Americana of the Week: This Texan Is on a Mission to Make Sure Latino and Black Students Succeed


By Ileana Rodríguez

June 11, 2020

In a system where 97% of students are Latino and Black, Nella García Urban designs academic programs to give equal opportunity for underserved kids to succeed.

Texas — “The bus driver got lost.” That’s how Nella García Urban’s path to a distinguished education leadership role got a jump-start. Growing up in rural Texas — where nearly one in six students live below the poverty line—, not many were expected to go to college. Especially, Latino or Black students.

Her high school would put a handful of students on a bus to visit colleges across Texas, “in case a few of them might make it.” Lost and looking for the University of Houston, García Urban bumped into what looked like a university. Deciding to make the best of it, she checked it out. 

That school was Rice University. As soon as she stepped off the bus, García Urban had a “presentimiento,” a premonition that this is where she needed to go. Since then, Houston has been home to her. Here, she has grown from a teacher of English, Spanish, and Dance, to her current role as Chief Program Officer at Yes Prep Public Schools.

“Going to Rice was an eye-opening experience,” says García Urban. “I could not understand why I was so unprepared compared to my classmates. The differences had everything to do with what I had access to. There are a lot of beautiful things about being from the border, but it doesn’t change the fact that we didn’t have the same access to education.”

‘Families Are the #1 Motivator for Academic Excellence’

Rice University was the place where young García Urban realized how different opportunities could be across Texas. Proud of her six Advanced Placement credits, she was shocked to find out her dorm neighbor arrived with 60. “How is that even possible?” she recalls asking herself. 

Back in the Rio Grande Valley where she grew up, her family had been very supportive. The biculturalism of growing up at the border is something she still cherishes. However, this 8th generation Texan knew that the educational opportunity gap was real and that she wasn’t alone. And this inspires the work she now does as the head of the 20-year-old organization with a clear mission: “to increase the number of students from underserved communities who graduate from college prepared to lead.”  

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At Yes Prep Public Schools, García Urban oversees excellence in teaching and learning. The system has 19 schools serving over 14,000 students, 97% of whom are Latino and Black and 85% are economically disadvantaged. Two-thirds of their students graduate with a score of 3 or higher in at least one Advanced Placement exam, compared to 20% nationally. Per their numbers, Yes Prep alumni are 4 times more likely to graduate from college than other students of similar economic background nationally.

When the COVID-19 pandemic led schools to close, García Urban knew that the partnership with parents was the only path forward. It became an opportunity to do a better job of informing, supporting, and empowering families. She told her team “you do the work and read it like a parent or student so we can get that experience and find the flaws.”

The Texan educator knew that if students were going to learn at home, that motivation was going to come from the family. Knowing that parents want their kids to succeed, her job was to set families up for success.

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They promised families to keep things simple, maintain consistent communication, be available to them, and seek to understand their needs. Everyone had clear roles to play.

‘Students Need To Hear They Can Do It’

García Urban takes it to heart when Latino parents tell her “le encargo mi hijo” — I leave my child in your care. Those words carry expectations, hope, and also admiration. She understands parents trust her to educate and open doors of opportunity.

“There are so many messages out there telling them they are not good enough,” she says. “Even our government leaders. We need to tell our students that they can do it and that they are worth every single effort.” What is lacking, she believes, is that education leaders consistently provide an alternative and positive narrative for kids.

Prior to the pandemic, García Urban would be in school buildings several times a week. She misses that contact, particularly the curious looks of students of color when they see her around school. In her sharp suits, they can see someone that looks like them being important and making decisions; someone they could be when they grow up.

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What is next for García Urban? Currently, she’s part of the prestigious Broad Superintendency Academy, a path toward bigger education leadership responsibilities and impact. In a recent survey of 1,400 U.S. superintendents 90% self-reported as white and only 2.7% as Hispanic. With nearly a third of students in the public school system being Hispanic, we need to grow the number of teachers and administrators of color at a fast pace.

García Urban dreams of the day when she has a “presentimiento” that an even bigger education leadership stage is the place where she can create opportunities for underserved kids around the country.

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CATEGORIES: Education | Latinos | OPINION | Texas


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