Latinas who lead: breaking barriers in Idaho education

As a Latina principal, Fernanda Brendefur is what one researcher termed “a unicorn.”

Fewer than 1% of Idaho school principals are Hispanic. And Hispanic women in education leadership roles are rarer still.

That’s a problem, according to Hannah Spafford, an adjunct professor and doctoral candidate at Boise State University — especially when 19% of Idaho’s students are Hispanic.

Idaho’s Latino youth, and especially Latinas, are not seeing people like them as principals or superintendents. And that means they’re less likely to pursue those roles themselves. 

As Spafford said, “If you can see it, you can be it.” And if you can’t see it, underrepresentation often persists. 

But Idaho’s few Latina education leaders, like Brendefur, are working to change that reality.

Brendefur, whose family immigrated from Chile to escape a dictatorship, remembers being a child who was embarrassed to be different. Now, she’s proud of her native language and culture and —as the principal at Boise’s Whittier Elementary — is uplifting other Latinas who lead.

One of them is teacher Soñia Galaviz, who was elected to the Idaho Legislature. Brendefur supported her new role as a representative, even though it meant Galaviz would spend months away from school. 

Fernanda Brendefur is the principal at Boise’s Whittier Elementary and one of Idaho’s few — and maybe only — Latina principals.

And she elevates her students, too. Recently, a young Latina student at Boise’s Whittier Elementary told an administrative assistant that she hoped to have her job when she grew up. 

“No, don’t stop at my job” the assistant told her. “Do Dr. Brendefur’s job — you could be the principal of a school.”

The student was taken aback by the suggestion — becoming a principal had never crossed her mind. 

“Those are the types of conversations that (we have),” Brendefur said. “It’s so important for all of our kids … to see someone in school who represents them, who inspires them.”

Latinas are, by far, the most underrepresented student group in Idaho school leadership, Spafford said, which is why she decided to tackle the topic for a major research project. She set to find out what helped Latinas become education leaders and what barriers stand in their way. 

Women — and especially Latinas — face more hurdles on the path to the top. 

Women are underrepresented in education leadership roles  — both as principals and superintendents. Nationally, about 77% of women are teachers. But in Idaho, only 48% are principals, and just 32% are superintendents

For Latinas, the underrepresentation is even greater. Fewer than 9% are teachers, according to Spafford’s research. And fewer than 1% are principals. 

Male principals outnumber female principals in Idaho

Male principals 51.6%
Female principals 48.4%

Source: State Department of Education

White principals outnumber non-white principals in Idaho

White principals 96.6%
Non-white principals 3.4%
Hispanic principals* Less than 1%

Source: State Department of Education / *Source: Hannah Spafford

Spafford spoke with three Latina teachers and Brendefur to find out why there are so few people like them at the top of the education ladder. 

They cited some common reasons:

  • Being first-generation college students. Completing high school, navigating college enrollment, and paying for higher education are obstacles for Latinas who are first-generation college students. 
  • Latinas’ traditional cultural roles. Latinas are expected to be in the home, tend to the family, and put less emphasis on their careers. 
  • Cultural or language barriers. For those who weren’t born in the United States, learning a new language and culture was often a barrier in their own education journeys. 

Spafford also asked what would help Latinas pursue education leadership positions. Here’s what they suggested:

  • Matching Latinas with mentors — especially female mentors. 
  • Paying additional stipends to dual language teachers — who are often from the Latino community, bring an extra skill set, and take on extra duties. 

And Brendefur told EdNews there’s another way to break down barriers: words of encouragement. In her life, they made all the difference. 

Her family came to the United States to escape a dictatorship.
Now she’s one of Idaho’s few — and maybe only — Latina principals. 

As a child, Fernanda Brendefur was too ashamed to speak Spanish — even though she was bilingual. 

Born in Santiago, Chile, Brendefur moved to the United States with her family when she was seven; her parents were seeking refuge from the brutal regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet. 

In her new home, Brendefur strove to blend in.

In public, she begged her parents to only use English (they ignored her). 

In Spanish class, she mispronounced words and adopted a fake accent to fit in with her monolingual peers. 

And then Mrs. Daubert — a teacher Brendefur will never forget — told her she had a gift, and she should be proud of her Spanish fluency. 

Those words changed everything. 

“She was the first teacher I had who took the time to say to me: ‘Your culture is a gift,’” Brendefur said. “I went back to my classroom and I spoke Spanish like a native speaker … I started to feel a lot of pride.”

It was a pivotal moment for Brendefur, and the first of a few life-changing bits of encouragement. Brendefur’s newfound confidence launched her on a path that led her to becoming one of Idaho’s few — and maybe only — Latina principals. 

Brendefur grew up in San Diego, but eventually moved to Idaho, where she became a teacher at American Falls High School. 

And then she encountered her next Mrs. Daubert — a Boise State professor who met her at a bilingual educators’ conference and encouraged her to get her master’s degree. 

She did, even though it meant years of long nights. And then professors urged her to get her PhD — which she did. Eventually, she found herself working as a consulting teacher for Boise schools, and district leaders encouraged her to get her administrative certificate — and so she did. 

“It has been one of the biggest honors of my professional career,” she said of becoming a principal at Whittier. “It is a job that is not for the faint of heart. But it is so rewarding.” 

A string of encouraging words that came at just the right time spurred Brendefur to see more in herself and keep reaching for the next goal. 

“It just takes one person to notice potential and intellect and ability, and competence,” she said.

“It just takes one person to notice potential and intellect and ability, and competence,” — Fernanda Brendefur, principal at Whittier Elementary

And now, she wants to help create opportunities for young Latinas that she didn’t have for herself. 

In San Diego, Brendefur had many caring, impactful teachers and principals — but none who were Hispanic. 

Having a Spanish speaker like herself in the schools would’ve been huge, she said. It would’ve helped her parents feel more welcome and involved in her education. 

At Whittier, which offers a dual Spanish/English immersion program, Brendefur is proud to be a cultural and bilingual model for students, and to be able to speak to parents in English or Spanish. 

“I love having those relationships with our Spanish-speaking families,” she said. 

Many of her staff members speak Spanish as well. And one, a custodian, speaks Swahili (the top languages spoken at Whittier — known for its diversity — are English, Spanish, Swahili, and Arabic).

Brendefur hopes the school will help all students be proud of who they are, much like Mrs. Daubert did for her long ago. 

She’s also bolstering the next generation of Latina leaders, like Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise. 

“No one’s going to lay down the red carpet for us”: Latinas are deliberate about elevating each other

Galaviz is one of two Idaho educators who are also lawmakers. 

This year — her first in the Legislature — she decided to take on a different role than a classroom teacher (as a Title I interventionist) so her session absences wouldn’t be as detrimental to students. 

And she credits Brendefur for hiring her, even though she knew Galaviz would be absent for a quarter of the year. 

“Her support allows me to do this work,” Galaviz said.

Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise

Galaviz is not a principal or superintendent, but is an education leader in another way — she is on the House Education Committee and ran for office on an education-based platform. 

Galaviz said an internal drive pushed her to the top, and now that she’s there, she hopes to smooth the path for other Latinas. 

She and Brendefur are working to encourage Latinas at Whittier into leadership positions. Those efforts “have to be really deliberate,” she said. 

“It’s not something that just happens. No one’s going to lay down the red carpet for us to either access leadership positions or get the next break or be able to go back to school,” she said. “We’re trying to help each other find those access points, but often the barriers are significant.”

Finding childcare, paying for higher education, a lack of awareness about opportunities, and a lack of bilingual education programs are all issues, she said. 

And Brendefur added that more Latinas need to be invited to the table, and there needs to be greater awareness of the need for their presence and voices. 

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Galaviz said. “But I think there are great things being done, and if we can support those efforts, we will be better for it. And Idaho schools will be better for it.”

Listen to a recent podcast with Galaviz, where she talks more about being a Latina leader and a teacher/lawmaker, here

Further reading: Prominent Boise teacher eyes run for Legislature


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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