Literacy Now

Conferences & Events
ILA Membership
ILA Next
ILA Journals
ILA Membership
ILA Next
ILA Journals
  • Administrator
  • Classroom Teacher
  • Partner Organization
  • Literacy Education Student
  • Policymaker
  • Teacher Empowerment
  • Networking
  • Mentorship
  • Leadership
  • Classroom Instruction
  • Professional Development
  • Opportunity Gap
  • Literacy Advocacy
  • Achievement Gap
  • Policy & Advocacy
  • Topics
  • Conferences & Events
  • News & Events
  • Teacher Educator
  • Reading Specialist
  • Literacy Coach
  • Job Functions

Leading From Within

By Colleen Patrice Clark
 | Apr 17, 2018

Gonzalez(Photo courtesy of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.)

There’s a conflict in Adan Gonzalez’s voice that you’re sure to hear when he speaks at the ILA 2018 Conference. It’s the intersection of hope and frustration—and although that sounds like an uncomfortable place, it’s where he wants to be.

Being uncomfortable has brought him to this point, from a young boy growing up in a high-poverty borough of Dallas, TX, to a graduate of both Georgetown and Harvard.

Now a first-year teacher at James Bowie Elementary, the same school he once attended, being uncomfortable is something Gonzalez urges his young students to embrace. There are three pillars in his classroom: be bold, be confident, be disruptive. That’s how you meet discomfort head-on.

“I want them to explore their own curiosity,” Gonzalez says. “Fail, learn, and be OK with that.”

It’s also about defying the status quo. “Do not stand on the line,” he says. “The line doesn’t benefit your community.”

Gonzalez feels an immense responsibility to the community of Oak Cliff. That’s why when he was still in high school, he declared he wanted to one day be mayor of Dallas, though the goal now is to become superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. It’s why he prioritized his education from an early age so he could make life better for himself and his family, becoming the salutatorian of his class and earning a Gates Millennium Scholarship.

It’s why as a sophomore at Georgetown, he founded Puede Network, an organization in Oak Cliff that began simply with a luggage drive for college-bound students—inspired by his experience arriving at college with his belongings in trash bags. It has since grown into a full-fledged education and leadership program providing opportunities in sports, community service, and scholarships.

And it’s why when he completed his master’s in education policy at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, he knew the only place to go from there was back home.

“Making my neighborhood a place I want to be part of”

It’s easy to concentrate on how hard life is in Oak Cliff. Composed mostly of immigrants, it’s a working-class neighborhood of Dallas, a city with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the United States. Those who leave don’t often come back, which is part of a problem that Gonzalez didn’t want to contribute to.

That’s why, in a way, he never left.

Running Puede Network from the campus of Georgetown in Washington, DC, and from Oak Cliff during school breaks kept him connected to the community’s challenges, its youth, and its potential.

“It’s frustrating now as an adult to understand why things were the way they were when we grew up,” says Gonzalez, 24, but it makes him only more determined to highlight what they can become. It’s about maximizing the potential that’s already there.

“We have the social capital and the talent,” he says. “We have the answers.”

Recognizing that is what’s led Puede Network to grow. The grassroots organization now serves some 350 families and provides a network of support to students as they grow up. It’s similar to the type of safety net Gonzalez felt when, as a high school senior, he was accepted to the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, which invests in service-minded leaders of the future. That feeling of safety is what he wants to replicate at home to help break the cycle of undereducation for others. “How do we beat the system ourselves and not wait for anyone else?” Gonzalez asks.

There are requirements to be part of Puede Network, such as participating in group activities (sports, music, or art), conducting community service, and attending civic events throughout the year. The young scholars are also required to read because, as Gonzalez says, when you read, you think for yourself.

He refers to Puede Network as a “people-made” organization, but Gonzalez is undoubtedly its backbone. He touches every part of the group. He coaches soccer and boxing. He organizes community forums for parents (in a space in his parents’ backyard) and town hall events where local leaders and professionals share their advice. Preschool through high school students proudly come up to him at practices and meetings to show off their most recent academic accomplishments. One 15-year-old recently won a scholarship that Gonzalez too received at the same age.

“For me, this is about making my neighborhood a place I want to be part of.”

“Believing that every kid can succeed”

Leading Puede Network for the past six years—already being imbedded in the community and aware of students’ unique challenges—helped prepare Gonzalez for his role as a third-grade teacher at Bowie Elementary.

“I think once you’re aware of the weaknesses kids are coming in with, no matter what, it’s ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Gonzalez says. “I think being able to walk in the classroom really believing that every kid can succeed has been helpful. Understanding how important it is to know every student, tailoring their learning, and maximizing the smallest strength they have and focusing on that.”

Puede Network also helped prepare him for his position as director of parent engagement at the school.

“It entails bringing power to the families and making the school a place where it’s serving the families,” Gonzalez says. “It’s teaching them how to ask tough questions of the teachers and hold them accountable.”

Creating new activities and initiatives for families is a large part of the job. For example, he organized the first Thanksgiving dinner this school year. In the spirit of Puede Network and maximizing resources already available, the food was all donated and prepared by the families. More than 1,400 people attended.

He’s had local pantries bring food to the school for families. He’s even gone out into the community himself to hand out more than 1,200 book bags stuffed with school supplies. In total, he has spent more than $5,000 of his own money this year, which includes buying tablets for his classroom.

Gonzalez doesn’t hesitate to spend his own savings because he knows his childhood is not unique among the stories of hardships in Oak Cliff. When he was 6, his father—who worked countless hours as a custodian—was shot while breaking up a fight and left unable to work. Gonzalez and his older brother went to work selling snacks at the local flea market to help pay for school uniforms.

His parents moved to Texas from Mexico with the typical American Dream, but while they worked and struggled for it, the family of seven lived in a one-room apartment.

Today, many of his students live a similar story.

“That’s when you’re really serving”

There was a recent article in a Dallas- area newspaper that included this cringeworthy line: “Some say Adan Gonzalez will be burned out before the end of his first year as a teacher.”

Bring that up, and there’s an audible sigh.

“I’ve heard it all my life,” Gonzalez says. “‘He’s a small fish in a big pond. He won’t make it.’ They said it when I went to Georgetown. They said it when I went to Harvard. They said it when I went to the White House and the Department of Education (where he worked as an intern). They say it now.”

But, although he admits to getting frustrated at times, he’s not backing down. As long as he enters his classroom and sees a smile on the face of a student who believes in himself or herself, that’s all he needs.

Gonzalez recalls being in third grade, sitting in the classroom he now stands in front of. The teacher asked everyone to get up. One by one, the teacher stated a statistic and had students sit if they fell into a certain category. At the end, only Gonzalez was left standing. He’d be the only one, the teacher said, to attend college—that is, if they wanted to live according to the status quo.

“That’s where I started changing the trajectory of my life,” Gonzalez says. It’s when he started to realize he was part of a system that was failing its most vulnerable because he knew any one of his classmates could succeed too.

“It’s so important for every one of my kids to feel they can be a leader,” Gonzalez says. “It doesn’t have to be based on luck.”

That’s part of the message he’ll be bringing to ILA 2018, along with this: Unless you’re going above your job description, you’re not serving your community.

“What people don’t get is that for me, this isn’t work,” he says. “When you teach, that’s your job. You’re getting paid. But whenever you do a little bit more, that’s when you’re really serving.”

This article originally appeared in the open access March/April issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Adan Gonzalez will be a keynote speaker during the General Session at the ILA 2018 Conference, July 20–July 23, in Austin, TX. Learn more at

Colleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today.

Back to Top


Recent Posts