Editor’s Note: Three candidates remain for the job of Kentucky Commissioner of Education, and they were each asked the same three questions about themselves and their plans for the department.
He’s been dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky for a year, but Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig traveled a long road as an academic and practitioner to get there.
It started at the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and psychology and a master’s in higher education. Then it was on to Stanford for a doctorate of educational administration and policy analysis and a master’s of sociology.
Now he’s one of three finalists to become Kentucky’s next commissioner of education, along with Jason Glass and Felicia Cumings Smith. The Kentucky Board of Education expects to make a decision by the end of July.
Even before receiving his degree in Michigan, Vasquez Heilig taught English as a second language in China and worked as a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology.
He served as a 4th-grade 21st Century Learning Program instructor in East Palo Alto, Calif., and worked in central administration for the Houston Independent School District.
He was involved in educational research for several states while at Stanford, and held multiple academic positions in Texas before returning to California as a professor of educational leadership and policy studies and director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership program at California State University.
He also served as the Education Chair of the California NAACP. He held those posts until coming to UK.
Along the way, Vasquez Heilig garnered a long list of accolades, including being honored with the passage of California Assembly Resolution 1459 — which commended his state and national impact in the field of K-12 education. He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles and reports on issues such as racial equity, accountability, school choice and teacher preparation.
Why do you want to be Kentucky’s next commissioner of education?
“With the (Kentucky Education Reform Act) of 1990, Kentucky was the beacon of education reform in the United States,” Vasquez Heilig said. “And I think there’s that opportunity again.”
The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) instituted a range of goals for public schools and changed district funding allocation. Vasquez Heilig said Kentucky can be the “Finland of the United States” by becoming a national leader in community-based, community-engaged education reform.
What would be your first major priority as commissioner?
It would be to gather perspectives from education stakeholders across the spectrum: legislators, parents, civil rights groups, superintendents, educators and others, Vasquez Heilig said. That would aid in determining how Kentucky could develop a community-driven vision for the state’s educational system, with the Kentucky Department of Education leading in a nonpartisan, collaborative manner, he said.
Tell us something about yourself that you think is personally interesting, or which would have some impact on your job as commissioner.
“In every place that I’ve had the opportunity to live, I’ve worked very hard to develop relationships,” Vasquez Heilig said. “It’s the families and the children that matter in this work. I don’t think we can lose sight of the fact that as educators, we wake up each morning thinking how we can improve the opportunities and success of children.”
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