The big game for Santa Fe Public Schools has a new coach. Larry Chavez, the former associate superintendent for athletics and activities, will become the superintendent July 1. Listing experience as a principal and secondary teacher, Chavez signed a one-year contract with the district for $150,000 over the weekend. He comes from a family of educators in New Mexico and holds a masters in special education from Highlands University. Chavez prepares to take over from Veronica García in the wake of a school year defined by relentless uncertainty over schools reopening, unprecedented challenges for families and—from Chavez’s perspective—plenty of learning opportunities. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

SFR: What lessons from your former position, as the associate superintendent of athletics/activities and school support, do you think will serve you in leading the district?

Larry Chavez: I think some of the lessons that we all learned along the way: how to work as a team, how to listen, how to respect one another and how to collaborate. That’s the essence of being a great leader. I don’t intend on changing who I am or how I operate. And it’s all about listening, because there’s always two sides to this story. Over the past few years, working with curriculum instruction, it really was able to provide me with a well-rounded set of skills and a background of the athletic side, operations, curriculum and instruction.

What aspects of being superintendent would you say you’re most eager to take on?

Continuing the work that Dr. García has in place for us. The foundation that not only she built, but also Deputy Superintendent Linda Sink built, and then continuing to work with the team that’s in place. We have a lot of great people in the district, we have a lot of great people in very important positions. And I think it’s about continuing to cultivate what they do and providing the support for them to be successful. Ultimately, that would result in everyone being successful. It just goes back to making sure that everybody understands that the mission hasn’t changed and that our students and staff will always come first.

Despite schools’ and teachers’ best efforts, learning gaps for many increased this past year. What areas of learning and student populations do you think were most significantly impacted?

It impacts all students. I don’t think it’s one group entirely taking a hit to the loss of learning. I remember even discussing this with some of our high school principals and staff—we’ve had students who are straight A’s that regressed academically. It goes from our students who excel to our students who struggle—the learning gaps are there. I think we have to be able to acknowledge them and identify them and make sure that we’re providing those opportunities next year, to try to close them in: Providing enriched activities during the school day and after school hours, doing different hands on activities to really get them engaged, extended learning time programs is another great option.

There’s a silver lining to every issue and every problem. One thing that I think gets overlooked are all the new skills that our students have developed during the pandemic and all the new self-discipline comes with it. Students have to be structured to be successful online, they have to manage time well. All of these skills are going to translate not only next year, but also for years to come. They can take them with them once they graduate. Whenever there is a problem, there’s always a solution at the end.

How does the district plan to measure those gaps in learning?

I think our schools do a great job of being able to identify the students who have had that regression this academic year. It’s about having those solutions and those remedies at hand, so we can offer that to those students and those families that need it. It’s not like we’re walking into this blind—we know who’s regressed. We actually have all that data on hand and we’re able to identify individuals or groups of individuals. It’s about the programming that we will offer in order to address those learning gaps moving forward, it’s not going to be resolved in one year. This will be ongoing and this is something that we’re going to have to address for years to come.

What areas of growth for the district are your biggest priorities?

Well, I think the first one is exploring options for our parents next year. This year we gave them the opportunity to attend in person or stay remote. And I think we need to explore those options for next year as well, because we still may have families and students who are afraid of returning to school or may be concerned that in-person learning is not for them. On the other hand, we have students who have excelled in online learning. And so we need to be able to provide that type of option for our parents to really explore for their students to attend Santa Fe Public Schools next year. And then again, making sure that we’re promoting and advertising what we do well and what each school offers. So parents know, it’s not a one model for every single school or a one size fits all—that every school has great things going on. We just need to make them known and make families feel welcome back in our schools.

How was your own educational experience? How is it different and similar from what students are experiencing now?

I think the biggest thing is that I didn’t really get on a computer until I was in college. Those technology skills that they’re developing now, we developed later in our educational path. And so I think that’s the biggest change in education is the use of technology. I graduated from Santa Rosa High School in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and my graduating class was 42. In Santa Fe Public Schools we get class sizes of 30 at times, so my entire senior class almost fit inside one classroom. I think it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter the size of school you attended. It’s about being driven. It’s about being committed. It’s about being passionate. And I think those are the unique tools that I bring and that’s what I really, truly believe in.