Maria Armstrong’s life offers a study in how perseverance can overcome circumstances. A high school dropout and single mom, Armstrong now works as superintendent of the Woodland Joint Unified School District.
On Wednesday, Armstrong, 57, will be one of four women honored by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with its Latina Estrella Awards. The category in which she was selected: inspiration.
Armstrong’s determination to further her education and career while raising three children “reminds people there’s no reason you can’t hit your goals,” said Cathy Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, which represents 600 businesses with about 60,000 employees in the Sacramento region.
A descendant of Yaqui and Mescalero Apache Indians, Armstrong fell in love at 16, ran away from her Mexican American home in National City near San Diego and married her sweetheart in Yuma, Ariz., “where you could legally marry at 16,” Armstrong said.
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“It broke my daddy’s heart. My mom had gotten married at 15 and wanted me to break that cycle. … But at that age, you think you have all the answers.”
By the time she was 19, Armstrong had three kids. By age 21, she was divorced.
Armstrong entered the biotechnology industry at $2.70 an hour as an assembly-line worker and worked her way up to research and development. She bounced around five community colleges, “wherever my work took me,” while working in the aerospace industry.
She landed a job teaching soldering, electronics and computers to high school kids when there was a teacher shortage. The principal got her into a two-year teacher credentialing program if she passed her GED in a week, so she studied for three days straight and managed to pass.
What particularly resonated with the chamber, Rodriguez said, was how Armstrong sat down at one point with her big Latino family and told them, “Look, if you’re willing to give me a pass for three years from all the parties, quinceañeras and weekend gatherings to let me focus on my doctorate and get it done, we’ll all be in a better spot.”
Armstrong’s academic journey took her from Riverside to San Diego to Ukiah. She taught high school for 10 years, then worked as a counselor, liaison for migrant students, assistant principal, principal and deputy school superintendent. She got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix, her teaching credential from the University of California, San Diego, her master’s in education from Azusa Pacific University and her doctorate at the University of La Verne.
Now a grandmother, Armstrong became Woodland’s superintendent last year. The district has 10,136 students, 67 percent of them Latino and 27 percent English learners. There are other challenges as well – 69 percent of the students are classified as low income, and 6 percent are homeless.
“Woodland is so reminiscent of the community I grew up in,” Armstrong said. “We have to teach the basics and then some: compassion, individuality, responsibility and inquisitiveness. Kids are curious as all get-out. … We want to bring back the love of learning.”
Along with linking students to performing arts programs at UC Davis, the district just had 65 parents graduate from a nine-week course on navigating the education system and being involved in their kids’ learning, Armstrong said. Her own parents never finished high school and didn’t know how to engage with teachers.
“There really is a sense that we are a community of learners, from the classroom to the boardroom. The school bus driver will ask if Johnny got a good night sleep. The lunch lady will ask if Suzy finished her homework.”
Nearly every day, Armstrong visits schools to connect with students on a personal level. “At one of our continuation high schools, I talk to young girls that are pregnant. I know what it’s like to get up and go to school when you have morning sickness. Are you going to be able to get to school without a car, or make the rent?” she said. “What I love about kids is their pure honesty. They know when you’re a champion for them or not.”
Armstrong will share the stage Wednesday with three other Estrellas: Dorene Dominguez, chairman of the Vanir Group of Companies and part owner of the Kings and the Sacramento Republic; Rachel Rios, executive director of La Familia Counseling Center; and Vanessa Guerra, project manager for Mutual Housing California, who supervised the construction of an energy-efficient housing complex for farmworkers and their families.
The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.
Latina Estrella Awards
What: Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon
Where: Wedgewood Event Center, Sterling Hotel, 1300 H St., Sacramento
When: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday
More information: Veronica Delgado, 916-486-7700, ext. 224, or firstname.lastname@example.org