School administrator has empathy for struggling students

George Solis is one of the only school principals who keeps a framed symbol of academic failure on his office wall.

It's a letter that was sent home to Solis's parents when he was a student at Selma Herndon Elementary School, informing them that he would be repeating second grade. "As your son George Salas (sic) does not fully comprehend the English language we will retain him," it reads, dated May 25, 1962, from Livingston Union School District.

Today, Solis works for the same school district that sent home that letter.

He's the principal at Campus Park Elementary.

For his students, he's a living, breathing example of what hard work and perseverance can accomplish. In fact, he once cleaned bathrooms and vacuumed classrooms at the same school he now heads.

Solis, 53, was born in Texas, but spent the first seven years of his life in Mexico. Then his parents moved to Livingston. He found himself in a new country, at a new school where he couldn't speak the language, one where teachers weren't too interested in helping Spanish-speaking students excel.

Back then, most of Selma Herndon's students were white English speakers. Today it's the opposite -- most of the students are of Latino descent, and more than half are English learners.

"It was difficult because there weren't that many people who understood Spanish and it wasn't considered a good thing to speak Spanish," remembers Solis of his time at Selma Herndon in the early 1960s.

In those days, the only form of bilingual education Solis got was from his deskmate, a bilingual student who could communicate with the teacher on Solis's behalf. He didn't encounter a Spanish-speaking teacher until middle school.

His parents, who spoke no English, worked in the fields, his father at Gallo Farms. He joined them when he was just 11 years old, picking tomatoes, grapes, almonds, blackberries and peaches. He was thrilled when he got his first indoor job -- washing dishes at the Blueberry Hill Cafe -- when he was in high school.

The family valued hard work, and Solis put that lesson into action as a student. His parents told him they couldn't afford to send to college, but that he could live at home as long as he wanted. That helped with his expenses, and Solis graduated from Merced College with an associate degree in Industrial Arts in 1976.

Three years later, with a baby on the way, he took a job as a custodian and bus driver at Campus Park Elementary. He wasn't looking for a career in education -- he took the job because it offered health benefits and was close to home.

But after a couple of years of being around students, he started thinking about teaching in classrooms instead of cleaning them.

"What motivated me most were the kids," said Solis. "I would see them and how the teachers interacted with them and it made me want to go back to school. Teaching just kind of caught me."

He also saw some of his old classmates from Merced College -- people he had tutored -- working as teachers. He realized that he could make a career change too.

But it would take work.

Henry Escobar, superintendent of Livingston Union School District was principal at Campus Park back when Solis was a custodian there.

"Even then, he was more than a custodian," said Escobar. "He connected with people, he loved to talk to students, he loved to talk to teachers," Escobar recalled. "He stood out. It was obvious he was destined to become an educator."

Solis embarked on that destiny full-time after he got a scholarship to Stanislaus State. The odds weren't in his favor. At the time, only 11 percent of Latino students graduated from college, said Solis. He turned that idea on its head, earning both his bachelor's degree and teaching credential in just four years instead of the usual five.

"I always thought, you know what, I guess I was one of the lucky 11 percent," said Solis. "But I could have easily been one of the other 89 percent."

From that day forward, he hasn't wavered in his commitment to education, especially for students who come from backgrounds similar to his own.

After teaching at schools in Winton and Merced, he earned his administrative credential at Sacramento State. Five years ago, he became principal at Campus Park. Escobar credits him with leading the school to a new level and improving its state standardized test scores.

Now Superintendent Escobar holds Solis up as the lesson you can't learn in any textbook: "I'll tell students, look at Mr. Solis -- he was a non-English speaker, his parents were farmworkers, he started as a custodian, and look where he is now. I use him as an example of how if you work hard and you have a great attitude, you can achieve anything you want."

Solis has come far, but he still keeps that letter about repeating second grade in his office. It reminds him of a time when educators didn't have the patience or willingness to work with a student who needed a little extra help.

"Sometimes when I have teachers that are wanting to retain students, I say, we really need to make sure it's for the right reasons," said Solis.

"What really motivates me the most is the daily interaction with kids and to know that as educators we have such an impact on students. Being an educator is a calling -- it's not something that just anybody can do."

George Solis heard the call -- and he answered.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht

can be reached at 209-385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.