Roberto Zárate. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

The success of Alamo Colleges has translated into national recognition and influence in the form of Roberto Zárate, the newly elected chair of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). Zárate was appointed during the 2015 ACCT Leadership Congress in San Diego, CA, on Oct. 15-16. He is only the second Texan and second Hispanic person to hold the position, which he will occupy until October 2016.

Zárate took up the mantle with a commitment to “sharing the recipe for student success.” Great leadership and data driven policy are key ingredients he brings from his experience on the board of Alamo Colleges.

As greater scrutiny has come to soaring student debt and prohibitive tuitions at traditional colleges and universities, the Obama administration has highlighted the role of community colleges and non-traditional higher education models. Looking forward to the 2016 election, Zárate wants to keep the institutions at the forefront of the conversation.

“This is the moment to forcefully argue for our rightful place in higher education,” Zárate stated in an ACCT press release.

To achieve the highly trained and educated workforce needed for the American economy, more students from diverse backgrounds need to have access to quality programs that will prepare them for the job market.

Alamo Colleges has made great strides in addressing the many hurdles to student achievement. Community college students are often juggling jobs and families along with their studies, and many are trying to close gaps in college readiness before transferring to a four-year institution. Partnerships with local business and high schools have also enabled Alamo Colleges to shepherd students toward success on both ends of the higher education experience.

“We need to look at actions,” said Zárate.

Zárate has spread his professional career of 36 years across the educational pipeline in San Antonio. He retired after 16 years as the principal of Mary Hull Elementary School in the Northside Independent School District, during which time the school earned state and national recognition.

Since then he has served on the ACCT Board of Directors since 2010 and on the Alamo Colleges Board of Trustees since 2003. He came onto the board after scandal following years of mismanagement ended with the arrest of several board members and landed one in jail. Since then, the turnaround has been significant, gaining national attention for Alamo Colleges.  Fiscal year 2015 saw a record high 9,700 degrees and certificates awarded, a 36% increase over the previous year, and the second highest number achieved by any community college in Texas.

“Roberto came at a time when we really needed leaders to redirect Alamo Colleges,” said Bruce Leslie, chancellor of Alamo Colleges.

Dr. Bruce Leslie, Alamo Colleges Chancellor (Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges)
Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie

Leslie says that the current Alamo Colleges board of trustees is the best board he has ever worked with, and he particularly admires Zárate’s ability to brighten a room.

“Roberto is an amazing person. He’s extremely loved and well-respected,” said Leslie.

The ACCT is not the first outside organization to call on Zárate’s expertise in fiduciary guidance and financial stewardship in higher education. Governor Rick Perry appointed Zárate to the Texas Task Force on Higher Education Incentive Funding. He also served on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Advisory Committee on Higher Education Cost Efficiencies, and also was instrumental in founding the Community College Association of Texas Trustees (CCATT). 

When I spoke to Zárate, he was on the road in Temple, Texas, hard at work helping local boards engage national issues for the good of state and local policy. He draws confidence from the proven track record of the reforms in the Alamo College system, and wants to bring other community college systems into the conversation. While characteristically warm and humble, he was bold in his excitement about the success the system has enjoyed.

“To be honest with you, we’re leading (the conversation),” said Zárate.

*Top image: Roberto Zárate. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.