The press conference on Nov. 4 officially announcing Roberto Zárate’s action agenda as chair of the national Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) had all the warmth and sincerity associated with the man himself. Bruce Leslie, chancellor of Alamo Colleges, pointed out that this is true of everything Zárate touches with his personal motto, “puro corazón.”

Flanked by his long-time champion Red McCombs, Leslie, and Alamo Colleges board member Dr. Gene Sprague, Zárate exuded a congeniality that only gave way to what he called “getting prickly” when he talked about the inefficiencies and challenges community colleges around the country need to overcome.

He wants to see fewer expensive test cases for innovation and reform, and more ambitious scaling nationwide.

“The agenda is action,” Zárate said.

Roberto Zárate. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Roberto Zárate. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

He credits his election to the strength of Alamo Colleges and the amazing progress they have made in the past nine years. He has every intention of promoting his board’s strategy of decisive and network-wide action.

“Every moment we delay means that somebody drops out, somebody doesn’t engage, and somebody doesn’t realize their dream to move into the middle class and provide for their family,” Zárate said.

He quoted U.S. Vice President Joe Biden who said that community colleges are the pathway to the middle class, the decline of which has had economists and politicians on full alert for years. Many of Alamo Colleges’s most successful initiatives have aimed at preparing students to join the 21st century workforce.

To that point, before the press conference even began, McCombs complimented Dr. Adena Loston, president of St. Philip’s College, on the quality of her graduates.

“The young people who come out of (St. Philip’s) have skills such that we can start them above minimum wage,” McCombs said.

He went on to trace the graduates’ upward trajectory toward becoming master technicians making handsome salaries.

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

Leslie pointed out that two U.S. Secretaries of Labor have visited Alamo Colleges to observe their partnership with Toyota. He pointed to Alamo Colleges’s remarkable progress since scandal rocked its board in 2002-03.

“What a story of the phoenix rising from the ashes,” Leslie said.

This is not the first rise from the ashes in Zárate’s career, though the other was more literal.

“We met in the ashes,” McCombs said.

When vandals torched portions of Mary Hull Elementary School (Northside Independent School District), Zárate found himself standing amid the rubble with McCombs, who had recently been asked by a teacher to speak during the fifth grade graduation. McCombs asked him what he planned to do. Zárate replied that he was awaiting orders from the district, meanwhile comforting the crying elementary schoolers around him who had arrived to find their classrooms gone. 

McCombs is not one to wait for bureaucracy to grind its slow mill. He called for his front-end loaders and other heavy machinery, and began the cleanup process. It would not be the last time in his relationship with Zárate that McCombs would prioritize action.

“We had several situations come up when Roberto said, ‘I don’t know if I can get permission,’ and I said, ‘Don’t ask!’” McCombs said. Zárate gave a good-natured, if sheepish, shrug.

Soon Mary Hull ES was hosting community cook-outs with McCombs and anti-drug parades in cool cars borrowed from their patron’s dealerships. Zárate was the kind of leader McCombs could support. He knew his contribution would be put to good use, to maximum effect.

Red McCombs. Courtesy photo.
Red McCombs. Courtesy photo.

Five years after they met in the ashes, Mary Hull ES was a National Blue Ribbon School, and Zárate had honed his leadership skills to maximize inclusion and action. It was not much longer before he was tapped to serve on the Alamo Colleges board.

“I’m not surprised that others in any group would recognize that he has tremendous leadership qualities,” said McCombs.

Sprague, who served on the board at the time, suspected that something was amiss on the current board, so he alerted Zárate that he’d be knocking on his door, asking him to serve. When the scandal broke he did just that. The crisis became the opportunity that would launch Alamo Colleges into a new season of productivity and student centered progress.

“Its easy for a board to get caught up in its own private power structure and interfere,” said Zárate.

He praised his fellow board members for their “good behavior.” Zárate explicitly refuses to use bureaucratic jargon like “boardsmanship” for what he said is just behavior, plain and simple. Their integrity and action has propelled Alamo Colleges to the national spotlight in such a way that Zárate could be elected to lead the national conversation on what is essentially the rebuilding of the middle class.

“Alamo Colleges has given me the credibility to serve in this position,” Zárate said.

He also thanked the staff and faculty gathered at the press conference.

“(My election to this position) reflects the wonderful work that you do,” said Zárate.

*Top image: Dr. Gene Sprague, Red McCombs, Roberto Zárate, and Bruce Leslie celebrate Zárate’s election to chair of the Association of Community College Trustees. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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