Cecelia Espenoza's father dropped out of school in the 6th grade to work as a beet farmer in Utah. Her mother quit high school during her junior year to become a full-time cook for migrant workers in the field.
Though neither of her parents earned high school diplomas, they both stressed the importance of education to Cecelia and her six siblings. Her mother became active in the school system and served as a PTA president; her father spent countless nights helping the seven children finish their homework.
"They made every sacrifice to ensure we would succeed," said Espenoza, sitting in a Latino bakery along Columbia Pike.
Thanks to the dedication of her parents, Espenoza became the first member of her family to graduate from college. She has gone on to a thriving career as a prosecutor, judge, law professor and senior associate general counsel for the Justice Department.
Now she is looking to add one more illustrious title to her resume: Arlington School Board member.
Espenoza has made her compelling biography one of the centerpieces of her Independent campaign to defeat Sally Baird — who has the backing of the county’s Democratic party — and replace retiring School Board Chair Mary Hynes.
In forums across the county this fall, Espenoza has used her own upbringing as an example of what children can achieve if they have the support of parents and the community.
"The reason I’ve been able to succeed was because my parents always had the expectation that I would do well," said Espenoza, who garnered more than 20 percent of the vote in last year’s three-person School Board contest.
IN A RACE where the two candidates tend to agree on many of the most pressing issues facing Arlington schools, Espenoza has sought to distinguish herself by highlighting her professional and school-related experience. Her background as a lawyer has given Espenoza a penchant for "digging deep into the details" to find solutions, she contends.
"She is so good at looking at complex situations and digging to the heart of the matter," said Jim Schroeder, Espenoza’s campaign manager. "She always sees issues in a broader context before she arrives at a conclusion."
In debates Baird has sought to underline the fact that the two opponents have fundamentally different approaches to leadership. Baird agrees that Espenoza is a very "policy-oriented person," but argues that Espenoza will not be an effective consensus-builder like she will.
"I always listen to everyone and don’t go into things assuming I have the answers," Baird said.
Espenoza has served in a number of prominent capacities in the Arlington school system since moving to the county in 2000, including being a member of the committee that helped formulate the schools’ 6-year strategic plan.
Most important to Espenoza was her work in setting up the Claremont Immersion Elementary School, where she had to balance the desires and concerns of parents representing three different schools. Spearheading the lengthy process gave Espenoza an intimate understanding of the inner-working of the school system, she said.
"Her experience is so wide and deep," Schroeder said. "It is rare that I’ve seen a candidate who has such a command of the issues."
As PTA president of Claremont she established a program to provide free encyclopedias for every fifth grader, and free English/Spanish dictionaries to all third-graders.
Her time heading the PTA of an immersion school convinced Espenoza that Arlington’s Hispanic population needs a greater voice in the system. Though 28 percent of Arlington students are Hispanic, there are currently no Hispanic School Board members or Hispanics in the superintendent’s senior staff.
THE RESULT IS that many Hispanic parents are not as engaged in the school community as they would like to be, Espenoza said. By having someone on the board who can relate to them, they will hopefully become more involved in their neighborhood schools and children’s education.
"I can bridge the gap," said Espenoza, 48, who has a 12-year-old son at Gunston Middle School. "I can empower these parents… and talk to them about the issues they face."
By serving on the board, Espenoza feels she can serve as a role model to many girls in Arlington schools. "For them to see that a woman of color can be elected, represent and succeed will carry tremendous value," she added.
One of the main focuses of her campaign is for the school system to work harder to close the persistent minority achievement gap.
Schools need to invest more time tracking students who perform poorly to ensure they are receiving enough individual attention, she said. Espenoza has also called for expanding after-school tutoring programs and for more sharing of resources between schools that are doing well in this area and those that are struggling.
Yet the other key to closing the gap is greater parental involvement. "If students don’t have parental support at home, the doors will get closed and the students won’t have every educational opportunity," she said.
She would like to see greater funding devoted to programs that encourage parents to take more active role in their children’s lives and, for immigrants, teach them about the American educational system.
Bringing greater accountability to the school system is another hallmark of Espenoza’s campaign. If elected she would try to hire an ombudsman to sort out grievances between teachers, parents and students.
Espenoza supports this year’s $33 million school bond, but adds that she has qualms over how the process played out this spring. In the future she wants greater transparency in how the School Board crafts its construction plan, and would like to see projects brought before voters only once designs are finalized.
"The responsibility of the School Board is to be open about its priorities and do we what we can to achieve them," she said.
Espenoza said she would fight to retain the school system’s revenue-sharing deal with the county. "I will be an advocate to ensure the schools get a fair share of dollars."
For a long time Espenoza has been a supporter of introducing foreign language into the elementary school curriculum. She is pleased that two schools, Glebe and Patrick Henry, are testing a Spanish-language pilot program this year. But she insists that each school needs to decide for itself whether this is an appropriate option for them, and that the School Board should not mandate it.
Regardless of her level of experience or the quality of her ideas, Espenoza acknowledges she may not be able to overcome the power of the sample ballot. Though School Board races are non-partisan affairs, Baird has been endorsed by the Arlington Democratic Committee and will be on its sample ballot along with Senate candidate Jim Webb, Congressman Jim Moran and County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman.
Since the School Board race is not of interest to many voters— only 15 percent of Arlingtonians have children in the school system— Espenoza expects that thousands of people will simply vote for Baird because she is listed as a Democrat.
"I’m not so naïve," Espenoza said. "It’s going to be extremely difficult."
But she believes if voters take the time to learn about the candidates and bone up on the issues, they will make the "independent choice."
"There’s no one like me on the board," she said. "I have the unique perspective to help Arlington move in the direction of educating students to meet the challenges of the 21st century."