Jose Torres remembers clearly the day a teacher came up to him shortly after he began as superintendent of Elgin’s School District U46 and declared that Torres had been hired to make up for an ongoing federal lawsuit that alleged the district had discriminated against Hispanic and African-American students.
Torres says it’s ironic that six years later he is hearing “echoes of that same kind of case” as he prepares to become the fourth president of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
The prestigious high school in Aurora narrowly avoided losing about 10 percent of its state funding earlier this year as lawmakers accused the school of not enrolling enough black and Latino students or students who come from lower-income families.
“When I came to U46 I said I’m a superintendent that happens to be Latino and at IMSA I’m the president that happens to be Latino,” Torres said. “I have really strong credentials, I have strong outcomes… I have a strong resume and I believe I bring something to the table.”
Torres, 54, is the first Hispanic educator to lead IMSA in the school’s 29-year history. IMSA admits top students in grades 10 to 12 from across the state to study and board in Aurora. About three-quarters of the student body hails from the Chicago area.
Since 2008, Torres has run District U46, where he’s expanded science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs and put in place a five-year plan aimed at raising academic achievement, closing achievement gaps and getting more families involved.
Torres was born in Puerto Rico and learned English when he moved to New York in fifth grade. At the time, bilingual education wasn’t offered, Torres said, and students learning English were left to “sink or swim.”
Torres holds a master’s degree in education and a doctorate of educational administration from the University of Maryland. He went on to serve as an assistant superintendent in Maryland and a regional superintendent in Chicago Public Schools before working in Elgin, where he now lives.
This year, Torres was honored with a humanitarian award from the American Association of School Administrators for his work in educational equity.
Torres, who was recruited for the IMSA position, says his strengths lie in “leadership change and transformation.”
He accepted the job because he was attracted to the academic freedoms of a school under the jurisdiction of the state’s board of higher education, he said.
Leading IMSA will allow him to be “more singular in my focus,” he added, instead of dividing his attention among areas such as instruction, union relations, community engagement and budgeting.
“Part of my role there will be to research and to be a thought leader,” he said.
Torres said one of the major tasks he wants to focus on is finding ways to “create more opportunities for students who are talented who are also at risk.”
“That is something that we’ve got to figure out — how to ensure that gifted and talented students, whatever their color, ethnicity, ZIP code, have the access to an environment like IMSA,” Torres said.
Last year, IMSA had 651 students, of which about 41 percent were Asian, 34 percent were white, 10 percent were Hispanic and 8 percent were black. The school is split nearly evenly among males and females, and about 13 percent of students applied for and received fee waivers, based on their income.
Mike Abrahamson, a spokesman for IMSA, said there could be more students who would have qualified for fee waivers based on income, but the school only tracks those who apply for them.
The school’s board of trustees determines the eligibility of applicants for enrollment, Abrahamson said, and the school is not mandated to accept a student body that perfectly replicate’s Illinois’ demographics — IMSA has to accept only an “adequate” number of students who represent diverse demographics from the applicant pool.
Torres said part of his job will be making sure more students know about IMSA and the possibility of attending. He plans to reach out to districts that aren’t sending many students to the school and to work with superintendents who may not want to see top-performing students leave their districts.
“That’s the sort of strategic intent that I will be bringing to IMSA to figure out where is it that we’re not drawing from?” he said. “How do we get information to them? It is enough to say on our website, ‘Hey the application just came up, make sure you apply?’ Well, who’s going to look at that? Only people who know about IMSA, who are interested in going to IMSA.”
Under Torres’ leadership, Elgin U46 has expanded STEM classes that are part of the Project Lead the Way program to all middle and high schools, added STEM summer camps for middle school students and increased STEM opportunities for female students.
Torres said he and a team of district leaders were able to lobby in Springfield for a correction to the district’s funding formula, which resulted in about $21 million in additional revenue — a skill he said will be helpful as he works with state legislators to keep IMSA’s funding steady.
He’s also chaired the board of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce, which he said involves working with business leaders and government officials, much as he will need to do at IMSA as the school works to bring in partners for its under-construction innovation hub and to secure research opportunities for students.
Though some have questioned whether a superintendent used to running the state’s second-largest district will get “bored” leading one school, Torres begs to differ.
“I don’t think it’s a step down,” he said. “Some people are going to say I’m going to be bored — I don’t necessarily think that is going to happen.”Tags: IMSA, U46