Hispanic Heritage Month Profile: Mathematics director celebrates lifelong learning
Dallas ISD STEM Mathematics director Stej Sanchez has been transforming student lives through education for the past 17 years, but his passion for math started early.
Growing up in Laredo, Texas, he was inspired by a “series of math teachers who were just phenomenal,” he said. He carried their enthusiasm and wisdom with him as he earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees. This carried through in his work first as a graduate teaching assistant and then as an educator with TRIO’s Upward Bound Math and Science program.
“I had the opportunity to teach high school students from low-income families and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree in San Antonio, and that’s where I got hooked,” Sanchez said. “I thought, ‘I want to do this forever, for as long as they’ll have me.’”
He then served as a high school math teacher, teaching algebra and geometry, until his math coach at the time, Oswaldo Alvarenga, encouraged him to move to Dallas and work for the district in 2007. In Dallas, Sanchez continued honing his skills as a math coach, adjunct faculty member, SAT prep instructor and TI Mathforward instructor, up until his current position as the district’s STEM mathematics director. Alvarenga and Sanchez have been working together in one way or another ever since.
“Every single person I’ve worked with since I started has wanted to make sure students have what they need,” he said. “There is a shared passion for equity and access to a viable, rigorous curriculum. That’s one of the things we strive for—ensuring the best for students.”
One of Sanchez’s responsibilities as mathematics director is rolling out innovative curricula across Dallas ISD’s 230 schools to reach more than 141,000 students, a task that is especially important now as the district works to close the learning gaps created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanchez believes that math is an extremely social subject—one learned best with verbal and written interactions—and that the limited social interaction students experienced during the worst of the pandemic disrupted their learning. To counteract this, Sanchez and his team have put several initiatives in place this year, including the implementation of high quality instructional materials (HQIM) and various digital tools, which focus on literacy, curriculum instruction and equity.
“Being fluent in math is a game changer,” Sanchez said. “Algebra I specifically is the gateway to all sorts of different careers, so one of my goals is to ensure that all students do well in Algebra I and have access to it in middle school. Ultimately, Algebra I is the key to finance, science and a lot of different topics. It allows students to open doors and try different things.”
Sanchez credits his family with shaping him into the person he is today and with keeping him motivated. His grandparents moved from Monterrey, Mexico, to Laredo to pave the way for Sanchez’s future, and his parents pushed him to get a good education and stay in school. He is following in their footsteps by setting a great example for his two daughters and teaching them how to believe in themselves and how to overcome stereotypes.
While his grandparents and his mother are no longer with him, Sanchez celebrates his family’s culture and heritage every day with his first name. The “s” and “t” in Stej represent his grandparents’ initials on his father’s side, while the “e” and “j” represent his grandparents’ initials on his mother’s side.
“I don’t forget my grandparents, and I don’t forget where they are coming from,” he said. “Even though they are not with me physically, they are with me for the rest of my life. That’s how I celebrate my culture and my family.”
On a broader scale, Sanchez celebrates culture and heritage by building opportunities in the curriculum to recognize the diversity built into mathematics.
“Different cultures have played various roles in advancing mathematics throughout history,” he said. “The foundation of mathematics that we learn in elementary and middle school originated in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.”