One of Taos’s own has been recognized for outstanding achievements in the field of education and mentorship. Lillian Torrez, superintendent of Taos Municipal Schools, is one of four recipients of the 2021 Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award, presented by the American Association of School Administrators. The honorees will be recognized at the AASA’s fully virtual 2021 National Conference on Education in February, 2021.
The 2021 Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award is an annual recognition of education leaders committed to the advancement and mentorship of women and minorities or also addressing social justice issues among children and adults in schools. Jones was an educator-turned administrator, counselor and organizer of the Office of Minority Affairs at AASA. As such, she was an advocate and mentor of women and minorities in educational leadership. Equity and opportunity were the hallmark of her life work, and honorees of the Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award reflects her fervor for equality.
Torrez’s 40-plus years in education, a majority of those spent inspiring and training teachers of color, has garnered her national recognition. Over the years she has mentored teachers and helped them grow into principal and administrative positions across the state.
“I feel like I am the mother of Taos Municipal Schools,” Torrez chuckled. “All of the people I work with, I try to grow as much as possible. I was making a list of 27 people that have gone into administration.”
She spent years choosing to work with low-income and high-risk students throughout New Mexico, something she said is a calling.
“That's why I love my job, because every day I feel purpose in what I do,” Torrez said. “I really think that we have to find a purpose in this life, and this is my purpose. That’s why 43 years later I still feel good about what I do.”
Torrez said her humble beginnings are part of what inspired her to pursue a career in special education and then go on to get her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership/Organizational Communication and an Ed.S. from the University of New Mexico. Higher education was almost not in the cards for Torrez; she grew up in a Spanish-only speaking household and spoke only Spanish until she was 7 years old. As a participant in Junior ROTC, her sergeant was adamant that she went on to college, something women in her household, “just did not do.”
“Sargent Gonzales was a person that maybe saw something in me as Cadet Commander. He really helped me think about college because I had no idea and my father didn’t want me to go. Hispanic women, at that time, you just didn’t do that,” Torrez said. “So he’s the reason that I have really been able to accomplish all of my dreams. And that’s why I love my job, because every day I feel focused on what I do.”
While principal at Eugene Field Elementary School in Albuquerque, she worked to systematically raise student test scores from a mere eight percent to 52 percent. Torrez said these wins came from never giving up on the students, and seeing that their basic needs, such as free lunch, were met. The school was later recognized as one of the top Title I schools in the nation.
“I used to go to the cafeteria and I would see the kids with holes in their shoes and Spanish-speaking only and just needing a lot of things, and that was me,” Torrez reminisced. “I had holes in my shoes, I was as poor as they come. And so I see myself in them. It was very emotional at the time.”
CJ Grace, principal at Taos High School, nominated Torrez for the prestigious award and said Torrez has, “tremendous impact as an educator,” and she advocates tirelessly for her students and their communities. Grace is one such administrator whom Torrez has mentored through her educational career.
“Working with Dr. Torrez is a pleasure,” Grace wrote in an email to the Taos News. “And during all of the challenges that we’re facing in the pandemic, it has meant even more to know that we have such a dedicated superintendent.”
Torrez still serves her Taos community on a national scale. She served as president of the New Mexico School Superintendents’ Association in 2019 and on the New Mexico Council of Educational Leaders Executive Board. She was elected to the AASA Governing Board and assisted with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s education transition team.
She currently serves on the AASA Executive Committee. As a member of the inaugural cohort of AASA’s National Superintendent Certification Program, Torrez was recognized as the Administrator of the Year by the New Mexico National Board Certified Teacher Network in 2014.
“COVID or no COVID, I feel we are really working 150 percent for the kids,” Torrez said. “If I didn’t have the kids, I could not be motivated. There’s nothing else. I love being here and I love Taos, but the children … it's easy to make decisions when you think about what’s best for the children.”