The newest addition to the Omaha Public Schools board is no stranger to the world of education.
A native New Yorker, Anthony Vargas turned to teaching straight out of college, diverting from an earlier plan to enroll in a public health doctorate program at Columbia University.
He was inspired partly by his older brother, who at the time was starting out as a bilingual math teacher.
“I saw what he was doing and saw he was making a huge impact and I wanted to do this,” he said.
Vargas, 29, spent two years teaching middle school science in Brooklyn through Teach for America, the national teacher corps that places new graduates in low-income schools.
Subsequent years were spent working in the organization’s New York and national offices, training new teachers and working in schools to increase professional development and support principals in states like Texas, Delaware and Rhode Island.
Now, he wants to parlay that experience into a role on the school board in which he can advocate for early interventions for struggling readers, use data to drive evaluations of students and teachers, and find ways to improve math and science scores — without discounting the importance of the arts.
The OPS school board appointed Vargas to the open Subdistrict 9 seat Monday in a 6-2 vote. He replaces Sarah Brumfield, who resigned from the board in September.
Vargas followed his girlfriend, a Creighton University law student, to Omaha last year, and he applied for the open seat as a way to apply his education background at the local level.
In voting for him, several board members mentioned Vargas’ experience working with urban districts whose demographics and struggles often mirrored Omaha’s. And his ability to relate to the district’s growing population of Latino families as a bilingual, Peruvian-American, first generation college graduate fills a needed gap on the board, several members said.
Subdistrict 9 includes South Omaha, a section of the city home to a large number of Latinos and an engaged community of parents and alumni, as demonstrated by a recent community forum that drew 250 people. But Vargas stresses he’s not a voice for all Latinos.
“Of course I want to be able to be an advocate for my background, my race, my socio-economic status growing up, but it’s not an automatic in to the community,” he said.
“A number of people have reached out, congratulated me. But they have that caveat of, ‘I’m really happy you’re representing our district, but I don’t know you yet and I’m going to hold you accountable.’ I appreciate that,” he said.
Vargas calls himself data-driven, a product of his time with Teach for America and his new job as a policy analyst at Seattle-based Education First Consulting.
“One thing I’m really interested in is learning more about how are we managing the meaningful data we collect at teacher and student level,” he said. “How is this all being housed and used in a meaningful way that helps drive what we do?”
He sees his policy job and new role on the board as complementary — not conflicting. Education First works with entities ranging from the Colorado Department of Education to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on issues such as implementation of the federal Race to the Top program and ways to best leverage philanthropic dollars.
The company does no work in Nebraska or with OPS. State law requires elected officials or board members to identify all potential conflicts of interest and abstain when voting on a matter where they, a family member or business they are involved in has a financial stake. Vargas said he would recuse himself if any business involving Education First came before the board.
Improving reading rates in OPS is another big push for Vargas.
“As a teacher, I loved my middle school kids ... but most of them were coming in three years behind on reading, and based on the scores I’m seeing here, it’s not entirely different in some of our highest-need communities,” he said.
He also hopes to steer conversations around teacher evaluations and effectiveness — issues he’s worked on in other states — without spooking teachers or putting them on the defensive.
“When people say accountability, that strikes fear in some people and some people feel really good about it,” he said. “If we’re really professionally developing our teachers and have a set of measures that are fair, that allows us to see growth at the student level, really tangible data, all those things can actually increase the quality of teachers.”