It’s campaign season and over the next two months we’ll be meeting with candidates from some key races and, while we’ll be spending a lot of time talking with Republicans, let’s start things off with a Democrat. Sergio Maldonado Sr. has been an educator for 30 years and is completing a doctorate at the University of Wyoming. Maldonado is a resident of the Wind River Reservation where he has been involved in the community in many ways since returning to the area in 2006, after teaching at Arizona State University. He has been involved in K-12 schools, charter schools, college teaching and has even worked with those who have struggled with alcohol and drug abuse issues. Maldonado tells Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck that he’s been in a classroom his whole life.

Bob Beck: So the first thing I want to ask you is that you have made early childhood development a priority. Why?

Sergio Maldonado: Well, here’s why. You know, I was lucky to have two parents who got us off the reservation when I was six. I grew up in Tucson, very multicultural upbringing. It was my mother, who read to each of us, five of us, to two brothers, two sisters, and we read throughout the school week; the weekends we had off. And then, as we learned to read better, we read to our brothers and sisters.

So I think back to that. I just know that in everything I’ve studied, as a teacher, my ASU master’s degree is in elementary education, supervision, curriculum development…if a child can’t read, they’ll spend the rest of his life learning to read.

Reading opens up the state of mind, the vision of the world, the intellectual vision of life. I’m just adamant about this, kids need to be able to read meaningfully by the end of third grade. And yet, I see and I have data from the State Department, where in our own state we have children who don’t read.

We have some of the highest paid teachers in the country, in the top five. And yet, we are among the bottom five in the country when it comes to academic achievement. We must therefore ask ourselves a question: why this disparity? Now, that’s not to say that all the schools aren’t doing well, because they are, but when you put them together on an aggregate level and average the scores, we’re not doing so well.

BB: I’m interested in the early childhood education element because I don’t meet people who disagree with that, what they disagree with is that it’s ‘required. And in a way, being part of the state of Wyoming, they say, “If you want to go to a private daycare and do this or homeschool it, that’s just great. And that’s honestly what most of them would prefer. How do you change this mindset?

SM: First, changing one’s mindset on an adult level is an extremely rigorous task; people can be fixated on what they think is the downside. Too often people haven’t fully thought about what they’re thinking. Every child should read, be able to do arithmetic, calculate and think critically. It is a must, so that a balanced student engages, fits into life after high school. Without it, they are going to have a very bleak future.

BB: Improving global literacy, what would be a plan for that?

SM: Well, I believe when we start talking about interaction at the grade level, grades 1 through 3, they usually lump that together, and then grades 4 through 6. We have to have a path, that they are separated from each other with a common long-term goal, so that by the time they are in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, reading is still a strongly recommended.

But here’s the other thing. I look across the state, I don’t want to isolate the reservation, and I ask this question: How many of our homes across the state have books at home for children? Making books available, having libraries open on weekends which could, should be, must be part of the teachers’ regime.

If we want to make sure that reading does happen, then not only make it part of the teacher’s regimen, but that’s where the hardest part comes in…and I use the word rigorous task. Parents must adhere to the idea that reading will facilitate success. But once a child leaves our school district, our school day place, they return to an environment where parents may not be supportive. So, once again, reading is a lifelong quest.

BB: So you think you get young at a very young age and develop a love for it?

SM: Exactly. And I will take your word. Young people can learn to love the printed word. We have so many great books for kindergarten, first grade, sixth grade, and all the way through high school. We just have to be willing to dig deep and find the books for the kids and find the funds so they can have their own personal copy as well.

I was in eighth grade and my mom gave me a book by Oscar Lewis called “The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family.” It was a thick novel. She said “Sergio, I want you to read this. It’s about your father and where he’s from.” Well, it took me a few months to read this wholesome novel. But I had a whole new vision of my father who was a very disciplined man. He was a carpenter. And I learned from him. It was my mother who told me “Read this, you may learn a little more”.

BB: I hear candidates, perhaps more specifically on the Republican side, talking about involving parents more in what is taught in schools. What is your position on this?

SM: Well, you know, I have seven children, four girls and three boys. And they all did very well in school. Four of the seven have all completed college. I believe that parent involvement with your children will not only serve as a role model in a positive way for the child, for your student, to engage more deeply with the school, but it will also facilitate a relationship with your children. .

With my mother, we could talk. My dad, he was much more on point. My mother, because she was a very cultured woman on the reservation, she received volumes of books every other weekend at the Tucson Public Library, and she read them all.

This reading gives you a panoramic view of the world. This makes you wonder why? And here I am in eighth grade after reading Oscar Lewis, wondering why? She woke me up. When a parent takes this step forward, they have an academic relationship with their child, as opposed to just a mother-daughter, mother-son relationship.

BB: Sergio, I want to ask you about something I hear a lot around the state from parents and people who are a bit skeptical of our public school system. You taught at a charter school. There is definitely some support for more charter schools in the state of Wyoming. There is also a lot of interest in home schooling or a combination of public school classes and home schooling…and just plain home schooling. Where are you on some of these topics? And do you think we need to somehow change the way we teach in public schools?

SM: Well, first and foremost, if parents want to homeschool and have the ability to do so, to provide a broad educational experience for their children, I support homeschooling. Private sector schools, if parents want to take their children to a private sector school, I agree. This is called choice. And you know, my dad always said, Life is a choice, but make the right choice. I do not agree with the idea that we are going to use taxpayers’ money for the private sector. If a parent wants their child to attend a private sector school, you pay the bill.

St. Margaret’s School in Riverton, they have a quality education, they are top notch. District 25 is doing well, District One is doing well in Lander, but St. Margaret’s parents are paying their school fees. So you’re putting skin in the game. And that’s what I’m telling the Americans and Wyoming. If you want your child to attend a private sector school, you pay for it. I don’t agree with the use of public funds no matter what kind of construction so-and-so may come up with and that the public school system is failing. I do not agree. Our public school system is doing extremely well. We just have to put our shoulders, collectively speaking, to the wheel and help move forward.

BB: Do we need innovation? Do we need to change the way we do certain things?

SM: It’s a wonderful question and here’s what we need to do. First and foremost, I watched all of this and researched it for years. I worked with our tribal education committee. And there’s no doubt that our reservation schools have been in the lower end of Wyoming’s scores for some time. For several reasons. But here’s what I’m going to say. I have the academic experience, the professional experience, to provide the leadership that Wyoming needs to have to get us out of this disconnect with an age-appropriate education. But more importantly, with positive results that show the state and the nation that our Wyoming children have the capacity.

I was appointed by (President George) Herbert Walker Bush to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education after being recommended by colleagues in Arizona. To my chagrin, many, many, many had degrees above and beyond where I was.

But looking back now, they saw that I was content to be one of the worker bees. But after this three-year appointment, I came away with a whole new vision of what education is. When you have Secretary of Education (Terrel) Bell sitting with you, then the Office of Management and Budget, flip charts, all that. You realize how important it is.

America, compared to the international, we are no longer at the top of the echelon. I can’t say where we are, but we’re not at the top of the echelon where we once were. And maybe that’s because we, and I’ll always say this, have been raging little by little over the generations about the importance of education and the importance of discipline in school.

BB: You can find out more about Sergio Maldonado on https://www.sergioforwyoming.com/