As the only Latino high school principal in the Madison Metropolitan School District, East High Principal Michael Hernandez takes lessening the racial achievement gap that has plagued Madison schools very seriously.

“We still need to build trust and we still need to repair relationships,” Hernandez tells Madison365. “I had lunch with a group of students today and we were talking about ways we can develop student leadership in our building. We need to find ways to engage all of our parents and get people in the door. Because of some of the poor experiences they’ve had in the past, they just don’t want to come to school – not for the lack of love or support for their child.

“Sometimes, we as adults make the assumption that parents don’t want to come in but in reality they are working two or three jobs and we forget that, too,” Hernandez adds. “All of sudden, we have a preconceived notion that the parent just doesn’t care … and that’s wrong.”

Hernandez really gets the issues that MMSD is facing right now and has been working for years to support students, bridge gaps and to be a pioneer in education. Earlier this week, Centro Hispano acknowledged his work by announcing that he was the 2015 recipient of the Roberto G. Sánchez Award which honors an individual, group or organization that has demonstrated leadership in advancing educational and career opportunities for Latinos. The award will be presented to him at the 26th annual Centro Hispano Banquet next Friday.

“I’m normally not a quiet person, but when I heard that I was going to be honored with that award it was such a humbling experience for me,” Hernandez recalls. “Wow. I’m so proud and embarrassed a little bit because I’m not one who’s like ‘Hey, look at me.’”

Hernandez has a certain teaching and administrative style that he first developed as a special education teacher back in the day that he still maintains today as principal. “I walk around and assess situations. I ask questions and build relationships and constantly do needs assessments. I want to know as much as possible what is going on in this building,” says Hernandez, who has 3 kids currently in MMSD ages 9, 11, and 13. “My style on instruction and behavior and social/emotional support [revolves around] the question: Would I be OK with it happening to my own children? That’s my litmus test.”

Previously, Hernandez was the principal at Sherman Middle School on Madison’s north side where he led a high-poverty, high-minority school to many local and state distinctions in scholarship, health, public service, and citizenship.

“I’m proud of the work we did at Sherman. Even though it wasn’t a neighborhood school – 85 percent of the kids rode a Metro bus in meaning they were over 1.5 miles away – it was a neighborhood school,” he says, “because families would come in a time of need and they knew that they could depend on us in the building to help with more than just school.

“At Sherman and at a previous school in Chicago, we did something called Communities in Schools (CIS) and I want to be able to do that here [at East] – that is bringing outside agencies to be able to provide supports for our students and make this the center hub,” he adds.

Madison East High School
Madison East High School

Hernandez started as principal at Madison East earlier this year and it didn’t take long for him to fully understand the intense East Side Pride of the area. “There’s such a mobility now in Madison – especially on the east side – and I want to continue that pride with the people newly coming in,” Hernandez says. “Some of these reforms and system changes will take some time, but I want to be able to help with that transition to make this OUR school for all kids – white, black, brown.

Hernandez has three master’s degrees that he earned at California State University in San Bernardino, California. He is currently working on his doctorate at Edgewood College. Previously, he had earned his bachelor of science degree in education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“I have family in San Diego and Ohio so I split time between the areas. They are both home to me. I grew up in both areas,” Hernandez says.

His sister is the youngest associate dean in the Ivy League. His brother is a gang detective in San Diego. “There’s a competition between my three siblings to do well, but I think that the thing that our parents instilled in all of us is that we have to give back whether it be through education or as a public servant,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez knows that the work that is done to lessen the achievement gap will be part of his and part of MMSD’s legacy.

“The conversations are being had and the strategies and action plans have been set. Sometimes it’s getting the right people in the seat who are driving … that’s important,” he says. “When we stop having the conversation, that’s when we need to leave.

“I feel that Madison over the last several years … we’re having these tougher conversations,” Hernandez adds. “Madison is very liberal, until it affects you. Everybody wants to be equal and nice and we need to make sure that there is equitable access but there are times if it personally affects you, people say, ‘Hey, wait!’ But I think we’re getting past that now. People are getting to that point where they feel that this is just the right thing to do.”

That movement is going well beyond Madison East and MMSD. “Outside businesses are starting to understand that this is the way to go,” Hernandez says. “There are companies coming out of the woodwork who want to support us – American Family, Walgreen’s, Oscar Mayer. These businesses are coming out and saying, ‘We want to help the public schools. It’s the right thing to do.’”

Hernandez laments that the lack of funding for education but refuses to you use it as an excuse. “Until we decide that schools are a priority and that we need to fund it correctly, that is out of my control,” he says. “But what we can control is how we make this a community building in which people WANT to come into this building and problem solve together.

“I’m excited to step into this role as principal at East,” he adds. “Obviously, you have the shadow of [legendary former East High Principal] Milt McPike here. I want to be a role model and I want us to do great things here. This is the job that I want. This is exciting.”