor by doubling the number of AP classes offered, introduced block scheduling to increase instruction time, and initiated parent trainings on such things as the education system, graduation requirements and college admissions processes so they could better help their kids.
She also created a Student of the Month program in which 20 to 25 students a month who weren’t top in their class or star athletes, but nonetheless accomplished meaningful things, were recognized, Hodgson said. Teachers would say a few words about each student in front of their peers and parents.
“It might not come off the page as all that unique, but what was happening in that environment and in that community was incredibly special,” Hodgson said of Cavazos’ work at Arvin High. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Cavazos didn’t think she could move up in the Kern High School District and so moved on to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office as chief instructional officer in 2011. Two years after that she ascended to where she is now: superintendent of the 1,050-student Taft Union High School District.
As the first woman to lead the district, she liked that it was small enough that she could make a big impact quickly. The district oversees Taft Union High School, Buena Vista High School (a continuation school) and a career technical education center serving both campuses.
Cavazos’ No. 1 challenge came quickly. On the day she submitted her application for the superintendent position in January 2013, Taft Union High student Bryan Oliver carried a 12-gauge shotgun into a second-floor classroom and gravely wounded classmate Bowe Cleveland.
Cleveland survived the shooting but had to endure more than 30 surgeries in the first year. Students and staff had to endure years of litigation, media attention and emotional trauma.
Cavazos had been in a unique position to help heal the school and community.
She did it as Arvin High’s principal in 1997 when 17-year-old football star Chad Yarbrough was carjacked and murdered.
“I’d had that experience of dealing with people that are grieving and hurting and scared, and I thought that would be valuable experience coming in,” Cavazos said. “It kind of sealed the deal for me.”
She made sure that counselors continued working with students and staff for as long as they needed them, which turned out to be about two years. She also led the district through years of litigation initiated by Cleveland, whom a jury ordered the district to pay $2 million after finding it 54 percent liable for the shooting.
At the same time, Cavazos has had to shore up the district budget, said former Taft Union High School District Trustee Rick Twisselman.
News accounts say the district had to cut spending, offer early retirements to staff and require teachers to teach more classes because of a budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment. Twisselman credited her with doing it without sacrificing Taft’s career technical education programs, which is important to the community.
“Under extremely difficult situations, she did a really great job,” Twisselman said.
“And I hope she’s not done yet. It’s now her turn to focus on what she’s always wanted to focus on, and that’s academics.”
MY THREE SONS
Cavazos accomplished all she did in education while also raising three sons as a single parent. Caleb, 32, does marketing for a winery north of Napa, and Justin, 30, owns an auto brokerage in Bakersfield. Cavazos’ oldest son, Jake, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles last year at age 33.
All three boys played sports and competed on academic teams, so life could be “hectic,” Justin said. Cavazos juggled all of it by leaning on friends and family (something she says initially was hard for her to do) and keeping good mental checklists, he said.
“One of the things she said is we could never find our soccer socks,” Justin said with a chuckle. “We were a little last-minute. We thought we had everything but then would forget our cleats in the house. She was always on it.”
All three were also student-athletes at Arvin High when their mother was principal. It was a lot of fun to have Mom around so much — at home, at school, on the athletic field — but also imposed some pressure, Justin said.
“It was great, but it did feel like you always had a million eyes on you, which we did,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of stepping out of line, even though one of us tested those boundaries quite a bit.”
Cavazos had a very special relationship with Jake, who always looked out for his mom and brothers, Justin said. For her birthday, Jake gave her season tickets so they could see plays together at The Pantages in Los Angeles once a month.
Cavazos thought a lot about Jake when she was surprised with the news, in CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny’s conference room, that she’d been selected for the Alumni Hall of Fame.
“When we were in the room I thought, ‘Jake’s right here,’” Cavazos said. “And he’s whispering into my ear, ‘I’m proud of you, Mom.’”