From the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Classroom to NYS Education Associate Commissioner

GSE Alum Talks About Why Expanding Services for English Language Learners is Vital and How She's Helping in Her Key Role

July 06, 2021
Elisa Alvarez, Graduate School of Education alumna and Associate Commissioner of Bilingual Education and World Languages at the New York State Education Department
Elisa Alvarez, Graduate School of Education alumna and Associate Commissioner of Bilingual Education and World Languages at the New York State Education Department

After graduating from GSE in 2004 with an MS degree in School Leadership, Elisa Alvarez headed to the classroom to provide special education support services to students and develop lesson plans with the unique needs of bilingual students with disabilities in mind. Today, this Touro alumna is the Associate Commissioner of Bilingual Education and World Languages at the New York State Education Department. We spoke to Alvarez about the steps she has taken along her career path, the daily challenges in this role, and why she thinks improving bilingual education is the key to improving society.

What made you choose a career in education? Why are you passionate about the field? 

The field of education was the furthest thing from my mind after receiving my bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lehman College.  While I originally wanted to focus on a clinical career, working with school-aged children, I was offered an opportunity to continue on my psychology career path while also assisting elementary school students with special needs. Since I was already certified as a bilingual translator for the family courts, the New York City Board of Education offered me an opportunity working with children as a bilingual Spanish special education teacher in a South Bronx school district.

My dedication to the field of education began the first day I walked into the classroom and has only intensified over the years. Working closely with students from all backgrounds has helped me realize that they all had one thing in common: they needed emotional support from the educators in their lives. My students were of low socio-economic status, many were dealing with some form of abuse or neglect at home, some with parents or guardians who struggled with addiction. I knew it was important that I earn their trust, so I worked hard to create an environment in which they felt safe, where I served as a member of their extended family. Using specific books such as Leo the Late Bloomer, I helped to open their eyes to the fact that everyone was unique yet shared common traits. I created opportunities using the school curriculum where we could transform the classroom to reflect units of study, encouraged parents to visit the classroom and involved them on a deeper level in their children’s education, and included the school guidance counselor in our work to lead class sessions with the hope of enabling my students to express themselves. This experience taught me that learning is almost impossible if students are not given a space to feel safe, respected, and accepted. I felt like I needed to first fulfill their emotional needs to begin addressing their learning disabilities. 

Can you tell us about the steps you've taken along your career path? 

Receiving my undergraduate degree was only the first step in my educational journey. I also pursued a master’s degree in Special Education from Hunter College and completed a certification in Bilingual Education in Spanish. My ability to speak fluently in both languages opened doors I could have never imagined previously. I’m so grateful I listened to my parents when they told me that being bilingual would be an advantage as I continued to advance my career. At Touro’s Graduate School of Education, I pursued a second master’s degree specializing in School Administration and Supervision. 

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with administrative leaders who always challenged my thinking, provided opportunities to collaborate with others, and allowed me to attend professional learning opportunities. All of these factors have enabled me to become a well-rounded educator. My time as a classroom teacher only lasted for a few years, as I was hired by the United Federation of Teachers as a Teacher Center Specialist and was then asked to join the district superintendent’s team.  Since that time, I have moved forward in my career, holding several roles including Regional Support Specialist, Assistant Principal, Principal, and Community Superintendent. I am proud to say that these positions involved working closely with underserved children living in the Bronx to improve their educational experiences. These previous roles led me to my current position at the New York State Education Department, where I serve as Associate Commissioner of Bilingual Education and World Languages. I truly enjoy this role and feel great satisfaction working with my team to support students and the adults who work with them to prepare our children for both college and career readiness. 

You're currently the Associate Commissioner for the Office of Bilingual Education & World Languages at the New York State Education Department. What are some of your primary responsibilities? 

My primary role is to protect the rights of English Language Learners and ensure they receive a high-quality education by designing and executing policy and systemic initiatives that significantly increase the services available to these students and their families. As Associate Commissioner, I ensure my office provides support and technical assistance to districts, charter schools, non-public schools, and other organizations in the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs for all of our multilingual learners, which includes English Language Learners, Heritage Language Speakers, and student who pursue a course of study in world languages in our schools. Additionally, my office oversees and leads the Federal Title III audits and Part 154 regulatory reviews for districts statewide to ensure educational equity for all. 

What are the challenges you face in your role? 

Although we have various landmark cases that have addressed the needs of our children, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Lau v. Nichols (1974), and Plyler v. DOE (1982), we continue to strive as a state and country to ensure that all districts implement equitable educational access for English Language Learners. Established cases set precedents to address the needs of our children. For example, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act was designed to hold school districts accountable for English Language Learner progress in proficiency and content area courses. This law was a turning point for us as it implemented the essential measures of accountability of which every school stakeholder needs to be aware.   

Some of the biggest obstacles I’m currently facing include helping building and district level administrators understand that the success or lack of success of our multilingual learners rests on the commitment and involvement of the educational professionals who serve them. This means that every decision needs to be made for the good of all children. District budgets, policies, and curricula must all be inclusive of our multilingual learners from the very beginning, rather than as a consideration after the fact. Finally, administrators must be able to support and collaborate with their faculty who are tailoring programs to the specific needs of their learners while embedding the Culturally Responsive Sustaining Framework into lessons. 

What key skills did you learn at Touro Graduate School of Education that you're leveraging in this role? 

When I think of GSE, many fond memories resurface, such as the great cohort of colleagues, all of whom shared a passion for education, and the professors who strengthened our skills and provided plenty of opportunities to build networks. The teaching philosophy taught at Touro provided a solid foundation for educational leaders and emphasized that a great leader must be able to successfully work and communicate with a diverse group of people. I give credit to GSE for helping me to develop the ability to provide feedback and constructive criticism to others, while simultaneously empowering those I supervise to strive towards excellence. Touro stressed that quality educators are essential and that our responsibility is to strengthen our teams through opportunities to continuously build capacity and express their creativity. 

Why do you think improving bilingual education is imperative right now? 

It is imperative, especially at this time in history, for educators to explicitly model tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion, both in and outside of the classrooms. Bilingual education has the unique goal of fostering not only the appreciation of one’s own language and culture but also those of others.  Every child deserves the opportunity to be proficient in both English and another world language, which can be a home language, a heritage language, or an additional language learned in school.  Through these efforts to achieve the goals of multilingualism and multiliteracy for all students, we can begin to combat hate and intolerance.  We can embrace our linguistic and cultural diversity as sources of both beauty and strength.  We can teach our children that being able to speak and understand more than one language and to interact with cultural competency is an essential and highly valued 21st century skill.  I believe in this dream for our children and I’m committed to working with the dedicated administrators, educators, parents, and community members across our state to make this dream a reality for New York State students.