Patricia Magaña

Leadership might look easy for Dr. Patricia Magaña, with her open nature and family approach to her principal responsibilities at Palomar Elementary School in Chula Vista, California. 

She often takes her office workers to breakfast, her teachers and other staff to lunch. “I’m also very clear about expectations,” says Patty, as she prefers to be called. “But I also believe in creating a family. I can do both things. I’m a big cheesy principal who doesn’t mind being super out-there. It’s my leadership style.” 

Her approach obviously works. As the first Spanish-speaking principal of Palomar, she has seen the school rise to one of the top three among 50 bilingual schools in the district. The school might soon be eligible for a National Center for Urban School Transformation Award. 

“My personal background has a positive effect on the kids,” she says, referring to the 80% of her students who come from Mexican American homes. About 70% of the student body has socioeconomic disadvantages. 

“I can also give my teachers perspective because most don’t have this direct experience,” Patty notes.

But flip the calendar back some 30 years and Patty’s current professional life couldn’t have been predicted. As the oldest girl among five children, 16-year-old Patty took over caring for her younger siblings after her mother died. Her parents were from Guadalajara and Michoacan, Mexico, and although Patty was born in the United States, she was part of an Old World tradition. With her father, Librado Magaña, working long hours in a factory, formidable responsibility fell to her. 

School became her safe place. Although she had no ambitions at first, she started visiting her high school counselor at Bell Gardens High school once, even twice a week, “without knowing why.” After a while, he talked to her and her father about college. “Thank God for Mr. Patruzzi,” Patty says; because of him, she went on to San Diego State University with her father’s blessing.

After that, she plunged into teaching at a brand new school, Feaster Edison Charter School, learning everything on the job. Five years later, she was lead teacher of the 4th grade. “I grew up there,” she says, “All of us from that core group still have a special bond. All of us have become school leaders.”

Patty quickly rose to district coordinator of English Learner Services at the National School District office, then became associate principal at Discovery Charter Elementary/Middle School and Corky McMillin Elementary School, and then principal of Cook Elementary School. Most of the time, she was under the supervision of an inspiring superintendent, Francisco Escobedo, a Yale-educated New Yorker from a Puerto Rican family. But Patty Magaña’s meteoric rise came at a steep price.

“It was too much too soon, and I quit overnight,” she says. She had finished her master’s degree, married, had two children, was working on a doctorate at University of California, San Diego and was leading a school. “I was so overwhelmed. Men don’t usually have to think about all these things.”

Her mentor Escobedo and another, Marissa Allan, then principal of Vista Square Elementary School, gently coaxed her back into teaching and she had time to work on herself before she agreed to return to leadership. Patty became associate principal at Greg Rogers Elementary School for two years, then became principal of Palomar in 2019.

“I understand the challenges of my families and have the advantage of being able to speak to them in both languages,” she says. “My doctoral dissertation was on Latino family engagement.”

When she shares information with families, she always keeps their particular needs in mind. She explains, “Our parents have very different experiences from others. Many are too busy to be directly involved with school. They have to put food on the table, and they can’t come in, they are so tired. I have to come up with ways to reach them.”

What she now remembers most about the pandemic was, “I did not want the learning to stop because many of our students are already behind in so many ways. We made home visits to be sure they had what they needed. But we brought as many students as possible back to the building ASAP.” The Chula Vista YMCA helped bring them back, especially children of essential workers. Today, Patty is more focused on learning loss than on social-emotional concerns: “If students feel capable and successful, well, that helps fulfills their social-emotional needs most.”

Whenever there’s a school break, Patty requires the whole first week to relax, mostly watching documentaries, huddled on the sofa with her daughters Paloma, 11, and Vida, 10, and their dachshunds Bagel and Tucker. She also turns to books, and is currently reading “The Alchemist” by Paul Coelho and “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk.

“And then I go back to work,” she says. “I enjoy going in there every day.”