Rachel Monárrez is stepping into the role of Worcester’s superintendent of schools, preparing for a school year that starts Aug. 29. Students, teachers and their families in Worcester have been through a lot over the last few years, balancing their studies with a pandemic, youth mental health crises nationwide, and more. Monárrez sat down with Morning Edition host Jeremy Siegel to talk about the upcoming year and what she's hearing from parents and students as she starts her new role.

Jeremy Siegel: So you've been on the job for a few weeks now. Take us into the shoes of a superintendent just starting out. Is it at all like the first day of school?

Rachel Monárrez: Every day is the first day of school. It’s like the first day of kindergarten, right? It is just an immersion into what is happening here in the city and the district. And it's an interesting time because so many people are on summer break. So you get varying perspectives, but you don't get the full picture until children and staff are back in schools. So it gives me an opportunity to dig deeper into some current practices and policies. But I'll tell you what I'm learning so far.

So first, people are super excited. There's a lot of energy, a lot of thrill, and just what's happening in the city overall and what's happening in the district and the excitement of where the district can go next and will go next. The other piece that I'm learning or hearing a lot around is this idea of creating a culture that is very inclusive and looking at inclusionary practices, not just for our students, but for our students, our families and our staff, so that people feel like they belong in our schools, that they are welcomed. We come with them with open arms. And then the last piece that I'm hearing in different ways is: people want open communication. Transparency gets thrown around a lot.

And I think that many people see we don't necessarily have an agreed-upon definition of what that means. But in my mind, transparency means people don't wonder what's happening, that things are clear, and we are communicative. And so last night, the school committee approved a job description where we'll be able to bring someone in, where that is their focus about communication and community relations. And safety. Safety is one, too. So I actually I will be speaking to some parents, a couple this afternoon, around safety. So I'm hearing a little bit around that, too. And I would expect that.

Siegel: You know, we've heard reports of parents saying in the past that they feel neglected by the school district. You were talking about the issue of transparency. How do you plan to build trust in the district and also make schools more inclusive for Worcester's diverse student body?

Monárrez: It's about being visible and being out there and just being a really good listener. I had a mentor tell me, and this might sound a bit direct, but it's very visual. We are born with two ears and one mouth, so we're to listen twice as much as we speak. And so that is very much my practice — just listening.

People don't always — they want to know that they're heard. They don't always expect you to have an answer, but they do expect that you're going to do something, especially if there's a safety concern or if you know, someone's being hurt, both physically or emotionally. But the biggest piece is just listening. And then when I can do something, letting people know: that's something we can work on, but then also managing people's expectations around time. So I'll give an example. I went and watched some of our youth perform at the Brick Box this last Saturday, and they did a fabulous, really great skit. And it was more than a skit. I don't even know what to describe it, about all these social issues in our schools and in our society.

And so afterwards, I spent time speaking with them. Our youth are so excited and so energetic and they, you know, they want answers now. They want to fix it. Let's make it a better world. I'm right there with them. But I also explained to them — those asks that you have, that's going to take a little bit more time. That's not something I can do even probably in this first year, but we can work towards it. And that's what I will promise. So it's really important to me that I manage people's expectations. I recognize that my job is to build trust. That's step one. If people don't trust that I have their children's best interest at heart and in mind, and that's what leads me, then it doesn't matter what I put in place or what I do with my team, people won't believe it. So that's that's first and foremost. And so that will never go away.

"They don't always expect you to have an answer, but they do expect that you're going to do something, especially if there's a safety concern."
-Worcester Superintendent Rachel Monárrez

Siegel: Mental health is obviously a huge issue in schools right now. Kids have just been through so much with the past few years of pandemic. Research shows that the pandemic has taken a big toll on student mental health. How do you ensure that your schools have the necessary resources to ensure that the kids in school are doing okay?

Monárrez: Yeah, the children keep asking about that. And I've watched quite a few committee meetings where the students were saying they need more, and our staff was saying they need more. And so my first piece is, what do we currently have? So we need to take a look at exactly what we currently have. Are we meeting the varying needs that we have? Is it tiered? Who does what and when does it happen? And then where are the holes? So we've got to assess our current state.

Then we've got to determine, all right, so now what is going to be our desired state? Where do we want to go in three years? What do we want to be able to say about our wellness supports for our youth? It would be irresponsible to start putting things in place when I don't know where our current state is. So that's what we're doing first, and we will get that done before school starts in terms of the current state.

Siegel: Before I let you go, I want to go back to this idea of the first day of school. You said every day is like the first day of school. And as an administrator, this isn't your first time having a first day at school. You were previously deputy superintendent of schools in San Bernardino, California. Now you're taking over in Worcester. It's one of the biggest school districts in New England: nearly 25,000 students, 5,000 staff, an annual budget of about $500 million. What's different taking over in Worcester and in this transition from deputy to superintendent?

Monárrez: First of all, the buck starts and stops with me. And as the deputy, that wasn't the case. I had a superintendent over me. And so that's different. And in many ways it's freeing, in all honesty, because now if I mess up, it's Rachel who messed up. And if I do well, it's my team that did well. And so I feel very free almost in terms of my ability to think through things and not be wondering, "am I approaching it the way my superintendent wants me to approach it?" Now it's "am I approaching it the way that I know how to approach it," that I feel most confident to approach it. And that is in alignment with where the school committee is expecting me to take the district.