It’s no secret that Austin, Texas is great, arguably the envy of the world: it’s the live music capital, boasts a roaring economy, has shown up on countless “Best Cities For” lists and is rapidly growing because of it. These things are obvious to us locals. What us natives might not realize is why Austin is greater: it’s greater because of Raul Sanchez.
Sanchez has been an educator for more than a decade, starting in his own back yard in the Rio Grande Valley and currently serving the St. John community as Principal of Webb Middle School, one of the schools in our Target Graduation program. The son of immigrants from Mexico, Sanchez feels great kinship with the children he works with everyday.
“The Rio Grande Valley didn’t need me like Webb needs me – we have kids who are moving so much, who have a lot of challenges in their family from homelessness to mental illness and more. Thanks to United Way, we can provide wrap-around help for all of these issues. That means my teachers and I can focus on learning.”
– Raul Sanchez
Principal, Webb Middle School
“When I see the children we serve, I see myself,” said Sanchez in a recent conversation with Celso Baez, a founding member of our Young Leaders Society who has volunteered at Webb Middle School. “I am the youngest of 14 children and the first person in my family to go to college. My parents don’t have a formal education. I started out very much like our kids and I want them to see how far they can go.”
In many ways, the St. John neighborhood mirrors what Sanchez is used to seeing back home – a population with many immigrants where a large percentage speak Spanish as their first or primary language – but the demographics do have some stark differences.
“The Rio Grande Valley didn’t need me like Webb needs me – we have kids who are moving so much, who have a lot of challenges in their family from homelessness to mental illness and more,” said Sanchez. “When people ask me what my job is, I say ‘what isn’t my job?’ because all of these issues affect education and I need to find ways to address them.”
Seeing that challenges at home kept students out of the classroom, Sanchez instituted a Saturday morning academy that students attend to make up missed days. He also conducts home visiting every day and has regular events to bring parents on campus, like Coffee with the Principal and Doughnuts with Dad.
“It’s important that they see me as a person – I never wear a tie when I talk to our parents, I don’t want to be an authority figure or someone intimidating,” he emphasizes. “If they see me as a person, if they see me regularly, they’ll come to me, and that’s key.”
When Sanchez took over the role at Webb, United Way already had a relationship and presence on the school campus focusing on these very issues.
“Thanks to United Way, we have not just one service but a whole set of providers who can provide wrap-around help for all of these issues. That means my teachers and I can focus on learning,” he remarked. “We had United Way back home, we were always contributing, but I’ve never seen what they can do for a community first hand like this. United Way is filling in these gaps – even bringing in volunteers to uplift our school building. Before, I was up here on Saturdays with paint. The majority of our students get help thanks to this partnership – it’s beautiful.”
Sanchez recalls one student who lived with her mother but was homeless. Her mother had mental challenges and they moved from a Motel 6 to staying on couches and even living in their car.
“She was a student with potential but she wasn’t achieving because of what was going on at home. Now, thanks to United Way, they have housing, her mother got help and even remarried, and she’s succeeding in school,” he says, smiling. “It’s a great feeling to help people – but especially when you’ve been at the other end. That’s why I’m an educator – to prove to these students that you can do it and give them the help they need to make it happen.”