Several Latino organizations and educators on Thursday threw their support behind Angélica Infante-Green as the next state commissioner for elementary and secondary education, who, if selected, would become the first woman and Latina in that role.
The organizations issued their endorsement and held a meet-and-greet with Infante-Green in the South End in an effort to elevate her candidacy as the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education prepares to interview her and two other finalists in public Friday at the Omni Parker House. A vote is likely on Monday.
Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner at the New York State Education Department, is expected to face tough competition for the job from Jeffrey Riley, the superintendent and receiver of the Lawrence school system who has a lot of local support. The third finalist is Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency.
“To have someone who is the daughter of immigrants as the state’s education commissioner sends a strong message about the power of education,” said Beatriz McConnie Zapater, an education consultant and former Boston school headmaster, who is endorsing her. “I hope people understand the value she brings when you look at and compare the finalists.”
Her supporters say her value goes well beyond her ethnicity and gender. They are impressed with the work she has done for more than two decades to improve the educational trajectory of students who are non-native English speakers and those with disabilities, first in New York City and more recently in the state of New York.
Infante-Green’s candidacy is also generating buzz among female business leaders and educators who are concerned that women have been locked out from the state’s top education posts.
The commissioners for early childhood education, higher education, and elementary and secondary education are all men. After his election three years ago, Governor Charlie Baker appointed a man to serve as education secretary and replaced the chairwoman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with a man.
Andrea Silbert, of Women Leading Change, said Thursday she is leaning toward supporting Infante-Green. Her group and the Boston Women Leaders Network sent a letter to Baker in December urging him to select a woman as the next commissioner.
“She’s very impressive,” Silbert said of Infante-Green. “She brings so much to the table with her background in bilingual education and special education. If we want to close achievement gaps, it’s really important that we look at candidates with those qualifications.”
Infante-Green said she was honored by the support.
“It’s nice to be received so warmly,” she said.
She credited her success to her parents, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, and to many of the teachers she had in New York City public schools.
“My teachers changed my life,” she said. “They put me on the right track and they pushed me.”
While Massachusetts routinely ranks No. 1 on national standardized tests, the state has had difficulty in closing gaps in achievement between students of different backgrounds, to the frustration of state leaders.
Some educators and advocates have faulted state leaders for taking a top-down approach to address those achievement gaps and want an education commissioner who will work collaboratively.
In that respect, Riley appeals to some educators because he has experienced firsthand the challenges and frustrations of implementing state policy and regulations in the Lawrence schools.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he was keeping an open mind about the finalists and was looking forward to their interviews Friday.
“I think for our purposes we clearly want someone who will be a strong cheerleader for public education and who will work closely with principals, teachers, and superintendents,” he said. “We don’t want to have a top-down approach.”
At Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in the South End, more than a dozen Latino advocates and educators attended an impromptu meet-and-greet with Infante-Green.
Infante-Green shared her story of growing up in Washington Heights in New York City on public assistance. She said it never crossed her parents’ minds or her own that one day she could be a finalist for education commissioner in the nation’s highest-performing state, even though her parents worked very hard so she could have a good education.
“I go to work every day knowing this is not just about educating kids,” she said “It’s about changing lives.. . . There’s a sense of urgency in doing this work and a sense of pride.”
At times, that work has been very personal for Infante-Green. Eighteen months after her 10-year-old son was born, he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. (She also has a 7-year-old daughter.)
Infante-Green said her experience in special education has prompted her to stop using the term “disability,” noting that the prefix “dis” has a negative connotation. Instead, she said she prefers to use the term “differently abled.”
After joining the New York State Education Department in 2013, Infante-Green expanded her experience, overseeing the rollout of computer-based standardized testing and the development of new English, math, and science teaching standards.